First, some history:
- 2018-2020: I begin questioning work
- 2021: I decide to leave my “1%” job (in-progress)
- 2022: I explore, why do we value work above life?
- The book “Work” by J. Suzman, alerted me to Kellogg’s 6-hour workday in the 1930s.
- Historian Benjamin Hunnicutt explores Kellogg’s reversal toward MORE hours, and America’s perception of leisure.
(see: here, here)
- Musing Mind podcast (Oshan Jarow) interviews Benjamin Hunnicutt on Kellogg’s and beyond. Many thanks to Oshan for sharing a few additional resources with me, linked at the end.
Kellogg’s 30-Hour Week
Two major things colored the 1930’s. 1) The immediate wake of the industrial revolution, and 2) The great depression. In short – wild efficiency plus a jobs-shortage inspired Kellogg’s to drop their workday to 6 hours-day, 30 hours-week. This was a win-win: happier employees and providing more struggling people with paying jobs.
In 1941, despite this success, a larger confluence of culture – unions, invention of legitimately life-changing products, consumerism, and evolving American standards of “work ethic” and “good life” – applied enormous pressure on Kellogg’s and their employees to work more, earn more, consume more, keep-up. We’ve been “keeping-up” ever since. The end of the depression era, in conjunction with these massive cultural currents, brought this budding work/life experiment to an end in 1985.
Will we ever trend toward less hours, again?
After considering this for three years, I’ve concluded anyone who wants serious leisure time today will need to pull a Thoreau, and grab it. Consume less, save more, work less. Someday, however, I see it as inevitable that humanity will encourage not only abundant leisure time for a maximum number of people, but also, crucially, a foundation of wholesome values upon which to deeply appreciate its merits — to learn, grow, express, and sculpt a fulfilling life.
A “fulfilling” life? Many economists mock this idea as pollyannish, and maintain that, data suggests people ENJOY working-and-spending. I don’t dispute working-and-spending as a fixture of society, but in excess, I see it as moral crime – obscuring something more essential, more profound. In other words, I believe deep down, no human wants to define their lives predominantly by earning, mindless consumerism, and amusement, until they die. But unless people can glimpse a horizon of greater (and viable) possibilities, which is no easy task, the gravity of our current system will prevail, and economist’s shallow visions reinforced. Monkeys will continue to see, and do.
The only way to rekindle a “labor enlightenment”, whether it comes 10, 100, or 1000 years from now, is critical discussion. On that note, below are my favorite highlights from the conversation between Oshan Jarow and Benjamin Hunnicutt. Please, check out the full podcast, and various references to other work below.
(15:00) “Making a Living” vs “How to Live”
Here, Ben and Oshan critically distinguish between “Economic Progress” vs “Higher Progress”, (or “Making a Living” vs “How to Live”). We all know what economic progress is because we live it: businesses, products, and spending. If you’re reading this and have never considered how “Higher Progress” is different, or what it means to you, this is exactly the dilemma! We, as a society, become so absorbed by the sunlight of work and pay and consuming, we are rarely afforded the luxury of looking behind the curtain. What else can life be, if not defined by these things?
Ben: “I understand ‘higher progress’ as an opening, an arena, a new type of freedom that only aristocrats had enjoyed before the coming of the machine age. Technology is going to free, every man, every woman, to live their lives, beyond ‘necessity’. This is Walt Whitman’s view. The artist in us would have a chance.”
Oshan: “I like the framing that ‘higher progress’ is an opening. When this opening is bounded within economic incentives, there is a constraining, narrowing effect on what is viable. By removing the absolute subservience to economic necessity, it frees people to explore broader notions of value.”
(20:00) We Can’t Aspire For What We Can’t See
If society-at-large never understands the potential of “leisure”, society-at-large will never wish for it. The shiny lights of civilization will continue entertaining us, and status quo maintained. Meanwhile, shiny lights keep getting shinier.
Ben: “This goes back to ancient Greece – the etymology of the word for ‘School’ is from the Greek word Scholae, for, guess what, ‘leisure’. ‘Liberal Arts’ are the art of being free.“
Oshan: “Wow, how far we’ve spun”
Ben: “Education has now gone in the opposite direction, teaching people to work. The struggle to show people [the virtues of leisure] goes back to Plato and Aristotle. Philosopher Joseph Pieper writes the basis of western culture was founded in freedom.”
