By David Wann
Policy analyst Charles Siegel has researched the “compulsory consumption” embedded in government and corporate work policies. He advocates policies that would let middle-class Americans choose whether to work and consume more, or work less and have more time. Most Americans work full-time because they must – part-time jobs typically have lower hourly pay and no benefits. Yet, in recent polls, up to 60 percent of Americans would gladly trade a day’s pay for an additional day off, and Kellogg Company’s experience with shorter workweeks explains why. Between 1930 and 1985, employees there enjoyed a six-hour workday, and with two discretionary hours added to each weekday, there were more room-mothers in classrooms. Parks, community centers, skating rinks, churches, libraries and YMCAs became bustling centers of activity. Kellogg workers recall the balance of their lives shifted from working to living. What to do with their time became more important than what to buy with their money.
Siegel believes that by law, part-time employees who do the same work as full-time employees should get the same hourly pay, and that they should also have the same seniority – based on the number of hours worked – and same chance of promotion and pro-rated benefits as full-time workers. With more part-time opportunities available, there will be far less unemployment overall, and far fewer home foreclosures. By sharing the workload, employers will have healthier, more productive employees. What has to bend is the assumption of consumption.
In fact, most Eurozone countries have already adopted work agreements like these. As a result, employee-chosen part-time work is becoming quite normal in the EU, with Holland leading the charge. In recent years, nearly half of all Dutch employees worked less than 35 hours a week, including 75 percent of all women and 23 percent of all men. Though unemployment rose to 10 percent in the U.S. in the current recession, Germany’s unemployment actually went down. Why? Because it’s standard practice there to reduce employees’ hours rather than lay them off. Germany enacted laws that prohibit employers from paying part-time workers a lower wage per hour than full-time workers. What’s more, unemployment compensation is calculated in lost hours rather than lost jobs.
The past century has seen a 10-fold increase in productivity, but we’ve steadily used that dividend to increase consumption (and CEO salaries). A nationally mandated 30-hour workweek passed in the U.S. Senate in 1930 but was vigorously opposed by business leaders, who pitched “a new gospel of consumption.” The bill was defeated in the House by just a few votes, and in 1938 the 40-hour workweek was set in stone. The work-and-spend culture – really just a social agreement – went into high gear. Wrote marketing analyst Victor Lebow in 1950, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek spiritual satisfaction, ego satisfaction, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”
Did Americans choose this consumptive way of life or were we corralled into it with drumbeats of post-war euphoria and the smell of sky-high profits? Isn’t it time to hear a different drummer?
About David Wann
David Wann is the author of a trilogy of culture-shifting books: Affluenza, Simple Prosperity and The New Normal: An Agenda for Responsible Living. His website is www.davewann.com.
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