Saturday, November 29, 2008

Alternative Work Week

Ultimately, the move to a regenerative economy is about creating alternatives to the existing system of dependence upon fossil fuels and the companies that use it. It's about reassessing our relationship with consumption and our relationship with the communities and world we inhabit. It's about rethinking what it is we are doing and what we are striving for.

In that spirit, I have found myself thinking back to the project work I did last spring in economics centering on The Overworked American by Juliet Schor. Two partners and I used the book as a basis for analysis of why Amercian's are overworked. During that project, we came across articles highlighting the 30 hour work week Kellogg's instituted in Battle Creek, MI starting December 1, 1930, right as The Great Depression began. I was amazed to learn about this development, and quite frankly amazed that the idea of working less hours per week was so foreign to me, so strange a concept. Yet, when I paused to think about it, and reflected upon some of the comments in the article, I thought this was the best idea ever. We could employ more people, for less time, with the same overall output. There would be more time for family and friends, for engaging in the givernance of our cities, towns, and nation. Wow! Now that I think of it, is it possible to actually reduce the overall output (heresy!) to better match the refocusing of consumer spending?

As we grapple with what the United States economy will look like (and honestly, what our collective self image will be) without US based automakers, are we faced with two great opportunities?
  1. How might we use the excess capacity of the massive industrial complexes (supply chains, facilities, etc.) that is the auto industry in new, green, and growth-related industries?
  2. How may we reassess what it is to work, and perhaps adopt the lessons learned 80 years ago from Kellogg's to keep more people employed and gainfully engaged in our economy?
A recent article in the NYTimes helped me think about the first question. I am happy to see that regions are creatively looking at their human and built manufacturing assets and redeploying them in the "new economy". Here's an excerpt:
Larry Crady, a worker, takes particular pleasure in seeing the finished product overhead, a broad grin forming across his goateed face. He used to run a team that made coin-operated laundry machines at Maytag. Now he supervises a team that lays down fiberglass strips between turbine moldings. He runs his hand across the surface of the next blade for signs of unevenness.
“I like this job more than I did Maytag,” Mr. Crady says. “I feel I’m doing something to improve our country, rather than just building a washing machine.”
I love to read comments like this. I know that I have fallen into the trap of believing that people generally do not care - they're not enrolled - in the work they do; it's merely a paycheck, a means to the end of providing for the needs and wants of a person and a family. In reality, we are connected to what we do; in many cases people engaged in trades may have a deeper connection with what they make. Imagine the power ion engaging disenfranchised workers in something that can provide a decent living and contribute to a regenerative future for our children and grand children. What power!


Unknown said...

I know I'm showing my age, but I remember when the trend was for less hours. Back in the mid 80's it was shown that average hours had gone from 40 hours a week to 37 and a half hours a week (7 and a half hour days rather than 8). Many corporations were then going to 35 hours a week (7 hours a day). Then, as a society, we got hung up in productivity measurements. And corporations were being judged on productivity rather than employees as stakeholders. So computers started to come in and people either were let go or just not replaced. That meant that the same amount of work was being done by fewer people and thus productivity was rising.

Now the objective is to be "lean". Use as few people as possible. All the while saying the mantra of life-work style. Where I work, they keep talking about like-work balance, and I believe that the upper management believes in it. But the middle and lower management do not. They are still in the old paradigm of squeezing the blood out of a turnip. After all, work-life balance isn't nearly as measureable as productivity.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for reading. A lot of social issues have raised their ugly heads in stronger ways since about 1980. In fact, we are seeing the end of the free-wheeling, market rule, deregulatory orgy, & profit at all costs era that started with Reagan.

I like your point about the "life-work" balance message being lost in middle-management. I can guess one reason; they are measured on their P&L, not employee wellness or some other "soft" measurement.

I am also most enthralled with the concept of reducing work, reducing output, and reducing consumption while maintaining a decent "standard of living". We've been conditioned to always want more, I wonder, are we capable of getting out of that paradigm?

Thanks again.