Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Gospel of Consumption

A few weeks ago I was writing about some of the changes that had taken place in my life over the last few years, including learning to live with less, to step off the merry-go-round of consumerism.

The management and workers at Kellogg, the American cereal maker known most commonly for Corn Flakes, decided to do the same themselves many years ago, adopting less pay for shorter working hours.

It was an attractive vision, and it worked. Not only did Kellogg prosper, but journalists from magazines such as Forbes and BusinessWeek reported that the great majority of company employees embraced the shorter workday. One reporter described “a lot of gardening and community beautification, athletics and hobbies . . . libraries well patronized and the mental background of these fortunate workers . . . becoming richer.”

A U.S. Department of Labor survey taken at the time, as well as interviews [writer Benjamin] Hunnicutt conducted with former workers, confirm this picture. The government interviewers noted that “little dissatisfaction with lower earnings resulting from the decrease in hours was expressed, although in the majority of cases very real decreases had resulted.” One man spoke of “more time at home with the family.” Another remembered: “I could go home and have time to work in my garden.” A woman noted that the six-hour shift allowed her husband to “be with 4 boys at ages it was important.”

Kellogg's system hasn't survived into the present day, but Jeffrey Kaplan argues in his essay, The Gospel of Consumption and the better future we left behind
that the model, or at least its imperative, may be worth reconsideration. If only we were willing to live with less.

By 1991 the amount of goods and services produced for each hour of labor [in the US] was double what it had been in 1948. By 2006 that figure had risen another 30 percent. In other words, if as a society we made a collective decision to get by on the amount we produced and consumed seventeen years ago, we could cut back from the standard forty-hour week to 5.3 hours per day—or 2.7 hours if we were willing to return to the 1948 level. We were already the richest country on the planet in 1948 and most of the world has not yet caught up to where we were then.

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  1. You really do need to read that Bertrand Russell article I recommended a few weeks ago.

    Here, I'll find a link:



  2. Touche, BT! As I mentioned in that article long ago, that temporary infatuation was my mind thrashing about in search of a fix. You may be happy to know that I'm still on the wagon. Haven't bought any MD gear and am in fact unloading what I have. Thanks for keeping my feet to the fire. ;-)

  3. "I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached."

    In Praise of Idleness
    By Bertrand Russell

    Thank you, M. I'm looking forward to reading this - jusr as soon as I finish my work!

  4. I've been working a 6-hour day for the last 10 years. I highly recommend it to everyone on the planet.