Thursday, September 18, 2008

Time and Money

I read an interesting article in the May/June edition of Orion magazine. It echoed and updated the themes of Juliet Schor's The Overworked American, which was written in the late 1980s.

The Orion article told how Kellogg's went to a six-hour work day in 1930, the beginning of the Depression, because that way it could employ more people. The company gave people a small wage increase, not enough to cover the loss of hours, but a help. The company ran 4 six-hour shifts. In the 1930s too, there was a Congressional push for a 30-hour work week. It was quashed and the 40-hour week as we know it became the norm.

The 30-hour work week was touted as a way to allow people to spend more time with their families and as participating citizens in a democracy. According to the article, the people who went on the 30-hour work week liked it because of the life balance it afforded them. But after World War II, Kellogg's used attrtition and incentives to lure people to the 40-hour work week. One department (I don't know which one) held out until 1985, when the 30-hour work week was finally abolished by the company.

Since the 1920s, at least, there's been a tension between work, the eco-system and leisure. In the 1920s, industrialists noticed that they could, for instance, manufacture all the cloth people in the U.S. needed in six months. Ditto with many other goods. Thus began the campaign to convince people to overconsume. If you wanted to keep your textile mills operating all year long, you had to convince people they should buy many more clothes than they actually needed. And so it went.

The other alternative would have been for people to work less and have what they needed but not much excess. That did not suit the industrialists, as more units of a product they could make and sell, the more money they made. Although they too could have lived comfortably on less, that was not the mindset that prevailed.

The relentless overconsumption of the last 80-some years, as we know, has created an ecological mess. It's also caused people to lead stressed-out lives with little time for families and friends but with a choking cascade of consumer goods to care for. As we know, there is a whole industry just to deal with "clutter."

My question is: why do we choose this? What could be more family friendly than a 30-hour work week, unless it were a 20-hour work week? We could elect politicians who would make these things law. But we don't.

One interesting fact: the Orion article stated that we have increased our wealth (I forget by what measure) by 30 percent since 1991. In other words, at least in theory, we could work 5.2 hours a day and maintain the standard of living we had in 1991. That was not a deprived time, as I remember. Or, if my own calculations are correct, we could work 4 hours a day and maintain the standard of living we had in 1957, the peak year of "happiness" for Americans, according to some polls. That would mean down scaling our houses from 2000 square feet to 1,200 and going from two cars to one and possibly giving up the dishwasher, but would that be such a terrible trade-off for a sane life?

In the end, this becomes a spiritual question: do we find our joy in things or do we find it in building community and the kingdom of God? We are said to be a Christian nation, but if so, why do we not follow Christianity's leader, Jesus, who said "put first the Kingdom [of God] and the rest [explicitly, he meant the material goods] will be provided." Why don't we believe this? Why have we chosen the material?

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