Healthy praise for the six-hour workday

In the course of “researching” last week’s column about our national obsession with accumulating stuff, I came across a kindred spirit in the person of Jeffrey Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan wrote an article recently for Orion magazine called “The Gospel of Consumption.” Rather than just mindlessly ranting and throwing verbal bombs unfettered by logic or facts as is my preferred method of communication (and also the standard that prevails in American presidential campaigns), Mr. Kaplan did some actual research and uncovered an article from 1929 written by a Charles Kettering. At the time, Mr. Kettering was the director of General Motors Research. The article was called “Keep the Customer Dissatisfied,” and it outlined a strategic shift for American industry – a shift away from providing for basic human needs towards creating new needs.

Kaplan suggests that, to business leaders of the era, the advent of “labor-saving devices” did not offer a vision of liberation, but rather a threat to business’s hold on power. This led, says Kaplan, to a deliberate campaign to be sure that people would not be satisfied with what they needed, but would instead always want more. As Kaplan describes it, advances in machinery and technology offered America the opportunity to produce the same amount of stuff while working fewer hours, an opportunity that, as a society, we have chosen not to take.

This phenomenon has often seemed a paradox to me. We keep inventing new and more efficient ways to do our work, and yet, instead of taking advantage of the fruits of our collective intelligence and efficiency by working fewer hours to obtain the same result, we all seem to end up working even longer hours than before. Does it make any sense to describe a machine as a “labor-saving device” if the result of using it is to increase the number of hours we all labor during the work day?

Kaplan’s article describes an interesting social experiment. In 1930, the cereal company Kellogg’s cut back its workday from eight to six hours. While this reduction resulted in each worker earning something less than he or she was previously earning, Kellogg’s argued that its workers would have a corresponding gain in “mental income” as a result of having more time to enjoy things such as time at home, time spent with friends and neighbors, hobbies and other pleasures that are harder to translate into dollars and cents. Kellogg’s experiment seemed to work. The company prospered and so did its workers. They seemed to enjoy their shorter work days, and many of them spent the extra time in their gardens, participating in community beautification efforts, engaging in physical activities and engaging in such novel activities as eating dinner together as a family. Kellogg’s held on to the six-hour workday for many years, and most of its workers opted to continue it even when the company offered them the opportunity to earn more money by going back to an eight-hour workday.

Kaplan argues that Kellogg’s experiment led to an enriched social and family life for its workers. He also suggests that the 10- to 12-hour workdays that many of us now regularly put in have actually impoverished our human communities and created a form of mindless and compulsive materialism that leaves us isolated from our families, friends and neighbors for whom many of us simply no longer have time.

I think Kellogg’s was on to something way back in 1930, and I’m prepared to take up the banner of returning to the six-hour workday. I know it will be a quixotic and uphill battle, just as it always is when anyone dares to challenge the dominant paradigm. But as my mom always told me, if you want to run with the big dogs, you’ve got to learn to pee in the tall grass.

Islander Tom Tyner is an attorney

for the Trust for Public Land. He is author

of “Skeletons From Our Closet,”

a collection of writings on the island’s latte scene.

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