The Historical Origins of the Time Famine

 

by

 

Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt

Professor

The University of Iowa

 

Abstract of a paper to be presented at the APA/NIOH Interdisciplinary Conference on Work, Stress and Health in Baltimore, March 11-13, 1999, during the Symposium on OVERWORK: CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES

 

 

Our grandmothers and grandfathers thought that this would be the century when the machine and technology freed human beings - freed us to live a life beyond "necessity" and work, in which our major concern would be "the question of freedom." People who lived at the turn of the last century fully expected that future generations would be better off not just in material goods, but in the goods of life - in abundant hours and days free from jobs and economic concerns.

Our ancestors had good reason to hope. During the 1920s and 30s people in the industrial nations looked back at "the century of shorter hours," to the hundred-year-long process that had cut working hours by more than half. This "progress" seemed to be the wave of the future. Writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Julian Huxley confidently predicted a two-hour work day, at most, by the end of this century

But we who toil in the century's last decade dare not imagine such a thing. Instead of our work continuing to decline, it has expanded. Now more of our populations work, and more of us work longer hours than our mothers and fathers. Economists and pollsters maintain that the "average Joe and Jill" work about a month more a year now that in 1976. Overtime is at record levels because of "downsizing." The "second shift" is increasingly common as more women enter the work force for at least eight hours a day but then face the full time job of housework after work.

Instead of proving to be "labor saving devices," our machines create more work for more of us to do! Instead of the "problem" of leisure, we face an array of problems caused by overwork; families that erode because we have less time to be at home, troubled and troubling young people who share little or no time with adults, anemic communities bled dry of the people's time, their life's blood, and institutions that focus solely on teaching people how to work rather than how to live together freely.

Even though ours has become the wealthiest nation in history, we languish in a time famine with no relief in sight. What happened? Why do Shaw and Huxley's predictions seem comical now?

During my presentation before APA/NIOSH I will review the historical answers to these questions that I have given in books such as Work Without End, And Kellogg's Six-hour Day and articles such as "The End of Shorter Hours."

I will explore, critically, the rise of consumerism, the politics of work creation, and the modern advent of the religion of work as they relate to the coming of the time famine. I will explore the alternative visions of active and democratic cultures based in life outside work and consumerism- views that, even though they seem to have failed, continue to offer a way out of our squirrel-cage existence.

I will explore traditional but neglected policy alternatives to perpetual economic growth and politics of eternal work creation, including work redistribution (or work sharing), regeneration of what Cornel West called "democratic culture" in leisure, and volunteerism. Finally I will propose strategies to reclaim free public spaces "outside" work/consumerism/amusements and recover "free activities" that return culture making and transmission to the communities.

 

 

The Historical Origins of the Time Famine

A Paper presented at the APA/NIOH Interdisciplinary Conference on Work, Stress and Health in Baltimore, March 11-13, 1999, during the Symposium on OVERWORK: CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES

by

Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt

Professor

The University of Iowa

 

 

Until recently, one of the most important changes in the history of the industrial world went virtually unnoticed. Only within the last decade have historians and economists finally recognized what should have been apparent long before; that for over a century after the 1820's, workers and nations in the industrial world steadily and enthusiastically reduced their work time, only to turn desperately to creating more work for more people during the last fifty years.

During the 19th and early 20th century work reduction dominated the history of organized labor in the USA in the form of the shorter hours movement; the only issue of comparable importance was higher wages. The free time that resulted was an essential part of workers' lives, vital to the preservation of ethnic identity and necessary for the formation of working-class subcultures and values. Work reduction was the focus of a good deal of state and federal government activity; state hours laws, the regulation of children and women's work.

Shortening the hours of labor lay at the core of 19th and early 20th century politics&emdash;each reform movement supported reductions in work time from the mid 1800's until the third year of Franklin Roosevelt's administration. Even some conservatives and businessmen endorsed shorter work periods in the first third of the twentieth century, believing that such measures lessened fatigue, improved work, and increased productivity.

In statistical terms, average work hours, days, weeks, years, and lives steadily decreased throughout the 19th century, falling rapidly from 1900 to 1920. Altogether work time was cut by more than half before World War II

Work reduction was also the subject of some of the most optimistic American rhetoric in the century before the Great Depression. It was at the center of discussions about progress over those years. Increases in wages and decreases in work were understood to be two sides of the same coin, human betterment. Scientists and inventors understood that their major contribution to civilization was the invention of machines that eased work. Efficiency was their watchword and the gauge of a machine's worth until the 1930s&emdash;"labor-saving-device" entered the English language and thrived.

