Book Excerpts

How time became money

Updated on: Dec 14, 2021
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A book that explores how work became the central organizational principle of our societies

Every year an estimated 128 billion bowls of Kellogg’s o breakfast cereals are fed into hundreds of millions of hungry mouths. The Kellogg’s brand is synonymous with a cast of cheerful spoon-wielding cartoon characters who grin from its packaging and commercials. None of these characters much resemble their founding ancestor, John Harvey Kellogg, a Seventh-Day Adventist with a rebellious streak, a passion for healthy living and a pathological hatred of anything to do with sex. An advocate for universal circumcision because he believed it might dissuade boys from masturbating, he invented a small range of breakfast cereals designed specifically to curb the passions of the patients who attended the Battle Creek Sanatorium, the vegetarian ‘wellness’ retreat he established in 1886.

His cereals were not intended to be particularly tasty. John Harvey Kellogg was of the view that spicy, rich and sweet food induced unwanted sexual urges but that plain food calmed them. Corn flakes, which he patented in 1895, were developed specifically as a sexual turn-off.

It turned out that Kellogg’s sanatorium patients liked his crispy cereals anyway. They were a welcome relief from the austere plates of unsalted vegetables they were served for their other meals. But John Harvey Kellogg wasn’t interested in commercialising his cereals. It was left to one of his adopted sons, Will Kellogg, who did not share his father’s puritanical views, to transform Kellogg’s cereals intoa globally recognised brand. He added some sugar to the old man’s recipes and then in 1906 began to mass-produce his cereals. He also added some sugar to the marketing campaign. To dispel any lingering idea that his product might curb his customers’ sex drive, his first big campaign for corn flakes encouraged young men to wink suggestively at pretty grocers.

Over the next forty years, Will Kellogg revolutionised food production in the United States. A serial innovator, he experimented with and applied all the latest trends in management, production and marketing, including Taylorism. By the 1920s, his company and its principal product was a household name in the USA and it would not take long before it expanded internationally.

When the Great Depression struck in 1929, Kellogg’s was already a big employer. At the time, its only real rival in the mushrooming breakfast cereal market was Post, who did what many other businesses still do in times of economic uncertainty. They cut back on all non-essential spending and took inventories of paper clips, staples and ink as part of the effort to maximise cash. Kellogg took a very different approach. He doubled his advertising and ramped up production. It was a successful strategy. It turned out that people liked to eat cheap, sugary, crunchy grains soaked in milk when times were hard and his profits soared while shareholders in Post learned not to hold their breath waiting for any dividends.

Kellogg did something else that was unusual. He cut fulltime working hours at his factories from an already reasonable forty hours a week to a comfortable thirty hours a week, based on five six-hour shifts. By doing this, he was able to create an entire shift’s worth of new full-time jobs in a period when up to a quarter of Americans were unemployed. It seemed a sensible thing to do for other reasons too. By the 1930s, American workers were already lobbying for shorter working hours after companies like Henry Ford’s had successfully introduced weekends and five-day weeks with no noticeable dip in productivity (if anything, there was an increase in profitability), and so Kellogg believed that his thirty-hour week was putting him on the right side of a historical trend. It turned out to be the right thing to do for Kellogg’s bottom line as well. Production-halting work-related accidents became far more infrequent, and his operating overheads declined so much that in 1935 Kellogg boasted in a newspaper article that ‘we can [now] afford to pay as much for six hours as we formerly paid for eight’.

Until the 1950s, the thirty-hour week remained the norm at Kellogg’s factories. Then, somewhat to the surprise of management, three-quarters of Kellogg’s factory staff voted in favour of returning to eight-hour shifts and a forty-hour week. Some of the workers explained that they wished to return to an eight-hour day because the six-hour shifts meant they spent too much time getting under the feet of irritable spouses back at home. But most were clear: they wanted to work longer hours to take home more money, to purchase more or better versions of the endless procession of constantly upgraded consumer products coming on to the market during America’s affluent post-war era.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, war-weary Americans set about building Chevrolet Bel-Airs instead of tanks, converting their accumulated munitions piles into nitrogen-based fertilisers, and repurposing their radar technology into microwave ovens. This nourished a newly reconfigured American dream set against a background of ice cream in the home freezer, TV dinners and fast-food-fuelled annual interstate vacations. Labour union membership was at an all-time high and the peace dividend from ‘the war to end all wars’ was nurturing an ever-expanding and more prosperous middle class.

This prosperity convinced John Kenneth Galbraith, the Canadian-born Professor of Economics at Harvard, that advanced economies like the United States’ were already suf[1]ficiently productive to meet the basic material needs of all their citizens and hence that the economic problem as defined by John Maynard Keynes had, more or less, been solved. He expressed this sentiment in his most famous book, The Affluent Society , which was published to great acclaim in 1958.

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( JAMES SUZMAN is an anthropologist specialising in the Khoisan peoples of southern Africa. A recipient of the Smuts Commonwealth Fellowship in African Studies at Cambridge University, he is now the director of Anthropos Ltd, a think tank that applies anthropological methods to solving contemporary social and economic problems. )

(Extracted with permission from Bloomsbury from ‘Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time’ -------------

Published on December 14, 2021

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