Fun Ethic Vs. Work Ethic?

The transformation of labor since the creation of Labor Day a century ago tells, in many ways, the story of modern America. Paid labor was then all-consuming, generally backbreaking, done mainly by men, often dangerous and, of course, endless--that is, most men worked until they couldn't. In 1880, 58 percent of men 75 or older worked; the figure today is 8 percent. The factory workweek averaged about 60 hours, spread over six days. Sunday was a day of rest and prayer, but not really recreation.

Economic historian Stuart Bruchey has written: "By present standards the age of America's first Industrial Revolution must be regarded as callous in its relative indifference to the welfare and safety of workers. The unemployed worker was cast adrift. As a rule, there was no such thing as public relief, and private charity was either insufficient or offered only on demeaning terms. The risks of injury or death on the job were grievously high." From 1880 to 1900 about 35,000 workers died and 500,000 were injured annually in work accidents, he reports. This was in a work force between one ninth of today's (in 1880) and one fifth (in 1900).

It was the oppressive and precarious nature of employment that led the Knights of Labor to agitate in the early 1880s for an annual celebration that would honor the dignity of ordinary workers--a campaign that culminated with Congress's designating a national holiday in 1894. Since then, work has slowly become less demanding of our time and bodies. In 1998 there were 5,100 on-the-job deaths, a seventh of accidents outside the workplace. Although dangerous and degrading jobs remain, most of us trudge to offices, where the greatest threat is getting stuck in an elevator or, more seriously, developing a repetitive-stress injury. In factories, automation has reduced risks dramatically. Machines perform operations that once mangled hand and arms.

Similarly, a gradual explosion of leisure has completely changed how Americans think about their daily lives. It is no longer a simple rotation of work, sleep, eat. We now cram our days with TV, restaurants, shopping, soccer, PTA meetings and health clubs. Curiously, the poor may have benefited more from this than the wealthy, according to economist Dora Costa of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By her estimates, the lowest-paid 10 percent of workers in 1890 worked about two hours more a day than the richest 10 percent (11 hours versus 9 hours). A century later the best-paid 10 percent labored an hour more a day than the poorest-paid 10 percent (8.5 hours versus 7.5 hours).

Just what caused this reversal isn't clear. Perhaps the highest-paid workers and managers are also the most committed, passionate and besieged. Or they may feel pressured to stay longer to protect their positions. Whatever the explanation, work's burdens (if not benefits) have become more evenly distributed. And for everyone--including, now, the half of the work force who are women--expectations have broadened.

Jobs should not just improve our incomes, we think. Like candy and cars, they should also enhance psychic well-being. They should be gratifying and stimulating. Every Labor Day produces a pile of reports on the state of working America. Perhaps the most interesting this year comes from Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute, who has assembled public-opinion data on recent worker attitudes. Pollsters reflect public tastes and therefore ask questions like whether we feel our jobs have "importance to society," allow us "to influence decisions made at work" or provide agreeable friends. A century ago, had polling existed, questions would have been cruder: "Do you expect to die on the job?" Or "Do you make enough to feed your family?" In 1888 a typical family spent 45 percent of its budget on food; the comparable figure today is about 14 percent.

In many respects, the polls show remarkable stability. For example, 45 percent of workers report being "very satisified" and 44 percent "moderately satisfied" with their jobs, according the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. In 1972 the results were similar (49 percent and 37 percent, respectively). When Americans detest their jobs, they tend to quit. But there are hints of change. One survey asks "whether work is the important thing--and the purpose of leisure time is to recharge people's batteries so they can do a better job or... leisure is the important thing--and the purpose of work is to make it [leisure] possible." In 1975, 48 percent of respondents rated work as "the important thing" versus 36 percent for leisure. By 2000 the numbers had reversed--43 percent chose leisure and 34 percent work.

"It's the movement from the work ethic to the fun ethic," says Thomas Riehle of Ipsos-Reid, a survey firm. But, as Riehle notes, the work ethic is not collapsing so much as the boundaries between work and leisure are blurring--a combination that often produces stress and confusion. According to a new Ipsos-Reid poll, about 43 percent of workers say they bring work home or are "on call"; similarly, 30 percent admit using the Internet or e-mail at work for play or personal matters. Companies are now routinely expected to help workers balance family and job demands. There is some success. One poll in Bowman's collection finds that 47 percent of workers rated their companies as "very accommodating" and 33 percent as "somewhat accommodating" in reconciling job and family pressures.

The late economist Herbert Stein once attributed America's progress to the fact that "100 million people got up every morning to do the best they could for themselves and their children." The figure today would be about 140 million, but the appraisal was equally true a century ago, when workers numbered 28 million. What has changed is that work has become less manual and more mental, less regimented and more collaborative, and--as an activity--less economic and more social. To Stein, freedom was the key. It allowed people to strive to earn the most for themselves and be the most productive for society. Although this remains true, we have amended freedom to include some fun.