Ben: “The market economy [today’s work culture] cannot give access to the full range of humanity. It does bring us together, but only in a transactional sense, a tit for tat.”
(33:00) Three Distinct Periods in Attitudes
The only way to make sense of life today, is seeing that civilization is a young work-in-progress, still experimenting and growing.
1) 1830-1930 – Broad assumption that economic progress would lead to shorter working weeks. Leisure was understood kind of in the same sense of ancient Greece as the destination of American society, where we would more deeply realize our own humanity and so on.
2) 1930-1980 – The virtues of leisure began to come under siege. A new cultural ideal that was largely actually put in place by FDR and the New Deal, moving from leisure to “full-time” employment, 40 hours a week. Rather than a virtue, leisure began to be seen as an actual danger to society. Citizens were seen as not well equipped biologically or in terms of their skills to actually make good use of that time.
3) 1980-Today – A remarkable development, historically speaking, working hours have actually begun increasing and largely off of the richest segment of society, kind of lawyers and investment bankers who are working longer hours than anyone else, which is really unusual. Leisure has been entirely discarded as a cultural ideal. A modern era of work-ism and burnout and wealth inequality have all spiraled.
(34:45) What Stigmatized Leisure as “Dangerous”?
Ben: “Roosevelt’s administration sort of laid the groundwork for work as an end in itself. One of the things they were explicitly trying to do was shut out an existing bill that had passed the Senate, the Black Connery bill, that would have reduced the working week to 30 hours. Before 1935, Roosevelt was on board – supporting short hours. Shorter hours was a key solution to unemployment. It was the only game in town. But then the people around him, Rexford Tugwell, Hugh Johnson and others, came up with ‘full time full employment’. This becomes the touchstone for political reform. After Roosevelt’s administration, Truman and subsequent presidents all use the same strategies to maintain full time full employment.”
Ben: “Work is an end in itself the center of modern life, of identity, of human purpose. Work becomes, in my estimation, a modern religion, a center of our lives. At the centering point of our lives, certainly a center of our morality.”
Oshan: “There was writer Derek Thompson at the Atlantic, he put this really well: What economists of the 20th century could not foresee is that work would become the primary means of identity production.”
(Black Connery bill)
Here is an interesting analysis on the Black Connery bill from 1935. In short, it suggests the primary motivation for mandating short work weeks at the was getting more people jobs during the depression, with leisure being a secondary benefit. This bill provokes a strong reaction/speculation from industry about stalling the depression recovery, and actually hurting employees wages in the long run. It’s easy to see how this concern was sufficient to stall the bill. The US was a sick patient economically, and it was perhaps 1) simply the wrong climate for “leisure” to garner any serious prioritization – and 2) excessive to mandate ALL industry to jump into 30 hours, despite a few successful experiments at the time… Kellogg’s, Ford, Johnson & Johnson.
(49:30) What Stigmatized Leisure, Continued.
Here, Ben and Oshan point to a quote from BF Skinner, social psychologist and philosopher, revealing concern about a population without work:
In 1971, BF Skinner: “Leisure is a condition for which the human species has been badly prepared, because until very recently it was enjoyed by only a few, who contributed very little to the gene pool. Large numbers of people are now at leisure for appreciable periods of time, but there has been no chance for effective selection of either a relevant genetic endowment or a relevant culture.“
Ben also references The Lonely Crowd, a book in the 1950’s whose author illustrates how people become lost without opportunities and challenges.
(56:30) Systems Reinforce Their Assumptions
Although it’s hard to place an exact pin in its cause, there has been and still remains skepticism about widespread leisure. Oshan points out that, a system with pessimistic assumptions about human nature (such as people not making proper use of leisure time) will reinforce those assumptions.
This makes me reflect on covid lockdown, and how for some, it was a abrupt experiment in what life might be like with more leisure. Yes, we were still working during lockdown, but many of us suddenly had more time. Some relished this. It drove others crazy. Obviously covid was a messy leisure experiment for various reasons. But it does offer some evidence, that many of us (myself included) were ready for more personal time, and truly benefited from it.
