The Corner

The American Work Ethic

For more than a century much of the world has marveled at the American work ethic and American productivity. How long will that continue?

Probably like most Corner readers, as a kid, when I wasn’t in school, I worked. Starting at age five, I began doing yard work and odd jobs for neighbors and local businesses. When I got a bit older, I got summer and after-school jobs (the latter when not involved in sports). Obviously, I had no skills, so most of the jobs involved manual labor, much of it fairly arduous.

On the occasions when I couldn’t find a job I became self-employed — painting houses, digging trenches, mowing lawns, putting up fences. Almost all of my friends had jobs or were self-employed also. Not working was a source of deep embarrassment. Once, the summer after eight grade, I had no work for maybe one to two weeks, and not for lack of effort (we typically began lining up summer jobs the preceding October and November). One of my best friends chided me for “being on welfare.” The statement stung so much — so profound was the stigma of not working — that we almost came to blows.

Is that changing? An observation: When I bought my house years back, two neighborhood boys appeared almost instantly to rake leaves, cut grass, paint the tool shed, etc.They worked hard and well — both after school and during breaks. When they moved away, another boy performed some of the same work for about a year.

For the last 20 years, however, no one’s asked to do any work, even though it’s clear to anyone in the neighborhood there’s work to be had. I’ve sought kids out who, it’s plain to see, have no jobs, but I have been largely unsuccessful. For example, I recently asked two teenage boys who’d spent most of the summer playing basketball at a nearby playground if they wanted to earn some cash doing some yard work. They promise to come over Saturday morning. Saturday arrives, no call, no show. I try again the next week. More promises, but again, no call, no show.

I’ve heard similar stories in recent years from lots of friends and employers. Yes, several anecdotes don’t amount to statistical evidence and I encounter hardworking kids all the time. But the expectation, the presumption of hard work doesn’t appear to be anywhere near as pervasive as in the past.

Is it more likely or less likely that this phenomenon will persist (or perhaps get worse) when much of the major media and an entire political party drives a narrative that productive Americans aren’t “paying their fair share”; when a president lauds a 26-year-old’s ability to stay on his parents’ insurance plan; when nearly 50 million Americans access foodstamps benefits with a slick-looking card; when unemployment benefits continue interminably; when government encourages citizens to access ”free” benefits; when stigma or shame attaches almost as readily to the productive as the non-productive?

Peter Kirsanow — Peter N. Kirsanow is an attorney and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

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