Intellectuals, politicians, and social critics welcomed work reduction because men and women were freed from the machine and material concerns by the process. But most importantly, they were freer from bosses, from alienated jobs, and from the demands on their lives made by industrial capitalism.

Freed from economic necessity for part of the day, ordinary people envisioned a new kind of liberty; a new freedom that would lead to the creation of democratic culture, vibrant worker communities, life-long learning for everyone, widespread improvement in physical health, spiritual growth&emdash;the list was as varied as the rich imaginations of the nineteenth century reformer.

For over one hundred years, numerous Americans believed that work and material progress, business and industrial capitalism, were means to higher ends&emdash;ways to transcend necessity and economic worries.

The scores of utopian novelists who wrote around the turn of the century employed the characteristic utopian theme, "the 4-hour workday," as a central premise. The point of most utopian books was that in the near future, when necessity became obsolete, men and women would have substantial pure freedom&emdash;time enough to live wonderful lives.

Generations of workers looked forward to the "progressive shortening of the hours of labor"&emdash;the stated goal of the American labor movement in 1926. The vision was present at the inception of the American labor movement, the 1827 Carpenter's strike in Philadelphia. John R. Commons, the well known USA labor historian, wrote that "the earliest evidence of [labor] unrest" was a pamphlet circulated by workers that demanded daily working hours be reduced from "12 to 10, to 8, to 6, and so on" until, in the workers' words, "the development and progress of science have reduced human labor to its lowest terms."

The vision of continuous, open-ended work reduction continued into the 1930s when labor pressed for the 30 hour week and began to consider seriously the need for the four hour day, worker sabbaticals, the ten month year, and sharp reductions in work-life. Notables such as Stuart Chase, Charles Beard, John Maynard Keynes, Julian Huxley, and George Bernard Shaw, concluded that work would continue its decline and assumed this was a natural part of the industrial process.

Prominent industrialists such as Lord Leverhulme, the British "soap-king," and W.K. Kellogg, and writers such as A.O. Dahlberg began to lead Welfare Capitalism to new, dizzy heights, introducing the six-hour working day. They envisioned the flowering of capitalism not as perpetual economic activity, but as shorter hours and increasing leisure. Capitalism and the free market's greatest blessing would come when men and women were freed from work and the marketplace and the center of human existence shifted to freedom&emdash;or so thought these "Liberation Capitalists."

In short, significant parts of the 19th and early 20th century were about less and less work for more and more people. The shorter hour social movement was among the broadest and deepest social movements of the age. Affecting critical parts of everyday living, shorter hours involved the great majority of workers and their families for over a century.

But in an abrupt reversal, Americans became desperately concerned with increasing work. Finding new work to replace work taken by machines and by capitalism's efficient techniques became a paramount social and political initiative that overarches and includes major historical developments of the last fifty and more years.

Most evident is the ubiquitous and permanent concern with unemployment. Unlike previous generations, since the Great Depression most Americans believe that the solution to unemployment lay primarily in the provision of more work&emdash;in the indefinite expansion of employment opportunities rather than the "progressive shortening" of labor. Today, "full employment" has to do with "everyone" working a "full-time" job; "everyone" and "full-time" expanding as categories. Beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, each American president has evaluated his presidency in terms of how many jobs were created and how much work expanded during his term.

The new importance of work expansion is also reflected in the growth of the workforce since the Depression. More people are working today (as a percentage of the total population) than ever before largely because of the entry of women into the workforce; over 50% of women work full time now, only 25% worked outside the home in 1940. But few men have left the workplace to return to the family. The liberation of women has been defined largely as the freedom to have a "full-time" job&emdash;a definition that women are only now beginning to question.

The responsiveness of industry and government to the people has, for over sixty years been judged by how much "full-time" work is provided. Indeed, the "right to work" a "full-time" job has evolved into something of a basic 20th century right.

