Field workers harvest cantaloupes on the outskirts of Maricopa County near Aguila, Arizona, on 29 July 2020. Photo by Ed Kashi/Vii/Headpress


The tyranny of work

Jobs have become, for so many, a relentless, unsatisfying toil. Why then does the work ethic still hold so much sway?

by Jamie McCallum + BIO

Field workers harvest cantaloupes on the outskirts of Maricopa County near Aguila, Arizona, on 29 July 2020. Photo by Ed Kashi/Vii/Headpress

When Andrew Russell became a teenager, he took the first job he could get. Late in the Nebraska summer, he walked through the long corn rows in muddy fields detasseling seed corn. He often worked into the hours when the sun perched on the horizon, sending light right through the rows, dancing off the husks and into his eyes. Removing the tassels, the pollen-producing tops of corn stalks, can increase the yields that would otherwise occur through open pollination. As only the most advanced industrial farms have automated the task, it’s mostly done the old-fashioned way – by children, a gentle reminder that the past is still with us. It’s therefore often seen as a rite of passage into adulthood by families throughout the rural Midwest. But Russell didn’t care much about how he was seen; he was doing it for himself.

‘I knew I had to make something of myself,’ he said, ‘and I thought work was how you did it.’

He had grown up watching his parents work hard but never get ahead. His mother was the cage manager at a casino on an Indian reservation just outside Chadron, Nebraska. His father hung drywall and worked on cars even though he received social security for as long as Russell can remember. For the youngest of four siblings, money, time and resources didn’t exactly trickle down.

In high school, Russell compared himself to those who had more, and began taking steps to make sure his needs and aspirations were fulfilled. He apprenticed as a car mechanic and trimmed trees as a landscaper. As a general labourer on construction sites, he laid stucco and concrete, and hung drywall like his dad. And, of course, he flipped burgers at McDonald’s. Though he clearly didn’t lack a work ethic, his options were limited to manual labour and low-wage work. As time wore on, Russell found himself drawn to other ways to make fast money. He wanted to be self-sufficient and didn’t enjoy the pace or monotony of low-wage jobs. He dabbled on the black market, stealing and selling phones, cigarettes and cars. Eventually, he began dealing methamphetamine.

Meth ravages your teeth and skin. And then it kills you. But it was, compared with his other gigs, a growth industry. When Russell was selling it, more Nebraskans sought help for meth-related health issues than at any time in the state’s history. It was especially popular and potent in places such as Chadron, where Russell lived in a trailer with his then-girlfriend, hundreds of miles from the urban centres of Lincoln and Omaha.

‘It was good times and good money,’ he said. ‘Then my luck ran out.’ Russell was busted in what he thinks was a set-up, but he’ll never know.

He was remanded to the Work Ethic Camp (WEC), a medium-security prison northwest of McCook, Nebraska, where he faced a three-year sentence on two counts of drug trafficking. In 2000, McCook lost its competition with the city of Tecumseh to build a medium- and maximum-security prison there. Instead, they were given the WEC, a facility designed to lighten the burden of the state’s overcrowded prisons, and locals refer to it as their ‘consolation prize’.

Originally designated the ‘Incarceration Work Camp’, the name was changed to reflect the unique educational programming it offers. Those incarcerated there are parole-eligible only after successful completion of a programme that offers a chance to ‘re-enter their home communities from WEC with a practised routine work schedule, experience in teamwork, and a positive work ethic’. According to a report by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, this includes cognitive modification treatment that practitioners say can lead to ‘more appropriate behaviour’, and a class that ‘concentrates on changing the criminogenic thinking of offenders’. Combined with ‘Intro to Business’, the entire curriculum focuses as much on the mindset of the inmate as it does on skills and workforce readiness.

‘It’s just as important to believe in work as it is to do it,’ said another person I spoke with, who was also incarcerated there. ‘It’s a jail, but it’s also a school,’ adding that he worried this might sound like an oxymoron. ‘Prisons give life lessons,’ he stressed. ‘And there’s nothin’ more important than learning to work.’

Russell wasn’t similarly convinced: ‘My perspective of jobs while I’ve been incarcerated is that it’s all pointless. They expect us to work and slave away for a petty amount of money … The worker’s mind isn’t much different from the criminal’s mind. They’re just different approaches to making money. I would know.’ Russell estimated he worked an average of 30-40 hours per week in the canteen at WEC, plus some occasional time building houses in the community or cleaning up on the shoulders of local highways. According to a WEC spokesperson, most jobs pay $1.21 per day, in order to incentivise a positive work ethic. If there was a formula for obliterating the work ethic, giving people undesirable jobs with long hours and barely paying them sounds exactly like it.

Years ago, I set up a weekly Google Alert for the phrase ‘work ethic’ to help me gather material for the book I was writing. I have read thousands of these articles over the years. As individual stories, the alerts are only moderately interesting. A significant percentage of the pieces written in American newspapers and magazines that contain the phrase ‘work ethic’ are about sports, as star athletes are almost always routinely praised for their tireless practice-makes-perfect commitment. Others say the same about politicians, and a good portion are op-eds by elected officials or business leaders complaining about the pathetic state of the work ethic among today’s youth.

Taken as a whole, however, they illuminate a severe anxiety about a fundamental precept of the American civil religion. 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?

