In Honor of Labor Day: The Top Five Myths About Work

Culture Watch


The Work Ethic Is Dead

This is true. The work ethic is dead. The myth is that its demise is a recent phenomenon. According to historians, the work ethic actually began dying in the middle of the nineteenth century and finally succumbed entirely by the 1920s. Two developments killed it. The first was industrialism, which made work dreadfully dull. Jewish glove makers in Chicago, Herbert Gutman found, grew morose and spiritless when the owner of the factory where they worked installed an assembly line. Nobody wanted to work all day sewing just one finger of a glove instead of the entire piece. At congressional hearings held in the 1880s clergyman R. Heber Newton noted that the industrial worker"makes nothing," and"sees no complete product of his skill growing into finished shape in his hands." Hence, the worker feels dejected and lifeless."What zest," he asked," can there be in the toil of this bit of manhood?" Add to this the fact that factories exploited many workers and you understand why workers suddenly weren't as thrilled with the work ethic as they once may have been.

A second factor in the death of the work ethic was the birth of consumerism in the 1920s."Want the good life?" businesses asked Americans. It's for sale! The goal in life then became living well not working hard. In the past one worked hard to gain the good life. Now one simply achieved it instantaneously by buying goods on credit. Loren Baritz reports that in the 1920s"$6 billion worth of consumer goods were bought on credit: 85 percent of furniture sales, 80 percent of phonographs, 75 percent of electric washing machines, and most of the vacuum cleaners, pianos, sewing machines, radios, and electric refrigerators."


Workers Are Often Lazy Because Unions Protect Them

Union rules designed to protect workers from exploitation sometimes do indeed lead to laziness. But business is mainly responsible for undermining the work ethic. While business extols the work ethic, so employees will work hard, it is business that created the"buy now, pay later" ethic that replaced the work ethic. (See Myth #1 above.) The great fear of business is not that workers will not work but that they will stop buying. The secret nightmare of every business person is that Americans will suddenly wake up and become scrimpers and savers. What are needed are spenders! Scrimping and saving (both associated with the work ethic) would spell ruin for the American economy.


The Forty-Hour Work Week Is Sacrosanct in American Tradition

Actually, a hundred years ago, according to historian Benjamin Hunnicutt, Americans hoped that the people of the future -- us! -- would be toiling far fewer hours, if we had to work at all. The reality is we are more committed to the forty hour work week than they were. Undoubtedly, our great grandparents would be shocked to learn we work nearly as many hours on average as they did. Indeed, they seem more committed to the ideal of a reduced work week than we are. From the 1830s to the 1930s one of the prime objectives of the labor movement was reducing the hours spent working. But for seventy years, since the end of the Great Depression, labor unions haven't advocated a shorter work week. Nobody today would advance the proposal for a 14 hour work week as some reformers did at the turn of the last century. During the Depression the U.S. Senate even passed a bill mandating a 30 hour work week--an unthinkable measure today.


Immigrants Always Worked Hard

Immigrants, to be sure, wanted to get ahead. But historian Roy Rosenzweig has shown that at least in Worcester, Massachusetts in the 1880s immigrants nursed suspicions about the work ethic and expressly rejected the middle class goals of home ownership, thrift, and punctuality. Instead they built their culture around the local watering hole, where they could create powerful bonds of community. Drinking actually was an American tradition. After the Revolution Americans drank more than any other people on earth save for the Swedes. That alone makes one wonder just how hardworking our ancestors were. Research indicates that in 1820 Americans drank enough distilled spirits to supply every man, woman and child with five gallons of booze annually. Hard to believe they got in a full day's work six days a week while high on all that alcohol.


Parks Are for Relaxation After a Hard Day at Work

Fine to relax while at the park, but reformers championed the building of the urban garden oasis as a means of improving the people who lived near them, particularly the poor and immigrants. The great Frederick Law Olmstead, creator of New York's Central Park, claimed that parks would divert the"rough element of the city" from"unwholesome, vicious, destructive methods and habits" of recreation (that is, sex, drinking, etc.). Henry Ward Beecher predicted parks would inspire the poor to have"gentle thoughts." One city official predicted that parks could cut prostitution by 98 percent.

It didn't turn out that way.

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Jeffery Ewener - 9/3/2007

A good chuckle and very thought-provoking. And you could say much the same about the apoplectic reactions too!

More, please!

Jason Blake Keuter - 9/3/2007

YES! VEry well put - the work ethic refers to doing things that are unpleasant and thus its death is a welcome sign that there are fewer unpleasant things to do.....and a sign that those who champion the work ethic are the miserable seeking company.

Jason Blake Keuter - 9/3/2007

the work-ethic (I guess this means constantly working really hard) did die with Industrialization because capitalism made work so much more productive and EASY!

The idea that industrialization destroyed wholesome work that produced beautiful goods is a marxist myth that proves that when you scratch a marxist you find a medievalist. Work prior to capitalism was dreary, backbreaking and doing it constantly was necessary just to maintain a precarious position somewhere near a subsistence.