Most importantly, the shorter hour movement ended just after the Depression. Work hours stabilized at around forty a week for more than fifty years. Organized labor abandoned the cause. Politicians forgot it. State and federal lawmakers stopped passing laws to reduce hours. Bureaucrats now interpret fewer work hours as a -negative "leading economic indicator." Intellectuals and writers have ceased dreaming of further work reduction and "necessity's obsolescence," pinning instead for a world full of enough work for everyone or brooding about the "work famine" to come.

A recent series of surveys conducted by the Louis Harris organization showed that the average workweek increased from 40.6 hours in 1973 to 48.8, a 20% jump. In her widely publicized book, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure the Harvard economist Juliet Schor argued persuasively in 1992 that leisure has actually declined&emdash;that the "average Joe" works about a month more in the mid-1990s than he did in the 1970s. The magnitude of this change in working hours has but one historical rival, its converse; the 16% decline in the workweek from 1905-1917.

It is obvious, then, that since the Depression, after a century of reduction, work expanded. More people work. They work longer periods of time, both in terms of worklife and workweek.

Opinions about work reduction have reversed. From the 19th century perspective the Harris surveys would doubtless be seen as retrogression but today the news is hailed as a great economic advance by nearly everyone except those is the "leisure services industry." Instead of viewing progress as the transcending of work, necessity, and economic concerns, Americans now tend to view work as an end in itself, the ultimate measure of progress and definition of prosperity&emdash;the more of it the better.

The loss of vision demonstrated by these notions underlines the magnitude of change in the American concept of work. Even modern scholars have trouble conceiving of something that ordinary workers envisioned for over one hundred years; the reduction of "human labor to its lowest terms" through the "progressive shortening of the hours of labor."

Explaining why this momentous reversal from work reduction to work creation&emdash;from work understood mainly as a means to and end to work as an end in itself&emdash;are monumental tasks. The handful of economists and historians who have written about the change have just scratched the surface.

In my book, Work Without End, I attempted to explain this historical enigma in political and social terms. I pointed out that during the 1920s, American business, recoiling at the "threat of leisure"&emdash;to the steady erosion that had cut working time in half over the years&emdash;discovered the "New Economic Gospel of Consumption."

Instead of accepting work's continuing decline and imminent fall from its dominant social position, businessmen, economist, advertisers, and politicians preached a new faith- that there would never would be "enough" because the entrepreneur and industry could invent new things for advertising to sell and for people to work for and buy indefinitely. Thereupon, in direct response to the spectre of work's fall to leisure, modern consumerism was born and a new kind of indeterminate and changing, but still somehow undiluted, "necessity" came into being.

But "The New Gospel of Consumption" immediately faced a crisis, the Great Depression. On it own, without government support, the project was fantastic- or so it seemed to people such as William Green, president of the AFL at the time. Giving up on the absurdity that people would keep working to buy anything, and everything they could afford or borrow for, even business and conservative politicians embraced the redistribution of available work to meet the crisis- what they called at the time "work-sharing."

Herbert Hoover, with strong conservative business support in the form of the Teagle Committee, began the task of repairing the damage caused by 1920s' orgy of consumerism. Realizing, as Green said, that "free time will come, the only choice is unemployment or leisure" Hoover began a national campaign to share the work, relying on business and labor's voluntary cooperation. It was during this period that Kellogg's began the six-hour day.

But the Democrats responded with their own scheme after the 1932 election- legislated work sharing. Initially FDR and Francis Perkins endorsed the conservative, voluntary approach in New York State and during the interregnum. But soon they turned to labor's thirty hour legislation, introduced in congress as the Black-Connery bill and known for a while as the Black-Perkins bill because of the administration's support. But after the Senate passed the bill setting the national workweek at thirty hours, and the House was on the verge of adopting it, Roosevelt balked. Pressured by his "Brain Trust" and by businessmen who were hoping desperately that he and the Democrats would somehow come up with something to save work, he reneged, angering labor. Subsequently, holding labor at bay on thirty hours until 1935, the administration offered a series of bills regulating industry more than ever before or since, and giving labor unprecedented power to organize and bargain effectively. Hoping to ward off legislated thirty hours and work's renewed decline, business reluctantly went along.

But in 1935, Roosevelt, abandoning his defensive position, in a stroke of genius came up with a positive solution to unemployment- government supported work creation. Enlisting the power of the federal government, he used deficits, liberal treasury policies, expanded government works projects, and expanded government payrolls to "stimulate the economy," create more work for more people, and revive the "New Economic Gospel of Consumption."

