Not Lazier, but Softer: America's work ethic has not changed for the worse

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, New York Times, 10/11/2011

What has changed is the kind of work we do. We aren’t getting lazier but we are getting softer. More of us spend our workdays sitting behind desks or counters, exercising our minds and our fine motor skills but scarcely moving a large muscle group.

Read the Article >>

Subject: Thrift

More by: Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

America's work ethic has not changed for the worse. We still work longer hours, with less time off for vacations, sick days or family leave than workers in other advanced nations.

What has changed is the kind of work we do. We aren't getting lazier but we are getting softer. More of us spend our workdays sitting behind desks or counters, exercising our minds and our fine motor skills but scarcely moving a large muscle group.

It's easy to forget how physically demanding everyday work once was. America was built on backbreaking labor. It took muscle and sweat and mindless repetitive effort, day after day, in searing heat and brutal cold, to clear land, build bridges and roads and railroads, extract ore and oil, plant and harvest fields, dig canals and waterways. This was 5,000-calorie-a-day work, and much of it was done by African-American slaves, prisoners, hardscrabble farmers and successive waves of immigrants. Women and children, too, bent their bodies to the yoke of field and factory and grew old beyond their years.

Fewer Americans today lug things for a living. Even the military, firefighters, construction workers, day laborers and farm workers who do hard physical labor have heavy equipment and protective gear and robots to help them. As for the rest of us, there is little need to wiggle a muscle.

This is a mixed blessing. On the plus side, we are spared the pain and wear-and-tear on our bodies. We avoid the risks of serious injury on the job. We are protected from the elements. On the minus side, we become addicted to comfort. We lose confidence in our bodies' capacities. We suffer greater distress from physical hardship. We become a less hardy people.

As in the past, so it may be in the future – Americans will always look to a fresh wave of immigrants who are leaner, tougher, younger and more willing to sacrifice their bodies to do the work that we can't or won't do.

This article originally appeared here.

Follow

Institute for American Values, 420 Lexington Avenue, Room 1706, New York, NY 10170

212.246.3942