Yes, people don't work as hard as they used to and thank god for it.

How the union myth turned into a rant about capitalism needing consumers and thereby creating an impatience ethic that directly undermines the work ethic (which is sacrosanct in this article for some reason) can only be explained by the ideological bias of the author.

I smell a work camp.....the work ethic (work for the sake of working) does not even belong in the realm of ethics. In countless instances, it leads to waste, and if the capitalists are undermining it, THANK GOD FOR CAPITALISTS!

If toil begets good and you wish to toil, then be my guest. Proponents of the work ethic, however, are usually people frustrated by the self-inflicted repression that accompanies their useless toil (can you say over frequent footnoting?) and even more bothered by the site of those who don't seem to be practicing believers in the work-ethic (can you say students?) but yet seem to have such a better life...so...what to do with all this frustration?

1. Console yourself with bitter vindictive fantasies about ultimate immiseration: just wait 'til the big bad wolf comes and blows your frat house away! You will be too flabby to make a life from yourself amongst the rubble! (It is here that the thin line between socialism and fascism is erased)


2. Wear your work ethic on your sleeve as a sign that you are among the elect, immune from the machinations of the consumerist order and thus destined to go to heav.....oh wait, can't say that...

Carl Dyke - 9/5/2005

Just a clarification: work that is in itself fulfilling requires no 'ethic' to motivate it. So I am not impressed by the work ethic of people who love their work, although I admire their lives. Coerced work is not ethical either, obviously. Work 'ethic' only comes into play for optional unpleasant work that would otherwise be neglected.

Of course, one may perform fulfilling or coerced tasks with greater than necessary attention to quality, and this would be an added ethical dimension to such work. But again, this is optional and needs to be considered separately from the basic task.

Josh Narins - 9/2/2003

Three Cheers for the Bottle!

Benjamin Franklin was considered a "good worker" because he actually showed up on ALL Mondays, rather than just the ones where the weekend's hangover didn't cause a "St. Monday"

Similarly, Franklin was considered diligent because he was not drinking beer from lunchtime onwards, on the job.

I'm all for increasing the drinking age to 24 (the age at which, most recently, Science declared some brain development issues would still arise) but I still think people ought to drink more, and form communities in "spirit."


Jesse Lamovsky - 9/1/2003

The HNN staff, not surprisingly, blames the growth of "consumerism" on businesses that supposedly encourage people to spend their way into debt.

"The secret nightmare of every business person is that Americans will suddenly wake up and become scrimpers and savers. What are needed are spenders! Scrimping and saving (both associated with the work ethic) would spell ruin for the American economy."

Aside from the presumption that they can peek into the thoughts of entrepeneurs, the writers are wrong about the causes of credit-spending in the U.S.

Business is not responsible for the trend of credit-spending. The blame lies at the feet of the politicians and Keynsians who run the Federal Reserve, and flood the country with cheap paper money while constantly tinkering with interest rates in an effort to "stimulate" the economy. And how would high rates of savings, which enrich the individual saver, strenghen banks and increase the value of the money in circulation, be a bad thing? I doubt capitalists feel this way.

NYGuy - 9/1/2003


Good response. Millions of New Yorker's and visiters who go to "Olmstead's" Central Park during the day, after work and on the weekends to play ball, run, bicycle, fly kites, swim, read, relalx, etc. as well as enjoy concerts and opera's in the park, watch Shakespeare in the park and visit the animal attractions there. These are activiies that are repeated in many parks in the other NYC boroughs as well as many other parks around the country. Olmstead's vision was one of the great achievements for NYC, and our country, and not only made real estate values around the park some of the highest in the world but also achieved his goal of giving workers a special place to interact with people of all levels of income and backgrounds.

Dave Thomas - 9/1/2003

If the work ethic is dead then why does worker productivity continue to rise at historically unprecedented rates? Does the author credit machines and not human beings for this?

Do the students in my classes who take a full academic load while they work 20-30 hour weeks have no work ethic?

Do Unions control the work ethic of their members? You can't blame a union for poor performance, but they always get credit for good performance? Balderdash!

What adult works only a forty hour week? Less than fifty percent of the American work force. We do so by choice because we want to build something. America does not value leisure at the turn of the twenty-first century the way Americans did at the turn of the twentieth century.

The idea that parks "improve" people is simply elitist rhetoric. People determine the value and use of parks, and "personal improvement" is not determined by those of us who occupy ivory towers on manicured campuses.

Parks are social centers that the author obviously does not feel deserve his patronage. He hasn't seen relatives show up at 7 AM to save picnic tables for a birthday party at noon because average Americans do use parks to relax and enjoy ones anothers company in a crowded urban enviroment.

In the twenty-first century individuals will own their own labor, not corporations or unions.

