Reflecting on the Tired Existence of the American Worker: A Series
Self-starter. Works long hours. Sacrifices personal time in order to ensure company objectives are met. Willing to wear many hats.
The summary above reads like a standard job description. It even sounds eerily similar to how I’ve described myself in interviews. It’s from an article published in the 1950s citing a growing and disturbing trend of workaholics; even comparing it to alcoholism. The author describes a number of qualities that he thought were a marker of the decline of our values but are now considered essential in our modern workplace. As I read through the article, I found myself agreeing with many of the points made and wondering well, then how did we get here?
How did "doing what you love" become an emotional labor almost too tiresome to continue?
The Great Resignation has seemingly made a permanent residence in the cultural zeitgeist but the discussion following it didn’t really address the biggest failure of the movement. Workers were convinced that leaving one company for another would give them what they never found at their previous job – fulfillment. We’re told that our work is our purpose. But what happens when your purpose falls painfully short of expectations? And hustle culture, which touted itself as a solution to breaking free from the typical 9-5, just ended up offering a different sort of prison.
What would we be if we weren’t tired?
You have talents, interests and motivations so that you can sell them – in time and in labor. If we don’t have a job with an explicit moral purpose then we need one with an equally compelling motivator. And what’s a better human motivator than the belief that your work is making an impact? You can make a difference. Call it appealing to our ego, maybe our sense of altruism, but it’s an effective way to convince a workforce that they’ve found a higher calling. It’s like we’re the tired, run-ragged housewife who wears her absolute exhaustion as her purpose. She’s tired, sure, but what would she be if she wasn’t tired? It’s a question of our identity. What would we be if we weren’t tired?
It makes me reflect on our tired existence. What is it about the American work ethic and it’s undying devotion to toiling away our life? Our productivity has increased 430% since 1950 according to the US Bureau of Labor. So, you would think our work hours would be quartered now. They’re not. They’ve increased, which means that someone is profiting and it’s not the American worker. According to stats from the OECD, Americans work 435 more hours than Germans, 421 hours more than the Danish and 400 more hours than the United Kingdom yearly. All those hours aren’t benefiting us either. We don’t even crack the top ten quality of life rankings.
After all, to question our status – whether it’s useful work or useless toil – is a privilege.
It was Matthew Lord, a 19th century philosopher, who asked the question: Is work meant to be enjoyed or meant to be done? Is it useful work or useless toil? For most of us, it’s a question we think about luxuriously. After all, to question our status – whether it’s useful work or useless toil – is a privilege. And for that reason, we can never move past this attitude that it’s a silly question. It goes against so much of what we’re taught, which is that as Americans, hard work is a foundation of our national character. You can work your way to any station in life, so why question our relationship to work and how it affects every other facet of our lives? It’s why I believe we must uncouple our self worth and purpose with work.
So what’s the solution? Well first, it’s remembering that corporations will act like corporations. They won’t change unless the incentive for changing is stronger than staying the course. That’s how a business exists. Instead of ignoring this reality, we should be aiming for positive neutrality – a sort of realism – in our workplaces. It’s not the case against loving your job – it’s the case for realizing that a corporation does not and cannot love you back.
It’s not the case against loving your job – it’s the case for realizing that a corporation does not and cannot love you back.
But the times are changing. In our increasingly globalized culture, American exceptionalism is evolving in many ways, causing unexpected ripple effects. I’ll be writing about this change more in the next blog on our work culture and how it’s shifting with new generations.
Check out our case study with Cold Bore.