Would you consume less if you worked less? Strangely, yes. And that’s why American industry would prefer you work more. 500 hours a year more since 1979.
This is the story of how a few companies like Kellogg’s at first bucked the trend, and the massive propaganda campaign against shorter hours that’s nearly won it’s battle to make capitalism synonymous with the “American Way.”
This essay from Orion magazine tells of grand experiment by the Kellogg’s Company to cut hours and hire more people. It worked. But modern industrialists didn’t like it.
Why? Because people became better citizens. Weird.
There was, for a time, a visionary alternative. In 1930 Kellogg Company, the world’s leading producer of ready-to-eat cereal, announced that all of its nearly fifteen hundred workers would move from an eight-hour to a six-hour workday. Company president Lewis Brown and owner W. K. Kellogg noted that if the company ran “four six-hour shifts . . . instead of three eight-hour shifts, this will give work and paychecks to the heads of three hundred more families in Battle Creek.”
This was welcome news to workers at a time when the country was rapidly descending into the Great Depression. But as Benjamin Hunnicutt explains in his book Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day, Brown and Kellogg wanted to do more than save jobs. They hoped to show that the “free exchange of goods, services, and labor in the free market would not have to mean mindless consumerism or eternal exploitation of people and natural resources.” Instead “workers would be liberated by increasingly higher wages and shorter hours for the final freedom promised by the Declaration of Independence—the pursuit of happiness.”
To be sure, Kellogg did not intend to stop making a profit. But the company leaders argued that men and women would work more efficiently on shorter shifts, and with more people employed, the overall purchasing power of the community would increase, thus allowing for more purchases of goods, including cereals.
A shorter workday did entail a cut in overall pay for workers. But Kellogg raised the hourly rate to partially offset the loss and provided for production bonuses to encourage people to work hard. The company eliminated time off for lunch, assuming that workers would rather work their shorter shift and leave as soon as possible. In a “personal letter” to employees, Brown pointed to the “mental income” of “the enjoyment of the surroundings of your home, the place you work, your neighbors, the other pleasures you have [that are] harder to translate into dollars and cents.” Greater leisure, he hoped, would lead to “higher standards in school and civic . . . life” that would benefit the company by allowing it to “draw its workers from a community where good homes predominate.”
It was an attractive vision, and it worked. Not only did Kellogg prosper, but journalists from magazines such as Forbes and BusinessWeek reported that the great majority of company employees embraced the shorter workday. One reporter described “a lot of gardening and community beautification, athletics and hobbies . . . libraries well patronized and the mental background of these fortunate workers . . . becoming richer.”
A U.S. Department of Labor survey taken at the time, as well as interviews Hunnicutt conducted with former workers, confirm this picture. The government interviewers noted that “little dissatisfaction with lower earnings resulting from the decrease in hours was expressed, although in the majority of cases very real decreases had resulted.” One man spoke of “more time at home with the family.” Another remembered: “I could go home and have time to work in my garden.” A woman noted that the six-hour shift allowed her husband to “be with 4 boys at ages it was important.”
Those extra hours away from work also enabled some people to accomplish things that they might never have been able to do otherwise. Hunnicutt describes how at the end of her interview an eighty-year-old woman began talking about ping-pong. “We’d get together. We had a ping-pong table and all my relatives would come for dinner and things and we’d all play ping-pong by the hour.” Eventually she went on to win the state championship.
Many women used the extra time for housework. But even then, they often chose work that drew in the entire family, such as canning. One recalled how canning food at home became “a family project” that “we all enjoyed,” including her sons, who “opened up to talk freely.” As Hunnicutt puts it, canning became the “medium for something more important than preserving food. Stories, jokes, teasing, quarreling, practical instruction, songs, griefs, and problems were shared. The modern discipline of alienated work was left behind for an older . . . more convivial kind of working together.”
This was the stuff of a human ecology in which thousands of small, almost invisible, interactions between family members, friends, and neighbors create an intricate structure that supports social life in much the same way as topsoil supports our biological existence. When we allow either one to become impoverished, whether out of greed or intemperance, we put our long-term survival at risk.