Why do Americans work so much? Five myths For Labor Day About The U.S. Work Ethic And Unions

This article first appeared on the History News Network.

1. 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."

2. 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.

Ford_assembly_line_-_1913 Workers on the first moving assembly line put together magnetos and flywheels for 1913 Ford automobiles, Highland Park, Michigan, 1913. Public domain

3.  The 40-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.

4. 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 hard working 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.

5. 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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