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.
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?
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.
What if, in this shrinking economy, we learned from the Kellogg example and instead of laying people off, US businesses first cut back hours?