Oshan: “The idea that Americans cannot make good use of leisure time began reinforcing that quality in human beings. So what Bregman would say, is if you don’t want Americans to be lazy and unmotivated and intrinsically deficient, you need to proactively design and implement a system that trusts them not to be. And even if there are growing pains in the beginning, over time, what you have is kind of the coevolution of the participants and the system itself.”
(1:01:00) The Free Market Needs It’s Chance
When recognizing work as an obstruction to leisure, it’s tempting to take aim at capitalism broadly as a root problem. In my mind it’s more complicated that that. After all, capitalism gives us many great things, including the 1000s of products and ideas and services between my mind and your mind, writing and reading this right now. I have to believe capitalism is a framework that can be shaped, as Kellogg’s proved in 1930. Ben cites examples he calls “Liberation Capitalism” – for example, paying someone for their skills and creative expression to teach you something, or give you an experience.
Ben: “I would like to think that the free market needs its chance. I think it’s a possibility. And why not? If there’s a possibility there. Why not take full advantage of the possibility of liberation capitalism. A way of redesigning or reimplementing or rethinking technology so that it designs systems according to some of the insights of positive psychology“
(1:02:00) Hard Work May Lead to an Epiphany
Here, Ben and Oshan discuss a quote from a 1700’s era poet and theologian, Jonathan Edwards:
Edwards: “Labor to get thoroughly convinced that there is something else needs caring for more than this world.”
I found some deeper analysis of the quote, here. In summary, this is yet more historical evidence of humanity’s intuition for something beyond work. What is work’s purpose? It is a means to something deeper, not an end in itself. According to Samuel Hopkins, a younger friend and disciple of Edwards, this “deeper something” was: study and conversation, worship and lectures, in other words, self-realization.
Oshan compares this to quote one from Ram Dass on meditation, which I completely relate to, in the context of work and meditation.
Ram Dass: “Go out and lust some more. Go until you are so nauseated by your own predicament that you yearn to meditate. Get so hungry for it that you can’t wait to just sit down, turn off the television, turn off the drama, and just be quiet for a few minutes.”
Oshan then reflects:
Oshan: “What these two quotes point to for me is this idea of committing yourself so fully to the world as it is popularly given to us, so that you cannot help but reach the end of its rope and kind of see, you know, there is something beyond what we have going here.“
Perhaps the most powerful quote of the entire conversation, for me. As it’s an idea I find again and again – an experiment anyone can run on themselves. In other words, go ahead, see if work, or anything else for that matter, will permanently satisfy you. Eventually, this search becomes so circular, you might finally pause, and realize, leisure and reflection offer so much more. A massive change in perspective, behavior, and quality of life can occur here.
(1:03:00) Hitting The Wall
Who knows how many people out there feel like they’re hitting the wall? I felt it spontaneously, about five years ago, through my own repetition and and introspection. Might many others be waking up, too? This conversation suggests, yes. Although, I also know people happy to maintain status quo for life, or, simply don’t have the time and privilege to change.
Oshan: “I think this is something that we’re doing at a collective level – the American psyche – we’ve committed so deeply, so existentially to this ideology of work and economic progress. Absent any larger context. It feels as though it’s becoming unavoidable that we’re coming up against that wall where we realize there’s something beyond it that we have neglected.“
Ben: “I agree. Especially the millennial generation and generation after that, young people are beginning to hit the wall and beginning to doubt work as a center of life, to doubt consumerism, the wonderland of consumerism, to doubt the maldistribution of wealth all of those things are figuring into maybe the beginning of a new consciousness. My teaching tries to represent what inspires me with people like Walt Whitman and Dorothy Canfield Fisher and all the rest. I’ll continue to do what I can to say: there IS more to it, there’s more to life. There’s a possibility other than what we see before us.“
(1:10:00) You Can’t Make People Be Free
Oshan asks Ben what he thinks about some systemic adjustments that might help get us back on track toward leisure. A couple of ideas revolve around wealth distribution, or universal basic income. Ben concedes he is not deeply familiar with these ideas, however, offers an important insight, that so much of this can be driven from the bottom:
“I’m not sure of the link redistribution and leisure time. I’ve gotten to the point of thinking that you can’t make people be free. The desire for being free has got to somehow precede the possibility. Otherwise, you get people taking second jobs and trying to earn more with their time, rather than an embrace of the possibilities of leisure. The demand for leisure needs to be there first, and it’s really hard to make.
