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. The hours of all wage and salary workers rose 13 per cent from 1975 to 2016, a total of about five extra weeks per year. And there’s evidence that those of us still working through the pandemic are putting in longer hours than we were before. In addition to long hours, workers suffer from irregular schedules, volatile by design, that change at their employers’ whims. And there’s also the mass of the so-called involuntarily unemployed, constantly seeking, but not finding, enough work hours to survive. These three features – overwork, unstable schedules, and a lack of adequate hours – define the paradoxical time signature of the work life today, especially for low-wage workers. There was no simple across-the-board extension of work hours. Instead, the unequal redistribution of our labour time reflects deepening economic insecurity and social inequality. It’s easy to understand why people actually work, but given how odious and arduous it is, what sustains the belief that work is good for us?
How the work ethic became a substitute for good jobs – Aeon Essays: