Gospel of consumption

Say somebody offers you a job at a decent wage—enough to support yourself and your family in reasonable comfort, but not so much that you’ll be able to buy the latest designer fashions or consumer electronics with any regularity. Your neighbors will have newer cars and flashier toys—but on the other hand, your boss will only expect you to work thirty hours a week. You won’t be rolling in cash, but you will have lots of time to spend with your friends and family, and to pursue whatever hobbies or pleasures might strike your fancy. What do you think? Would you take the deal?

The United States was essentially faced with this same choice in the 1930s, and decided in favor of money over leisure—of the power to buy more over the freedom do more. As Jeffrey Kaplan points out in his article The Gospel of Consumption (in the May/June issue of Orion Magazine), this wasn’t an inevitability. In 1933, a bill was proposed in Congress that would have mandated a thirty-hour work week for all Americans. The fact that the idea of a thirty hour work week now seems incredible, like some kind of foolish impossibility or wild fantasy, suggests just how profoundly the logic underlying the rival the forty-hour week proposal has shaped the contemporary American mindset about work. In the end, FDR put his weight behind the forty-hour work week idea under pressure from business interests, who saw it as a path to continued economic growth (and also for ever-greater profits for themselves). The average worker would be better off, the argument went, with the ability to earn a higher wage, and thus also the ability to buy more of the consumer products of a modern lifestyle. And further, people who work harder and longer would be able to spend more, and that consumer spending would then drive growth.

But Kaplan argues that American workers might have had a better choice available to them. As an example, he tells the story of the well-known Kellogg cereal corporation, which established a six-hour workday for all of its employees in 1930—a system which would remain in place for at least some workers all the way up to the 1980s. The management at Kellogg felt that shorter shifts would make workers more efficient—but they also wanted to be able to provide more jobs in their community, and strongly believed that workers would have better lives if they had more free time. Kaplan quotes a historian on the company’s motivation:

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.”

According to Kaplan, most of the Kellogg workers were, indeed, happier with the thirty-hour week—and in fact many of them resisted offers from Kellogg to switch to eight-hour shifts at higher pay for decades, claiming that they’d rather have the time than the money. The lure of “mindless consumerism” was less powerful for them than the prospect of having greater freedom to pursue happiness through non-material means.

Personally, I like the idea of the thirty-hour week a great deal—or at least of having the freedom to pursue whatever it is that makes you happy while still earning enough money to stay reasonably well fed and sheltered. Once you move beyond the level of economic comfort and security, it doesn’t seem likely to me that having more money and buying more things is likely to make you substantially happier. But all the same, I find it hard to imagine how the United States could turn back from the forty-hour work week now: more than seventy years later, a very large part of American culture and economy is based on the idea of working hard and long in order to be able to finance ever-higher levels of consumer spending. No doubt there’s room for some persistent and/or lucky individuals to carve out spaces in which they do not have to buy into this particular order of work and life—but it’s hard to imagine how a broader systemic change in this area might come about anytime soon.


3 Responses to “Gospel of consumption”

  1. 1 Dana May 21, 2008 at 11:52 AM

    *sigh* My last job was a 30 hr/wk one, and the extra time was really, really nice. Unfortunately, it was also at a non-profit, so I was making 3/4 of an already very low-end salary, so I couldn’t continue doing it when my rent went up and my pay didn’t. The other annoying thing was that if I worked more than 30 hours, it wasn’t technically “overtime” unless I actually worked more than 40. What would life be like if everyone worked 30 hours a week? I can only imagine the awesomeness. And the schedule flexibility, so morning people could be free to work 9-3 and not-morning people could work 11-5. I read something at one point by a self-employed person talking about how much more efficient he was once he figured out his brain’s preferred work schedule. I wish I could do that.

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