Europe is exploring alternate ways of structuring a work week. There’s a 30-hour work week out of some of the Scandinavian countries, even France has been looking at a four day work. You have a lot of people writing and advocating for the four day work week.
You also have people like enlightened business folks who offer short schedules for people. Lindsay Han at Metro Plastics, his company does 30 hours and he pays pays them for 40. He has no problem at all hiring people. Individual firms need to step up.
But again, I’m sort of suspicious of the link between wealth redistribution and the demand for leisure. As people demand more of their lives and take it back– reclaim their lives from the marketplace. From capitalism. Rather than spending their lives creating profits for the very rich. Seeing the advantage of spending their lives the way that they would like to spend their lives. Doing things that they really would like to do. That they enjoy. That dynamic can take hold. Then there would be an automatic redistribution with capital flowing from the centers, from the places where it’s piled up.“
(1:19:00) The Industrial Paradox
Ben points out the two conflicting forces within our economy. I’ll forgo his actual quotes, since I live on the frontlines of the paradox.
1) The efficiently revolution – automation – eliminates jobs. Over many years, I’ve created systems that avoided hiring 10s of people. This may not sound like a lot, but to illustrate, our closest competitor is about 2x larger in terms of employee count. Further, countless businesses are doing the exact same. There is no stopping this trend – if a machine can do something more reliably, faster, and 10x cheaper, it will happen. It’s not even a function of greed, it’s a matter of surviving as a business, and giving consumers more value for less money. No matter how morally grounded a business might be – this is a key principle.
2) In parallel, as alluded to earlier, the American economy (in today’s form) wants working-age adults employed full-time. This is seen as healthy from an economic and social standpoint – for murky reasons described above. Not only are these assumptions due for calibration, but automation force the calibration if we don’t preempt it.
In short, the strain automation places on job availability is only going up, and it’s only a matter of time until the system must compensate. We’ll see if some combo of newer experience-economy jobs, and/or universal income, and/or adjusted work hours, solves the puzzle.
(1:24:00) Closing Comments
Ben: “I’m delighted to talk with you. It has brightened my outlook considerably. People out there who are actually reading what I wrote and interested in fighting the good fight. I think it’s a wonderful call to restore that vision, that purpose that for so long encouraged and excited people in this country, throughout the world. And if we can bring that back somehow and re energize, reestablish, that’s something well worth doing, indeed.”
Oshan: “Dr. Hunnicutt, it has been an absolute pleasure. I’ve really benefited from your work.”
Ben: “Thank you so much. As I say, talking to you has cheered me up considerably.”
Having spent two years searching for deep commentary on work and leisure, I can say this podcast is an absolute gem, perhaps even more than Ben and Oshan can appreciate. Each of them have clearly invested thousands of hours studying philosophy, psychology, history, related to “work” and humanity. To hear them share and reconcile insights here was really special, and greatly beneficial to anyone looking to catch-up, (as I am).
In my opinion, “Work” should be one of the hottest topics of civilization today – but fascinatingly, it’s hard for us to notice this – because we are swimming in it, and never think twice. We don’t realize it’s actually malleable. As David Foster Wallace suggests, it’s like asking a fish what they think of water, only to hear them respond: “What the hell is water?” – it’s all they’ve ever known. Work is our water – and it’s still a nascent project. Each of us needs to understand this evolution, so that we can shape our lives individually and collectively. More to come, on that.
- Leisure: The Basis of Culture: Josef Pieper
(this book catalyzed Benjamin’s interest in his field)
- Utopia for Realists
(Oshan and Ben reference this book as a more recent analysis on state of ‘higher-progress’)
- The Decline of Play
(Oshan raises this article’s idea – lack of play over time – as a potential contributor to today’s work culture)
- The Burnout Society
(Oshan notes this book characterizes the past 40-50 years as a collective yearning for something more, but, we don’t know where to look)
- Critique of Economic Reason
(Ben and Oshan each reference this book and Andre Gorz as illuminating to our economy-leisure relationship)