Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I Believe That We All Can Have "The Good Life," Part 1

This post is for the February Green Mom's Carnival, which will be posted over at The Smart Mama . My entry is a bit early - I just couldn't stop thinking about it!

We do not have a money problem in America. We have a values and priorities problem.

~Marian Wright Edelman

So - what are you working for? (video from Barrett Koehler publishers)

Have you ever noticed how when you get a really good idea you are suddenly innundated with examples of this idea everywhere, or notice other people talking about it? And how exciting it is? This has been happening to me a lot lately. Because I believe that we really can have it all.

I feel like a broken record, and I never would have believed it until I took the leap (“oh, here she goes again,” my readers moan). But one really can "work" for less than 40 (or 60, or 80) hours a week and have a fantastic, fulfilling, joyous, oh-so-wonderful life. Will you have a new BMW, a 500,000 square-foot house or the latest designer clothes? Probably not. If that is what is truly important to you, you are probably not reading this blog in the first place. Find a way to live less expensively (more on that later) and you will be amazed when you realize that what you lack in cold hard cash you are gaining in the great wonderful stuff that is truly important to your life (family, friends, pets, reading, learning, art, music, athletics, ...)

A few years ago our friend Tom, who lives in San Francisco and manages a Graphic Design firm, was offered a raise. Tom, in all of his infinite wisdom and knowing how valuable he was to the company, said “What I’d really like is one day off a week.” He did the numbers showing that rather than working five days for more money, he’d work for four days for the same money, which would, in essence, equal a raise. His boss agreed, and now Tom has every single Friday off. Think about that. Every weekend is a three-day weekend.

And this! From The Gospel of Consumption, and the Better Future We Left Behind by Jeffrey Kaplan in (beautiful, gorgeous, non-profit-you-should-subscribe) Orion Magazine. Read it, and I’ll meet you at the bottom:

“…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.”

How cool it that? Imagine how our lives would be changed if we could support ourselves AND spend time with our children, passing on our skills, ideas, ethics and values? Imagine having enough money and being able to do the things about which you are passionate!

Unfortunately, by 1985 the party was over. Not from the point of the employer, it seems, but from men who felt that it was unmanly to be “working” just a brief 6 hours a day. The following is from a Publisher’s Weekly review.

"Kellogg workers, especially the women, managed to find things to do with their extra time until WWII; after the war, workers, particularly men, seemed less able to find ways to fill their unstructured time. Using interviews with Kellogg employees dating back to the program's beginning, as well as various studies on work, Hunnicutt (Work Without End) paints a sad picture of a society where people prefer buying things to socializing, a world where a shorter work day is no longer desirable because few know what to do with their spare time. When the six-hour day came to an end in 1985, women were the only ones who protested. Most men had succumbed to the belief that working longer was more manly and that going home after six hours to be with the family was not really the thing to do. This examination of the American attitude toward work is not light reading, but it could serve as a wake-up call for a nation in big trouble if the jobless future comes to pass."

Wow. Where did that come from? The sad thing is that in one way or another we’re all buying into the myth that “six hours isn’t enough.”

To be continued tomorrow...


  1. Hi Alline,

    Wow! You should write a book--what an interesting post. I have always thought that if Americans worked less, we would have so fewer social problems. When I think of all the people I know, and how many things they neglect in their homes/community life because they are too tired from working 40 hours a week...and then wonder what life would be like if people were using that time in ways that nourished their souls.

  2. Fascinating post, Alline. I need to go back and read the entire article. I hope we see more of this model during this economic downturn; I think everyone would like to see fewer layoffs and more commitment to sharing the burden (of less income). I love the image of the ping-pong champion and the family canners....

  3. That is such a sad story. I agree with Jess that this a model for economic downturn. More people working, more productively. I think times have changed as well and people would like to go back to those 6 hr day jobs. It is one of the complaints I hear from most people that they don't have time for themselves.

  4. I think my mind and yours must have parallel brain waves, except you articulate your waves in a way that says it much clearer than I, or the wealth of your choices this past decade continues to make you wonderfully wise - I appreciate your " here she goes again "

    great post and video

  5. I agree with you. I think we can have it all - if we just rearrange our priorities. The Kelloggs story is a great example of what we've given up for the BMW and 4 bedroom house, and how we could get it back.

  6. I love this post, and especially the video. Are you familiar with the organization New American Dream? They have an organization wide four day work week, and their overall philosophy is in line with the things you say here. You're absolutely right that we can have it all, and I'm looking forward to a future where we'll prioritize to have more time instead of more stuff.

  7. I think we can have it "all" - but we need to redefine "all" in green terms: not all the material goods we want, but all the spiritual, social, emotional and natural rewards that make life meaningful.

  8. Wow, inspired. I've heard of businesses in this economy, here in Vermont, instead of laying people off, lessening the workday for all. And of course the money is missed, but your points on the silver linings are valid. Lots of food for thought here.

    Katy at Non-Toxic Kids


Now it's your turn - what do YOU think?