James Wilson - 9/3/2002

I disagree vehemently that the work ethic is dead. I agree with Mr. Kates that the idea that it was ever remotely universal is a much larger myth than that it is now dead. There are plenty of people right now who take great pride in their work, even when it is dull or repetative. My own work is dull and repetative most of the time--I babysit servers, a lot of servers. I WANT it to be dull because then my customers will be happy. I WANT my customers to be happy because then I'm helping to pave the way for hard-core solid data centers that can be the basis for replacing banks, government bureaucrats, etc. Would I be just as proud if I were working on cars or making nails in an assembly line? Who knows? Perhaps I would come up with a good reason to enjoy what I was doing--nails build houses for families to live in, cars cause global warming and this world is just too darn cold. Since I am not an academic and do not have layers of insulation to protet me, I run into people constantly who believe in "the" work ethic and do what they're doing with as much skill and pride as they can muster. Even the kids at McDonalds occasionally displays that kind of integrity. In my estimation that is what work ethics really comprise--honesty. Honest day's work for and honest day's pay and all that. I respect anyone who gives the former or the latter. I have no respect for complainers and the destructively lazy. Consumerism is faulty as a bugaboo, since it wasn't recently invented and is the basis for all commerce in all epochs of the world. The dull work that Mr. Kates mentions has always been with us, and has been removed in many ways to be replaced with other dull work that makes a lot more money. I'll take the money, thanks, and the commodities it buys. If my work isn't enjoyable every second, at least there's only 12 hours of it each day.

don kates - 9/2/2002

The leading explanation (historian Roger Lane's) of the great de- cline in violent crime in western societies since the 16th Century is that the industrial revolution reshaped the general population into a disciplined work force sharing a vision of a better life to be accomplished through hard work. If so, it is scarcely surprising that 1880s immigrants (who were largely from lands that had little industrialization) were undisciplined and dubious about the vision which industrial work would eventually give them. But that certainly does not make the notion that they came to work a myth.
Nor can I see any relevance to that "myth" of the assertion that late 18th/early 19th Century Americans (NOT immigrants) were very heavy drinkers.

don kates - 9/2/2002

Myth 2 is that union job protection makes workers lazy. Assuming I knew whether this is true (and surely it is true to SOME extent -- question being is it a significant extent) it would still be irrelevant for me to address that. It would be irrelevant for you have not done so. Your discussion of boss-inspired consumerism says NOTHING about whether workers are lazy (or more lazy than they were before unions) or about the effects of unionization at all.

don kates - 9/2/2002

Unfortunately this article is a potpourri of unexamined premises and unsubstantiated assertions. Myth # 1 (part 1) posits an unexamined -- indeed, unstated -- premise: before the mid-19th Century people just LOVED to work, and took great pride in their work; and proceeds w/ the unsubstantiated assertion that as of the 1920s at the latest they no longer did.
WHICH people are you talking about? Perhaps Benevenuto Cellini, Caravaggio, and other artisans at that level loved to work and took pride in their splendid accomplishments. Perhaps some women who made clothes and/or food for their families enjoyed that part of their working lives and took pride in it. But do you seriously suggest they felt the same about sweeping earthen floors or work- ing butter churns? Did blacksmiths just love to shoe often-recal- citrant mules or horses? Did millers love to grind flour and har- ness makers take great pride in their harness? Did fletchers love to make arrows, and gunsmiths love to shape bullets, both being tremendously proud about how indistinguishable each of their products were from one another? Did farm workers love to muck out stables and plow or harvest for endless hours each day?
Doubtless some people did enjoy their work and/or were proud of it. But if you are contending the percentage who did so exceeded the current precentage, I would like to see some evidence.
Your attitude is reminiscent of the 1950s/60s when ivory tower intellectuals came up w/ the idea of "work enrichment" -- workers will be happier if they have more intellectually demanding tasks. Business spent BILLIONS redesigning assembly lines to be more de- manding, thereby only angering workers whose interest was in being paid more, especially if they were being required to work harder.
Myth 1 (part 2) asserts that the work ethic was "replaced" by the "consumption ethic" in which ordinary people were re-oriented to spend their money on consumer goods. Since you never define work ethic I assume that equates to Weber's theory of the Protestant Ethic. But the Protestant Ethic did not exalt hard work in and of itself. The basis of the Protestant Ethic was that to become rich was a positive sign of God's favor. Thus the 18th Century Dutch burgher w/ a gorgeous house and acre after acre of valuable tulip acerage was displaying proof of God's favor. Assuming the theory was ever valid, it is as applicable today to upper middle class and upper class families w/ gorgeous homes and Mercedes Benzs and boats. If we doubt that modern strivers and achievers are motiv- ated by the Protestant Ethic, that may be reason to doubt that the Protestant Ethic ever worked. It is certainly not evidence that work motivation has changed from the past which your essay fails to examine. In any event, the Protestant Ethic seems little relevant to the great majority of ordinary people in the past.