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The corn flake way to higher employment

A think tank suggests the U.K. adopt a 20-hour work-week to decrease unemployment. Think that sounds crazy? It worked for the Kellogg Co.


(Photo: Ben Bloom/Stone/Getty)

A think tank called the New Economics Foundation (NEF) believes it has a solution to the U.K.’s high unemployment rate: just divide up the available work.

The group, which plans to present its findings in London soon, believes if companies reduced staff shifts to just 20 hours each week, they could hire double the employees and better spread the work around.

Here are the problems NEF believes the 20-hour work week would solve: “Overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.”

Predictably, there’s been lots of criticism. Some experts say this works on paper, but not in practice. Others argue many workers are doing unpaid overtime to try to maintain some job security, and that there’s not enough incentive to change that system.

But the NEF findings sound not unlike the plan implemented by W. K. Kellogg during the Great Depression at the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company (now known as the Kellogg Co.). Kellogg, who was an Arabian horse breeder as well as the man who brought us cereals like Corn Flakes, changed the work process in his cereal plant to consist of four daily shifts of six hours each. This allowed him to employ more people and spread the work out more evenly among residents of Battle Creek, Michigan, who badly needed jobs. “I will invest my money in people,” was one of his most famous quotes. Thanks to this effort, and high advertising when most others were cutting back, the business thrived.

A devoted Seventh-day Adventist, Kellogg was also a philanthropist and had his own W. K. Kellogg Foundation, which he dumped over $66 million into over the course of his life. According to some sources, this would be the equivalent of more than $1 billion today.

So while critics of the 20-hour work week may have valid concerns about the lack of job and financial security this strategy affords people, it should be noted that sometimes when a company shares the wealth around a little like Kellogg did, it can improve both the lives of your employees and your bottom line.