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Cut hours, not employees

In some ways, reduced time can enrich our lives.

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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."


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