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Has the American Work Ethic Gotten Worse?

Published: August 30, 2018

“It’s easy to see that America has lost sight of the virtues that comprise work ethic — the very things that helped build our country,” wrote David Schwabel in Forbes magazine.

It’s a common complaint among Americans. You hear it when we get lousy service in a restaurant, find our new appliance doesn’t work when they get it home, or spend hours on the telephone to speak to a customer service representative who can’t or won’t help us.

Have Americans lost their willingness to apply their noses to the grindstone, or to work hard for anything they get in life? That’s not what statistics show.

Right now, the average American works 34.2 hours a week, according to 2018 Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development statistics. But this is an average that counts part-time workers.

Adult Americans with full-time jobs work, on average, 47 hours a week — 90 minutes more than they worked a decade earlier, according to a 2014 Gallup poll.

We annually put in more hours, on average, than workers of most industrial nations:70 hours more than Japanese workers, 99 more than British laborers, and 424 more hours than Germans, according to that OECD study.

In fact, European workers find it funny that we work from home, respond to work emails and phone calls after hours, eat lunch at their desks or skip lunch altogether, and refuse to take paid vacation or sick leave.

We rack up this impressive number of hours because we still believe in the virtue of work. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey shows 75% of American workers still believe most people can succeed if they work hard — far more than workers in other countries. (Only 57% of British workers and 35% of Russians believe it.)

Perhaps this is why Americans are reluctant to excuse people from their jobs. All 40 of the leading industrialized nations provide some form parental leave for new parents, except the U.S.

America does not count itself among the more than 130 countries have set a maximum length of the work week, and we have no federal law requiring paid sick days or mandatory annual leave. Finally, American workers average 13 vacation days per year, whereas most western nations get 20.

Yet Americans remain highly productive. As measured by average contribution to the Gross Domestic Product, American workers produce, on average, $60.59 of goods and services every hour, the third highest rate among 20 leading nations, according to a 2011 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This is consistent with a tradition reaching back for generations. While new technology has greatly improved America’s productivity, our workers have also played a part by continually adjusting to changing job expectations and mastering new skills. As a result, productivity in the U.S. has risen 115% since 1950.

So if we’re still productive and still putting in the long hours, why do we feel that our work ethic is slipping?

It may have to do with the changing nature of American work. The majority of hiring is taking place in the service industry where wages are low and chances for advancement are few. Knowledge-based jobs, like computer programming, pay better but often require costly college degrees. Since 1988, the cost of a four-year degree at a public college has risen 213%, and student loan debt has more than doubled in the last decade, reaching an astronomical $1.3 trillion in 2016.

Meanwhile, wages have remained virtually unchanged. In 1964, the average hourly wage in America was $2.50. In 2014, it was $19.18 — an impressive difference until you adjust those numbers for inflation. Then the numbers show American workers are only earning $1.49/hour more than they did 40 years earlier.

In addition to hours worked, company loyalty has also been seen as a marker of a strong work ethic. But employee loyalty has eroded as companies have downsized their work force while some high-level CEOs are receiving multi-million dollar perks as part of their employment or separation package. Meanwhile, companies are cutting workers’ benefits or raising their insurance costs beyond affordability.

But What about Millennials?

The criticism of American workers has been even stronger when describing Millennials (generally considered those born between 1981 and 1996). Business owners claim they are hard to manage, and don’t apply themselves to the job.

But here, again, the statistics about their work habits and aspirations are contradictory.

For example, a 2010 Pew Research Center survey asked over 2,000 workers in the Silent Generation (pre-WWII), Baby Boom, Gen X, and Millennial age groups what was most important in their lives. Most Millennials (52%) replied “being a good parent.” “Having a high-paying career” fell in sixth place (15%). When asked what qualities distinguish their generation, Millennials were the only generation that didn’t include “work ethic” in their list.

Two other surveys, though, gave a different picture of Millennials. A study of 5,641 full-time workers in the Baby-Boom, Gen X, and Millennial generations who had jobs with paid time off found Millennials worried most about taking time off and being replaced. More Millennials (48%) wanted to be viewed as “work martyrs” than Gen Xers (39%) or Baby Boomers (32%). They were also more likely (25%) to leave paid vacation days unused at the end of the year that Gen Xers (19%) and Boomers (17%). Another survey at Alamo Rent A Car reported Millennials were much more likely (59%) to feel ashamed for taking or planning a vacation than workers 35 years or older (41%).

Over half of Millennials say they’re willing to “pay their dues.” (But 70% of older workers say that Millennials aren’t as willing as they should be.)

