The growth in production in the late nineteenth and early nineteenth centuries required growing markets and this meant expanding the consuming class beyond the middle and upper classes to include the working classes. Production between 1860 and 1920 increased by 12 to 14 times in the US while the population only increased three times. Supply outstripped demand and problems of scarcity were replaced by problems of how to create more demand.
By the early 1920s, when American markets were reaching saturation, ‘overproduction’ and lack of consumer demand was blamed for recession. More goods were being produced than a population with “set habits and means” could consume.
There were two schools of thought about how this problem should be solved. One was that work hours should be decreased and the economy stabilised so that production met current needs and the work shared around. This view was held by intellectuals, labour leaders, reformers, educators and religious leaders. In America and in Europe, it was commonly believed that consumer desires had limits that could be reached and that production beyond those limits would result in increased leisure time for all.
The opposing view, mainly held by business people and economists, was that overproduction could and should be solved by increasing consumption so that economic growth could continue. Manufacturers needed to continually expand production so as to increase their profits. Employers were also afraid of such a future because of its potential to undermine the work ethic and encourage degeneracy amongst workers who were unable to make proper use of their time. Increasing production and consumption guaranteed the ongoing centrality of work.
Keen to maintain the importance of work in the face of the push for more leisure, businessmen extolled the virtues and pleasures of work and its necessity in building character, providing dignity and inspiring greatness. In a best selling book, The Man Nobody Knows, Bruce Barton, like Luther, portrayed work as a spiritual activity and an end in itself. Other businessmen too promoted work as an “intrinsically rewarding experience that developed the personality and provided workers with a purpose in life and a place in the community”.
Economists too argued that the creation of work was the goal of production. John M. Clark, in a review of economic developments, stated: “Consumption is no longer the sole end nor production solely the means to that end. Work is an end in itself...” Creating work, and the right to work, he argued, had a higher moral imperative than meeting basic needs. Work was the foundation of social well-being and provided people with purpose and meaning. Others agreed, meeting basic needs was not enough, people needed to be working and progressing to a higher standard of living.