Sam Haselby writing for Aeon has a good look at the hows and whys of America’s work ethic mythology, suggesting in part that we tend to think about the entire thing kind of backwards and so misconstrue what most of us might actually believe.
The economist Juliet Schor, however, found that workers have adjusted their expectations as work hours increased. On surveys, they reported satisfaction with their hours, despite reporting a preference for shorter hours in previous years. She concluded that workers ended up ‘wanting what they get’ rather than ‘getting what they want’. The work ethic, in other words, is a form of resignation, a product of defeat.
Attributing our exceptional work hours to an ideology woefully mistakes cause for effect. Ideology isn’t the driver of our lived experiences, but the product of them. Our ideological commitment to work is the result of incessant and repeated activity – literally doing our jobs day in and day out. And there’s nothing we do with as much regularity, intensity and unquestioned submission as work. We rationalise our quotidian experiences by shaping belief systems to accommodate them, not the other way around.
Haselby also gives a familiar refrain: that we’re compelled by “a need to prove ourselves as worthy citizens in capitalist society”, because “those deemed worthy – of benefits, rights, privileges, entitlements – are those who can show they do legitimate paid work […] and have therefore contributed to the state of the nation”. This is that intrinsic field I’ve talked about, guiding us both implicitly and explicitly to conform and perform—or else.
This is why earlier I was so taken by an eighteen-year-old piece by Sunny Taylor that talked about how the only way society has figured out how to make the disabled and the elderly productive is by converting them into mere “beds” for the nursing home industry.
In other words, we tell ourselves a story (as we do) to try to make some semblance of sense out of the cognitive dissonance that our lives do not actually match our needs; or our sense of worth our knowledge of our own innate, human value. Out of fear, we tempt overload and burnout, lest we be deemed to be of no use, and only good to be warehoused for someone else’s financial benefit or simply to be forgotten and abandoned to the elements.