27 May 2020
I MANAGED a wry smile when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon expressed her support for introducing a four-day working week. I was tempted to say it has already arrived. Staff at a fair few smaller businesses are working four-day weeks right now but sadly for four days’ pay. Some more are accepting four days’ pay for a full working week, generally doing whatever it takes to survive.
When New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden suggested a four-day working week she saw it as a means of helping the domestic tourism industry to recover, freeing up an extra day for New Zealanders to enjoy more leisure time in their own country. But given the slow, cautious lockdown easing announced by our First Minister last week, the prospect of using leisure time for travelling around Scotland looks a long way off.
There are plenty policy ideas being proposed right now to speed up recovery. It does, though, seem to be a golden rule that if you were lobbying for a policy or predicting an economic or social trend before the Covid-19 crisis, then the crisis shows how right those policies or predictions were.
Whether it’s a four-day working week, a universal basic income, the importance of home working or the replacement of global supply chains with local trade, the crisis has surely demonstrated how right these proposals were all along.
I rather admired the Bank of England for admitting that making predictions of the future is currently all but impossible. Its recent Monetary Policy Report included an “illustrative plausible scenario” which was intended to demonstrate what might happen to the economy but is by no means a prediction of what is expected to happen.
We simply don’t know how this crisis is going to play out, not least because we don’t know how long the public health threat will last. Nor do we know how radical the changes in customer, business or investor behaviour will be.
We can see how quickly the lockdown has reduced economic activity, affected jobs or forced an increase in online trading or remote working. But we don’t know how long these effects will last.
Like so many others, I have taken time to read Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 for an extra insight into what might happen to the economy given our experience over 100 years ago.
As a science journalist, Spinney convincingly captures the technical, medical impact of the spreading virus with some now familiar terms like social distancing and the second wave.
But whilst Spinney made some interesting assessments of the consequences for issues as diverse as the independence of India or the ending of the First World War, she had little to say on the development of the economy during what then became the Roaring Twenties.
Whilst we are now absorbing the First Minister’s route-map out of the public health crisis, we are largely missing a similar map for escaping an equally grim economic crisis.
Perhaps the work being undertaken on behalf of the Scottish Government by Benny Higgins will fill that space. I read his letter inviting views on the economic recovery. It is without doubt comprehensive in its perspective.
I will certainly be impressed if many of the questions it asks about changes to business behaviour, labour markets or important institutions can be answered definitively right now.
But I can be sure of one thing. There will be entrepreneurs out there who are already deciding which risks to take and who will ultimately be the vanguard in rebuilding our economy.
I suspect they won’t be working four-day weeks.
This article first appeared in Glasgow Chamber’s weekly column in the Herald newspaper on May 27