Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Why we're so obsessed with work

I recently read an article by Andrew Sullivan of The Dish called "America and the Protestant Work Ethic"
(  The article touches on a theme that's interested me for some time: the American obsession with work.  My interest stems from an ongoing disagreement with my husband (who is a Jamaican immigrant).  I've repeatedly complained about his obsession with making money.  He insists we're poor, even when I produce evidence that our combined income places us firmly in the top 50% of American families.  This isn't good enough, he tells me.  So in addition to his day job, he does some photography on the side.  He also buys various products, makes some improvements, and sells them for a profit.  Initially he bought and sold photography equipment - cameras, lenses, lights, backdrops, etc.  Lately, he's been buying and selling motorcycles and jet skis.

I have no problem with his extracurricular activities.  I complain only when the number of jet skis and motorcycles residing in our back yard approaches maximum capacity.  I then insist he sell some before buying any more.

My husband believes I too should take on some extracurricular projects for extra income.  I have absolutely no desire to do this.  And so, my husband complains about my lack of drive and ambition.  "You don't care if we're poor," he accuses.

My husband may not be American but he has definitely bought into the "American dream."  He came to the "land of opportunity" in order to prosper; that's exactly what he plans to do.

Which is why I so enjoyed Sullivan's article.  Sullivan recognizes that to understand the American relationship with work one must look to its origins.  Among the first European settlers in what is now the United States were religious minorities who sought a place to practice their faith without persecution.  They were mostly Protestants of various denominations - Puritans, Quakers, Lutherans, Calvinists, Mennonites (Anabaptists), etc. - although there were also some Jewish and Catholic groups.  Many of these religious groups abhorred luxury and extravagance, believing them symbols of sin, greed, and corruption.

For example, the "Rules of Discipline" from an early Quaker settlement in Philadelphia advises all followers to "keep out of the world's corrupt language, manners, vain and needless things and fashions, in apparel, buildings, and furniture of houses, some of which are immodest, indecent, and unbecoming."  It further cautions them to "avoid immoderation in the use of lawful things, which though innocent in themselves, may thereby become hurtful; also such kinds of stuffs, colours and dress, as are calculated more to please a vain and wanton mind, than for real usefulness."

They believed a Godly life was one of simplicity: hard work, frequent prayer, good deeds, and modest behavior were key.

As the original settlements expanded and a fledgling nation emerged, these beliefs became embedded in the American psyche.  A lot has changed in three hundred years.  Americans abandoned simplicity as an ideal long ago.  We are no longer a pious nation; our faith in God has been replaced with faith in capitalism, consumerism, and a free market economy.  As a people we have become less communal and more self-centered.  While we have discarded most of the values espoused by those early settlers, the "Protestant work ethic" remains an integral part of American culture today.

The Protestant work ethic was first introduced by Protestant theologian John Calvin.  According to Calvin, everyone must work because hard work is the will of God.  Today, this basic principle is reflected in the widely held beliefs that hard work leads to success and that the harder you work the more successful you will be.  It also lies at the very heart of the American dream: "freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and upward social mobility and can be achieved through hard work" (  This same creed explains America's widespread enmity towards recipients of "welfare" and other public assistance programs.  If hard work begets success then people who are not successful must not be working hard enough.  And those who are least successful must be downright lazy.

Never mind that the wealthiest Americans are not necessarily the hardest working ones.  Never mind that outside economic and social forces can leave destitute people who have worked hard their entire lives. Never mind that the American economy doesn't even have enough jobs to employ every able bodied American adult.  

Americans hold dear the value of hard work.  It is acceptable to neglect all other aspects of life in the name of work.  It is, in fact, a noble sacrifice.  We will never be criticized for devoting ourselves to work;  people will respect us for it.  Of course this has consequences.  Our lives lack balance.  We aren't happy.  We feel lost and unfulfilled.

But Sullivan thinks things may be changing.  He argues that current economic realities are challenging our Protestant work ethic.  I'm not convinced this is the case.  Cultural change is extremely difficult.  But if, as Sullivan asserts, things are changing then I for one say it's long overdue.  

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