The American worth ethic

Like so many of our lofty ideals, the “American Work Ethic” is actually two different standards — one for the wealthy and one for the poor — with two different interpretations of what work looks like.

Getty / Collage by Katie Kosma

By Bryce Covert | Longreads 

“The American work ethic, the motivation that drives Americans to work longer hours each week and more weeks each year than any of our economic peers, is a long-standing contributor to America’s success.” Thus reads the first sentence of a massive report the Trump administration released in July 2018. Americans’ drive to work ever harder, longer, and faster is at the heart of the American Dream: the idea, which has become more mythology than reality in a country with yawning income inequality and stagnating upward economic mobility, that if an American works hard enough she can attain her every desire. And we really try: We put in between 30 to 90 minutes more each day than the typical European. We work 400 hours more annually than the high-output Germans and clock more office time than even the work-obsessed Japanese.

The story of individual hard work is embedded into the very founding of our country, from the supposedly self-made, entrepreneurial Founding Fathers to the pioneers who plotted the United States’ western expansion; little do we acknowledge that the riches of this country were built on the backs of African slaves, many owned by the Founding Fathers themselves, whose descendants live under oppressive policies that continue to leave them with lower incomes and overall wealth and in greater poverty. We — the “we” who write the history books — would rather tell ourselves that the people who shaped our country did it through their own hard work and not by standing on the shoulders, or stepping on the necks, of others. It’s an easier story to live with. It’s one where the people with power and money have it because they deserve it, not because they took it, and where we each have an equal shot at doing the same.

Because for all our national pride in our puritanical work ethic, the ethic doesn’t apply evenly. At the highest income levels, wealthy Americans are making money passively, through investments and inheritances, and doing little of what most would consider “work.” Basic subsistence may soon be predicated on whether and how much a poor person works, while the rich count on tax credits and carve-outs designed to protect stockpiles of wealth created by money begetting itself. It’s the poor who are expected to work the hardest to prove that they are worthy of Americanness, or a helping hand, or humanity. At the same time, we idolize and imitate the rich. If you’re rich, you must have worked hard. You must be someone to emulate. Maybe you should even be president.


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April 2019