America And The Protestant Work Ethic


It’s struck me that there is an underlying anxiety to several of our current debates on economic and social issues. That anxiety is that the American work ethic – unparalleled in the developed world – is under threat. That’s the real critique of Obamacare – as opposed to the mendacious “two millions jobs lost” line. A reader writes about his own experience:

My job for the past 20 years was recently eliminated. I am 63 and originally planned to work until at least 65 for one reason: Health Insurance.

If I had to enter the old insurance market at my age, with pre-existing conditions, it would be unaffordable and I would have had to look for work that offered insurance. With the ACA, I can afford health insurance until I am 65, and for that reason I have decided to retire rather than look for work. That provides an opening for someone younger to get a job I might have taken. And I get to enjoy an earlier retirement, spend some of my money on things other than insurance, and be one less person competing for a good paying job. A win-win for the country in my eyes.

Hard to argue with that – but it does mean a relaxation in the work imperative – and that’s worth debating. Or I think of myself – a small business owner with serious pre-existing conditions (HIV, chronic asthma, mild depression). Until Obamacare, it was unthinkable for me to be unemployed at any point, because of the health insurance issue. I was always terrified of losing access and being bankrupted by treating a disease I could not get insurance for. Now (if I were not neck-deep in Dishness) it’s conceivable. I feel empowered by the ACA not to work if I choose to and have the savings to take a break. There are a zillion different scenarios in which the guarantee of health insurance removes the absolute necessity of working if you have some savings to fall back on.

Or think of our debate about social mobility and inequality. With wages stagnant for most Americans since the mid 1970s, and hard, often back-breaking work failing to provide real gains in income, doesn’t the logic of the work ethic get attenuated? Isn’t it also affected by your knowledge that many people at the very top of the pyramid rake in unimaginable dough for working far less hard than your average teacher or healthcare worker? And isn’t the vast accumulation of wealth among so few itself a contributor to the decline in the work ethic, since it provides so many dependents with such easy, unearned cash? It’s not just the left that has created these disincentives. Global capitalism has done its part as well.

Or take the issue of marijuana legalization. One strong thread in the opposition is the fear that we’ll all stay on the couch, binge-watch Netflix and sleep in late, while the Chinese eat our lunch. And it’s strongest among those who experienced the American dream – the over-60s – than among those for whom it seems like a distant memory – the under-30s. And then there is immigration reform. Isn’t there an obvious, if unstated, cultural fear here that Latino culture is less work-obsessed than white Protestant culture (despite the staggering work ethic of so many Latino immigrants)? Beneath the legitimate concerns about border enforcement and security – which Obama has beefed up beyond measure, by the way – there is an anxiety that the core identity of America might change. We might actually begin to live more like Europeans do. Heaven forfend.

At the core of this is a real debate about what we value in life, and what makes life meaningful.

And that’s a real debate we need to have more often and more publicly. Work is an ennobling, mobilizing endeavor. It is our last truly common denominator as Americans. But what if its pre-eminence is unavoidably weakened by unchangeable economic forces? What if the accumulation of wealth through work is beginning to seem like a mug’s game to more and more, trapped in a stalled social mobility escalator? Why wouldn’t people adjust their values to fit the times?

I have to say I feel conflicted about this. I’m a pathologically hard worker, and for me, the American dream remains not only intact, but still inspiring. I believe in work. I don’t want the welfare state to be a cushion rather than a safety net. At the same time, it seems to me that as a culture, we have a work ethic that can be, and often is, its own false idol. The Protestant work ethic we have, for example, is the imperative for industrious striving, self-advancement and material gain. It is emphatically not about being happy. And at some point, if those two values are not easily compatible, something will give.

And would it be such a terrible thing if exhausted American workers were able to take real vacations of more than two weeks a year; or if white-collar professionals could afford to take a breather in mid-career without worrying about their health insurance; or if 63-year-olds like our reader could actually enjoy two more years of leisure at the end of their careers? Would it be so awful if more Americans smoked pot and were able to garner a few more moments of chill and relaxation rather than stress or worry? How damaging would it be if a little Catholic, Latin culture mitigated the unforgiving treadmill so many of us are on?

As I say, I’m conflicted on this. I struggle every day with a saner balance between work and life, and work has consistently won. But the older I get the more I treasure not the money but the time I spend on this earth. I weigh the benefits of incessant work against the new friends I never make, the books I never read, the vacations I find hard to take, the empty afternoons that make life worth living. And, as in any individual life, the life-work balance needs adjusting over time in a society as a whole.

At what point, in other words, is the pursuit of material wealth eclipsing the pursuit of happiness this country was founded to uphold? Is the correction against the Protestant work ethic a destruction of the American values – or actually a sign of their revival after a period of intense and often fruitless striving? I suspect the latter.

(Photo: Max Weber, 1917)