Like business in the 1920s, Roosevelt responded directly to the threat of work's decline, envisioning work's indefinite expansion made possible by the economy's perpetual growth, but this time guaranteed by government support. The most important political watershed of this century was crossed and "JOBS, JOBS, JOBS" became then domestic touchstone for politicians, from the Left and the Right, who have followed.

Thus the end of shorter hours has a political explanation, supporting the social analysis of the origin of consumerism. The historical analysis of the death of Kellogg's six-hour day provides a third, even more basic cultural explanation.

The Kellogg experiment demonstrates that changes in the language and the cultures of managers and workers in Battle Creek account for the death of the six-hour day there. In that city the "necessity" to work "full-time" were culturally produced outcomes of class and gender struggles&emdash;the symbolic products of a forty-year-long discourse rather than the consequence of abstract, trans-historical "Economic Forces."

During the 1930s, the overwhelming majority of workers supported the continuing reduction of working hours, as they and their ancestors and been doing for over a hundred years. They continued to speak of their two "extra" hours off work in terms of a "language of freedom" and as "work sharing." There was no discernible break between previous shorter hour achievements, such as the eight-hour day and five day week, and the new six-hour day. W.K. Kellogg, leading the way for the welfare Capitalists, initiated the six-hour day in Battle Creek and envisioned a Capitalist version of liberation from jobs, machines, and economic necessity using similar language.

A small group of males objected, deviating from the norm and trying to hang on to more work for more money. But they were branded as "greedy" and "work hogs" by the large majority, who voted to make six-hours a "standard" throughout the plant in 1937.

However, by 1960, as a result of a coalition of workers and management, the deviants had become the majority. Trivializing and feminizing the "extra time," and elevating work to new cultural heights, management and senior male workers banded together, united by "fewer workers and higher pay," and employing a new language of "absolute necessity." Supported by national developments such as the triumph of "The Gospel of Consumption," the politics of "JOBS, JOBS, JOBS," the rise of mass culture, and the "collapse of the discussional," the eight-hour, "full-time" majority emerged triumphant locally. Shorter hours supporters then were cast in the role of deviant- a minority, branded as different by the dominant cultural group.

But the "mavericks" kept up a lively skirmish in the face of the rising culture of work. Using the old "language of freedom;" they continued to speak of "extra" time and money and "greedy work hogs." They also offered a traditional critique of modern work as boring and work discipline as excessive, to counter the new, romantic work-rhetoric of the majority. By their opposition, they kept the traditional shorter hour cause alive.

At the same time, they demonstrated by their example that the new culture of work and language of necessity were not the absolutes others claimed, but were historically relative and of very recent coinage.

Moreover, the used new "free time" to hold on to old cultural practices endangered by the culture of work, experiment with new social forms such as child rearing and education, and envision a "peaceable kingdom" "outside" work and the economy, conflict and struggle, social role and cultural function and beyond what Joseph Pieper described as the "world of total work" and "total utility."

Such leisure was a freedom too far for the dominant work-only majority; a freedom they branded as "silly" and for "sissies." But for the mavericks, the brief two hour interstice opened up mutuality, sharing, giving, and being,- an "oasis of happiness" that gave dimension and meaning to drab necessity and dreary work-a-day existence.

While the Kellogg experiment was unique and local, one may suggest that the forces that lead to emergence of the new rhetoric of work and leisure may have been responsible for the "end of shorter hours" in other places. There is no doubt that the nineteenth century forms of industrial work-discipline E.P. Thompson described weakened in the this century. But each time modern work has experienced a "crisis," it has reemerged with an even stronger grip on the industrial nations. The full story of how and why this continues to happen has yet to be told. A clue the historical riddle of industrial work's persistence and perennial return may be found the deeds and changing words of the people who lived in Battle Creek, for the history of Kellogg's six-hour experiments supports by its "patient, gray" details Herbert Marcuse's generalization:

"Automation threatens to render possible the reversal of the relation between free time and working time: the possibility of working time becoming marginal and free time becoming full time. The result would be a radical transvaluation of values, and a mode of existence incompatible with the traditional culture. Advanced industrial society is in permanent mobilization against this possibility."