Jamie McCallum in Aeon:
Years ago, I set up a weekly Google Alert for the phrase ‘work ethic’ to help me gather material for the book I was writing. I have read thousands of these articles over the years. As individual stories, the alerts are only moderately interesting. A significant percentage of the pieces written in American newspapers and magazines that contain the phrase ‘work ethic’ are about sports, as star athletes are almost always routinely praised for their tireless practice-makes-perfect commitment. Others say the same about politicians, and a good portion are op-eds by elected officials or business leaders complaining about the pathetic state of the work ethic among today’s youth.
Taken as a whole, however, they illuminate a severe anxiety about a fundamental precept of the American civil religion. The work ethic is a tent-pole of national identity politics. Reading between the lines, across the media, or even just skimming the headlines, gives one the impression that we are a nation under attack. One national poll in 2015 found that 72 per cent of respondents said the United States ‘isn’t as great as it once was’. The principal culprit was the country’s declining belief in the value of hard work. More people thought ‘our own lagging work ethic’ was a larger threat to American greatness than the Islamic State, economic inequality, and competition with China.
Widespread anxiety about a diminished work ethic is confounding when considered against the actual data on how much time Americans spend working.