Saturday, January 03, 2009

Bring back the sabbath.

Hi everyone,

Saturday's column.

Bring back the Sabbath

Tired students and shredded wheat don’t lie

On the heels of my diatribe against video games, I want to suggest one more bit of old-fashioned political incorrectness. We need to bring back the Sabbath.

I just finished torturing my students with their end-of-semester final exams and I’ve noticed that more and more of them are working 40-hour weeks, some with mandatory overtime, in order to pay for their classes. Some of them are so tired that their grades are affected. It’s ironic that the work they do to pay for school often interferes with their ability to do well. And when they try to scale back their hours in order to study for finals, they get in trouble with their employers who want them to work extra hours as the holiday approaches. It looks like a no-win situation.

This isn’t easy for students, many of whom, nowadays, are working parents trying to earn a degree to get a better job to improve the lives of their kids. I started thinking, what if we made sure, somehow, that these people could take off at least one day a week to spend with their families, maybe study and, most of all, to rest?

“What would we call a weekly Day of Rest?” I asked myself.

We’d call it a Sabbath and I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a good idea. On March 2, a New York Times article suggesting America should reintroduce a “secular sabbath” made their most e-mailed list within hours of its appearance.

Technically, America can’t impose a religious Sabbath. The government can’t legislate anything that has to do with religion, but what if we had data available that justified a secular Sabbath on, say, economic grounds? Where would we look for such data? Funny you should ask.

Blue laws, laws designed to enforce moral codes – including a weekly Day of Rest – something the government is no longer in the business of doing, were first introduced into Connecticut in 1655 by Gov. Theophilus Eaton. I’ve lived places that had blue laws and they are restful. On Sundays, only the restaurants and grocery stores were open. Business people said these laws were nothing but a quaint leftover from simpler times and that Sunday shopping was too economically vital to ignore. Blue laws eventually went the way of the dodo.

But look what happened: Everyone works on Sunday now and no one is any happier. It turns out that money can’t compensate a person for time away from friends, family and the kind of rest you need to stay human.

Incidentally, things have gotten a lot worse over the years and here’s how much: Between 1969 and 1991 Americans increased their work hours by nearly a full month each year, 100 hours more per year for men and nearly 300 hours more per year for women. Today we work about 2,000 hours a year, or about 300 hours more than Europeans, six hours more per week on average. We even work longer hours than the Japanese. And for what?

More working hours means better productivity, right? More money and more jobs, right?

Not necessarily.

The classic counter example to the “more hours equals more productivity” argument is what happened at the Kellogg’s Company during the Depression. In order to help keep workers employed, the company cut everyone back to a 30 hour week. Contrary to expectations, productivity spiked, crime went down and kids learned more at school. People’s lives improved. Bickley Townsend at Cornell’s Employment and Family Career’s Institute reports it this way: “Five years into their experiment Kellogg’s overhead costs were down 25%, labor costs down 10%, accidents were down 41%, and 39% more people were working at the company. Workers in 1931 were packing 96 cases of shredded wheat biscuits per hour compared to 83 cases under the eight-hour day, a 15% increase in productivity over four six-hour shifts.”

Shredded wheat doesn’t lie. When people are rested, their productivity improves – not to mention their lives, their kids’ lives, and the life of their community. Why couldn’t we do something like this, especially now that companies are laying off workers left and right? Cutting back on hours would produce better economic results, happier workers and, most of all, a Day of Rest.

I always wonder how neoconservatives, who believe the market should regulate working hours (and, thus, chew up the working poor), overcome their religious conviction that everyone needs a day off? Maybe by characterizing society as a secular wasteland that deserves what it gets, while they sing happy psalms to themselves? Hmm.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I remember back in the '50's stores were closed. Only gas stations (before they were mini mart's) drug stores (when they only sold drugs), bakery and a "super" market were open on Sundays. But they were closed by 2 PM. Yes, Sundays were for church and visiting family and family friends. The evening was topped off watcing "Bonanza". With a little luck we would be at someones house with a color TV.