The End of Shorter Hours

Benjamine Kline Hunnicutt

Growth for growth's sake has not always been the goal of policy makers. Decisions were made during the 1930's and 1940's which led us down the road of excess consumption and waste which we find ourselves on today.

Early in the 1900s technological innovations had increased productivity to the point where one commentator suggested we were suffering from "consumptive indigestion resulting from the outright satiation of human wants." Events from the era demonstrated . . . "that free time was the natural result of technology advances and that workers had a choice only as to the form that free time would take: leisure or unemployment.

The Labour Movement responded by campaigning for shorter working hours and were successful at reducing the work week from 70 to 60 to 50 to 40 hours. However, levels of productivity continued to rise and unemployment persisted.

At their October 1926 Convention, the American Federation of Labor passed a resolution promoting a 30 hour week, not just because it allowed more people to have jobs, but for the benefits it provided to life outside of work as well. Free time was valuable in its own right. Time to fix up the house, play with the children, picnic by the river and develop some personal quantities which never saw the light of day when all one's energy went into wage labour. This resolution borough about strong opposition because "labour's shorter hour cause involved basic questions about the purpose of work and economic growth, the future of capitalism, and the very course of progress." The managers of industry and public opinion felt threatened by the possibility of people finding balance in their lives that was not based in the jobs they supplied.

These business leaders saw free time as the result of market saturation, but they vehemently opposed reduction of work hours and searched about for alternatives such as foreign markets and increased "standard of living" (the new economic gospel of consumption"). If human need could be satiated then they would cultivate desire. With their sights set on the perpetual growth of their fortunes, they went on the offensive, "Serious advertising got under way and the propaganda machine went to work to convince people that it was unmanly, even antisocial to want to work less than 40 hours a week."

Some "equated increased leisure with crime, vice the waste of man's natural capacity, corruption, radicalism, debt, decay, degeneration and decline." One business leader warned that "the men of our country are becoming a race of softies and mollycoddles." He saw the five day week as an indication of a gradual sinking into decay, a trend toward the dissipation and frivolity that had caused Rome's downfall. With their mercantile control of the media their public relations efforts succeeded in freezing the work week at 40 hours and unemployment was hence forth addressed by stimulating the desire to consume more. The age of consumerism was born.

"Non-business commentators of the time questioned perpetual industrial growth. Growth toward obtainable goals, such as the meeting of basic needs still made sense, But long hours of work in this new 'squirrel cage' which capitalism had set up did not."

Sixty years down the road the "squirrel cage" has created a tragedy of depleted resources, saturated garbage dumps and widespread environmental degradation. Had the other course been taken, we could have created an ultimate material security for the human family with abundant time to celebrate life and to refine the culture into which our children grow.

Technological innovations continue to increase efficiency and again we have crisis levels of unemployment. Clearly the decisions to cultivate desire rather than free time was a mistake.

We are again considering shorter working hours - to share the work. We are also considering the goal of sustainability to address serious threats to the well-being of life around the globe. Where the two intersect is in our ability to enjoy life. As human beings we have remarkable abilities to create, to understand, to enjoy family, friends and the wonders of life. With these qualities to cultivate it is not necessary to occupy all our time working for the expansion of capital.

Let us recognize the choice before us. And let's get it right this time.