Is There Really An “American Work Ethic”? (EP. 332)

We do not have a widespread American Work Ethic. Lack of choices has led us to working. That is the subject of today's 10 minute episode.
We do not have a widespread American Work Ethic.


A discussion that’s in the news recently centers around the question of whether current government largesse is eroding the American Work Ethic. My question is whether the flood of government money is exposing the lack of a work ethic, and not eroding one that supposedly exists.

That is the subject of today’s 10 minute episode.


Today’s topic was triggered by the question of whether the “American work ethic” is being eroded by stimulus spending, including enhanced unemployment, personal stimulus checks and general government largesse. My conviction is that the so-called American work ethic is not nearly as pervasive as we might like to think. Much of the push to become and stay employed has come from not having a whole lot of options. The choice used to be that if you want to live at all well, you had to work. Then something called the social safety net came into being. Government unemployment benefits first appeared in 1932, followed by Social Security with its very modest start in 1935. The Federal Food Stamp program was added in 1936. These programs provided bandaids for the poor; one still needed to work. No choice. Together these programs were not a safety net; they would barely break a fall. Today, the myriad local, state and federal government assistance programs provide a true safety net. 

But a safety net in the circus, or wherever an act is performed, does not allow the act to go on; it simply saves the performer from injury–or worse. If the performance is to continue, the performer must leave the security of the net, regroup, and continue on. Today’s social safety nets are not designed to allow people who can perform their work to take more than a required respite. Safety nets are exactly that–devices that provide a needed rescue. They are not the performance itself. No one would go to see performers fall into their nets and just stay there. And no society can long endure with people seeing safety nets as the reason that they do not need to perform.

Today, these safety nets are expanding, with many additions that have nothing to do with rescue or relief. Offering free college is not a safety net. Paying people as much or more not to work is not a rescue. And now there is growing talk about giving people money or a regular basis for simply existing. It is called a Universal Basic Income (UBI); a fancy name for free taxpayer money on a regular and guaranteed basis.

We will not know if there is an American work ethic on anything like a widespread basis until there are sufficient taxpayer funded alternatives to work to make the love of working and contributing, or at least a strong sense of personal responsibility, the core reason for being productive. If someone does not have options to working for money, then more base motives, e.g., hunger and fear of being disgraced, can be enough to keep a person working. That is not a work ethic. That is simply a reaction.

How many times have we heard of people who worked for, say, 40 years, hating their jobs while waiting to retire. Only to get sick, go broke, or die within 5 years of retirement? Did someone like that have a strong work ethic, or were they merely putting in their time and paying the bills until they could quit? This question can only be answered by knowing the intent of the worker. Why is he working? Is he putting in his time, grumbling and living for his time off? Or is he productive, looking for ways to get better, and setting a good example for his family and others?

Absent being able to read minds, we can get the answer only if work is no longer needed to provide for a decently comfortable life. Then those who continue to dig in and be productive will have demonstrated a real work ethic. Those who do not, will not have been “robbed” of their work ethic by an overly generous government; they never had a work ethic in the first place. They were just grinding and grumbling.

Today, we have an abundance of jobs, and few job takers. That’s at least a strong clue supporting the view that we do not have an American Work Ethic. Unfilled job openings hit a record of 8.1M in March. Eight Million. And if anything, there are more job openings now. As of May 7th, job postings were at a seasonally adjusted 23% above their February 2020 level.

Part of having a work ethic means going to work whenever possible to avoid having to be on any type of government support. In the past, there was not enough welfare to make that a realistic choice. Today, there is a choice; those with a work ethic will continue to work, those without one will not. Yes, even with “enhanced” unemployment meaning that one might get as much or more from not working than getting up and going to a job, people with a work ethic will get up and go to work. They feel the personal responsibility not to take taxpayer money unless absolutely necessary. And they realize, more selfishly, that only by working, doing a consistently good job and being recognized, can one advance. 

The forces that continue to make the no-work choice more attractive are determined and active. Those wanting to raise starting wages past $15, have turned around the observation that many people are not motivated to work because with the “enhanced” unemployment money they are making too much money being unemployed. In a Kafka like twist of logic, their response is to have employers pay even more in wages than the enhanced unemployment. At that point, the same logic would lead to further enhancing unemployment, again arguing for employers to pay even more than that. This electric Jacob’s ladder of unemployment and wages would continue until, like all such ladders, it arcs out and starts at the bottom again.

Today’s Key Point: We do not have a widespread American Work Ethic. Lack of choices has led us to working. That is not work ethic; that is simply having no choice. As alternatives to work increase rapidly, offering real alternatives to work, we will need to develop a work ethic, to develop the American Work Ethic that many of us think we have. The alternative is to return to the days of Roman Bread and Circuses, where the wealthy and powerful buy off the unemployed masses with food, other freebies, and entertainment.

Where do you stand? What are you going to do? Remember, it does not matter where you stand if you don’t do anything. 

As always, whatever you do, do it in love. Without love, anything we do is empty. 1 Corinthians 16:14


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Will Luden, coming to you from 7,200’ in Colorado Springs.

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