The limitations of the American work ethic
By William Deresiewicz
August 26, 2012
Go to a dinner party—especially, say, of young professionals—and you’re apt to find yourself in a game of competitive sleep deprivation. “I can barely get six hours a night.” “Six hours! I’m lucky if I can manage five!” Sleeplessness, of course, is a proxy here for work. This one’s in the office until 10. That one “complains” that he never gets a weekend off. Sixty, 70, 80 hours a week. Doctors duel with architects; lawyers square off against bankers; academics aren’t to be denied; businessmen insist they have it worst of all. Each is secretly proud of her predicament.
To every age its virtue. For the Greeks, courage; the Romans, duty; the Middle Ages, piety. Our virtue is industriousness, in the industrial age. (It is one that would have been incomprehensible to other times. The Greeks had a word for people who worked harder than anyone else: slaves.) It is the Protestant ethic, in other words, made general by the Victorians as the factories rose. That it is a virtue, not merely a value, is proved by the aura of righteousness that surrounds it. A virtue is not just a personal excellence, it is something that is felt to call down blessings upon the community, that wins the gods’ approval, that possesses not just practical but metaphysical worth. We’re in a panic, as a nation, that we don’t work hard enough, and blame this iniquity for our “decline.” God—the one who blesses America—is withdrawing his favor. Hence the sanctimoniousness with which the topic of work is approached. If you don’t work as hard as people think you should, you’re not just morally inferior, you’re committing a kind of spiritual treason. And if you deny the value of work as a matter of principle, you’re treated like a heretic.
That we’re dealing here with something like a national religion is proved by one of its most cherished articles of faith. If you work hard enough, the maxim goes, you can do anything. This is one of those notions that is so stupid it has to embody a deeply held belief. If you work hard enough, you can be a poet. If you work hard enough, you can play for the Knicks. If you work hard enough, you can become a brain surgeon, a model, the president. Obviously no one believes those things. That it doesn’t occur to anyone to consider them means we must be dealing with a matter of dogma.
Our students have absorbed the creed. “I worked really hard on this,” goes the common complaint. “I deserve an A.” Never mind the absurdity of this equation when projected out to a professional career. I worked really hard on this brief, Your Honor; I deserve to win the case. I spent a long time operating on your gallbladder; it’s really unfair that you’re not getting better. Meritocracy resists the fact of talent, because talent is not merited. Beauty, artistic ability, athletic gifts, big brains: these are all just things you’re born with, however much you may be able to develop what you’ve been given. Talent is undemocratic. Hard work is a choice. Why it is a choice we feel compelled to make—that is another question.
All Points will be off next week for Labor Day. Posts will resume September 10.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.