Do Millennials deserve their reputation of spoiled, lazy, immature workers? A study of four generations of workers, taken from 77 different studies, showed no difference in the industriousness between the generations.

So what will the future of the American workplace and Americans’ industry look like 10, 20 or even 100 years from now? Will we all be working 80-hour weeks in a series of strung-together part-time gig economy jobs, or will we find ourselves in a work-free heaven (or is it hell?) being served drinks by our robot butlers (or is it overlords)? All we do know is that when it comes to planning our future, there’s a lot of work to be done.

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  • Jennifer S Hurley

    My uncle was in an article of the June 16, 1951 issue of The Saturday Evening Post about African-Americans during the Korean War. How can I obtain a copy of the article/magazine? Thanks so much for helping me in my search for this lost treasure of family history.

  • Helen Dunn

    In the 1950’s there was a black and white PAN American coffee ad that featured a Fire Chief in 5 degree weather savoring a hot cup of coffee. He is my grandfather, now deceased for over 30 years.

    It was featured in an edition of the Saturday Evening Post. I’ve been searching for many years for hard copies of this ad. I know each of my seven siblings would love to possess a copy of their own. I would like to have each one framed and gift them this Christmas.

    Can you tell me how I might secure them?

  • William Hale

    Please help me with the date of a headline published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post I think in the late 1940s.The headline was “I fly with Death” and it referenced a story in that issue by W.D. Brown of Stephenville, Texas. He was a good buddy who introduced me to flying. He’d been medically discharged as a Air Force pilot because a motorcycle wreck left his right leg shorter, requiring him to wear a built up shoe with a very thick sole. However, it didn’t affect his flying ability. The “death” angle was that W.D. later took up crop dusting and a hazard for all crop dusters was that, when flying over the the fields they were spraying, they’d sometimes come upon power lines unexpectedly and more than one crop duster was killed when flying through power lines. Doug inspired me to take flying lessons and I had my own close scrape with death but the very inspiring story I can write for you is about my instructor, Betty Miller, who became the first woman to fly across the Pacific in 1963. Betty died several months ago at the age of 92. I have a very inspiring story I want to write for you about Betty, who received the FAA’s gold medal from JFK and the same year recevived the International Harmon trophy from LBJ after JFK’s assassination. Betty wanted her medals to go to the Smithsonian but my repeated efforts to get someone at the Smithsoian to recognize Betty have been rebuffed. The museum displays the pilot’s license of Amelia Earhart who died attempting the Pacific flight while it has no display honoring Betty’s achievement. I’m a retired editor of the L.A. Times with 25 years experience on “top 10” dailies. You wouldn’t have to pay me for the article — I would write it as a tribute to Betty, who also saved my life. Earhart was a so-so pilot but she couldn’t navigate. One story had it that her navigator got drunk and that’s why their plane disappeared over the Pacific. The story I believe is that Earhart chose a radio that wasn’t equal to her mission and miscommunication caused her and her nagigator to perish. Betty Miller was her own navigator; she flew from Oakland, CA, where Earhart started her flight, and Betty landed in Brisbane, Australia, looking fresh as a daisy. Earhart’s reputation was built up by her husband, a PR man. I’d like your help in getting a display in the Smithsonian honoring Betty. Her family would be very happy to turn over Betty’s medals and memorabilia to the museum.

  • Thanks for this insightful feature, Jeff. The socio-economics of how and why things are the way they are, are complicated. I completely understand why Europeans feel the way they do, and DO identify with their reasoning; despite the fact I fall into several of the categories myself, which I hate!

    The key paragraphs here are the 4 before the question of Millennials is asked. The bottom line is always money. The U.S. had an artificially tremendous economy following World War II (with much of the world in ruin) that was wonderful for 26 years (1946-1972) but was not sustainable past that for the average American.

    All the factors you mention really came into play after that, making this an economy of extremes. People who make SUCH obscene amounts of money, you’d swear they have to be printing counterfeit at home, to people having to work harder than ever for money worth less than ever, just to get by; to put it in a tidy box with a bow.

    Then there are all the “little things” that used to be easy and simple and are now a complicated ordeal that just leave you mentally and physically exhausted. Never being able to reach a person on the phone when you really need to, and could in the past, ranks really high.

    Add that to all the stress in this country otherwise, including the 24/7 mentality, no respect for sleep and downtime, the media bombarding us with messages to take it to the the limit, and more. I’ve got news for them, we’ve been doing this for years now, and things are a mess.

  • felicia Ellis

    I would like to view other comments.

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