One of the more intriguing chapters in labor history involves a decision by the Kellogg Company in 1930 to cut workers' hours from a 40- to a 30-hour week. We could learn a thing or two from this example.
At the outset of the Depression, the company figured this would create 300 more jobs. Company President Lewis Brown also hoped it would give workers more time to spend with their families and to participate in their communities, and that it would lead to "higher standards" in school and civic life.
Yes, the president of a major US corporation actually said that, and apparently meant it.
Workers did use their extra time off for gardening, visiting libraries, and family activities, according to reporters' accounts, a 1996 book titled "Kellogg's Six-Hour Day," and a study by the US Department of Labor. Most of the workers seemed to embrace the trade-off.
We have since come to accept a different idea, one that puts us in the role of consumers who aim to maximize our working hours and income. To what gain?
Now that we're in a deep recession, I wonder if we might be more open to the lessons of the Kellogg experiment – which lasted until 1985 – as well as to the words of a fellow who lived next to a pond near Concord, Mass.: "Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less?... [We] are employed laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool's life."
Henry David Thoreau built his own 10-by-15-foot cabin at Walden Pond for $28 in materials. His furniture consisted of a table, a chair and a bed. For a short time he kept three ornamental pieces of limestone on the table, but decided these were superfluous, throwing them out when he found he had to dust them constantly.
In Thoreau's day, a largely self-sufficient rural economy was just beginning to give way to an economy based on mass production and consumption. He sensed its danger.
When the Kellogg experiment was launched, the country was already headed in a direction that one business leader of the time described as "the gospel of consumption." Slowed by the Depression, the direction came into full flower after World War II, nurtured by an increasingly pervasive and sophisticated advertising industry. Now most of us have been thoroughly indoctrinated in that gospel. But what if, in this shrinking economy, we learned from the Kellogg example and instead of laying people off, US businesses first cut back hours? Some companies are already trying that approach.
Losing one's job is a psychological as well as an economic blow, but as demonstrated by the Kellogg experience, a cutback in hours can have positive benefits. Would it be so terrible if people in this country had to buy less stuff than they've been buying? Many of us, like those in the 1930s, would benefit from consumer downsizing.
It's not likely that all those Kellogg workers spent their extra 10 hours a week on self-enrichment and civic-improvement projects. But with reduced income they had to find things to do outside the consumer culture, whether it was going to the library or starting family canning projects. The reduced hours and reduced income actually helped to enrich their lives.
As Thoreau put it, "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are ... positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." In this current recession, it might be well to heed those words. If we do, we may learn to define "enrichment" in something other than Wall Street terms.
Tim Holt is a freelance writer.