Tracing the history of an idea requires finding the headwaters of the stream. One reason the work ethic idea has such a hold on us is that it’s typically seen not only as a social good but as a primordial ideology, an idea so essential and pervasive that it has no outside root and no historical precedent. An industrious spirit is typically considered to be a natural component of our cultural DNA, an inherited trait from ancestral Protestants. Or, as the handmaiden of capitalism, it has built a sturdy foundation in our national character. From this perspective, long hours make sense.

There’s nothing we do with as much regularity, intensity and unquestioned submission as work

But it’s a common misconception that our comparatively long work hours are the result of a uniquely American belief system. Americans worked fewer hours than Europeans at mid-century. At that time, public opinion surveys showed that both groups espoused a belief in the value of hard work with equal intensity. Today, Americans work many more hours – about eight hours more than Germans, and six hours more than the French, per week – and endorse the work ethic at higher levels, including low-income workers and the unemployed. Younger workers today, the ones often maligned as lazy and entitled, believe that ‘hard work is important to getting ahead’ more than predecessor generations. This correlation suggests that Americans are increasingly getting what we want: more work.

The economist Juliet Schor, however, found that workers have adjusted their expectations as work hours increased. On surveys, they reported satisfaction with their hours, despite reporting a preference for shorter hours in previous years. She concluded that workers ended up ‘wanting what they get’ rather than ‘getting what they want’. The work ethic, in other words, is a form of resignation, a product of defeat.

Attributing our exceptional work hours to an ideology woefully mistakes cause for effect. Ideology isn’t the driver of our lived experiences, but the product of them. Our ideological commitment to work is the result of incessant and repeated activity – literally doing our jobs day in and day out. And there’s nothing we do with as much regularity, intensity and unquestioned submission as work. We rationalise our quotidian experiences by shaping belief systems to accommodate them, not the other way around. Thus, the 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that, as scepticism came to replace pure belief, especially among the most devout religious practitioners, it was their regular churchgoing, or prayer, that inculcated a faith. In other words, if you wake up every day, fold your hands and pray into the heavens, eventually you will believe in God.

The work ethic has another source too: a need to prove ourselves as worthy citizens in capitalist society. Those deemed worthy – of benefits, rights, privileges, entitlements – are those who can show they do legitimate paid work, or have done so in the past, and have therefore contributed to the state of the nation. This dimension of the work ethic has historically been associated with a class-wide identity of being producers.

Aristotle argued that leisure, not work, was the sphere of life in which our true selves can be realised, where humans strive for perfection. How to fill our free time had long been the question of a purpose-driven life. The rise of capitalism gave way to a new conceptualisation of both work and the self. The rising bourgeoisie in early capitalist countries distinguished themselves from the parasitic aristocracy by focusing on their own status as a productive class. Their sense of worth, and their claim to power, was predicated on their work ethic, which they saw as generating the true wealth of society. What this means is that the work ethic, as we know it, was hardly conceived of as a capitalist shibboleth. Actually, the bourgeoisie first tried it out on themselves.

As idleness slowly came to symbolise success among elites, working-class movements later took up nearly the same stance. You had to sell your labour to survive, but that work also served a socially useful function by producing the things we need to live happy lives. Workers’ meaning as a class was derived from their claim to being providers of the common good. The 20th-century social theorist Max Weber argued that the Protestant ethic became divorced from its religious moorings, leaving the shell of a work ethic to outlive a heavenly act. Classical political economists – John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, Adam Smith – and their primary critic, Karl Marx, at one time or another voiced a kind of progressive version of the work ethic. It wasn’t just capitalist cant – even socialist movements sought to elevate the worker-subject as society’s hero. Whatever the politics, the benefit of this perspective is that we can see the work ethic as a social product, not a divine commandment or an ahistorical truth. And because we’re not born with a work ethic, it must be learned.

Schools have often served this purpose quite conveniently. In his landmark ethnography, Learning to Labour (1977), the British sociologist Paul Willis hypothesised that a group of working-class ‘lads’ resisted formal education because they thought salvation lay in the blue-collar factory jobs their fathers held. The effect condemned them to a future as low-wage workers, a process Willis called ‘self-damnation’. Today’s low-wage workforce, however, is damned to low-wage work through no act of self-sabotage. Some kids are told to do the mopping up in their schools, others to start businesses and found new schools – class dynamics that persist into adulthood as well. The main insight to come out of Willis’s book was to view the work ethic as a class ethos, not merely an individually held belief. We have myriad other social institutions to inculcate such an ethos, such as worksites, churches, fraternal organisations, families – even prisons.

Life at the Work Ethic Camp is excruciatingly dull, according to a few inmates I interviewed. Somehow, being taught an ideology many of them already espoused, or strongly opposed, wasn’t much of a salve on the wound of incarceration. Moreover, a work ethic isn’t simply a belief, but a practice linked concretely to the use of one’s discretionary time. In prison, time is beyond your control and so therefore, almost by definition, is your work ethic. At WEC, using contraband drugs and alcohol was one of the few ways to handle eternal boredom. But once Russell had kicked that habit, he’d had enough. One early evening after supper in December 2016, the winter sun throwing parallelograms of light across the prison yard, he made a run for it. Russell was a star high-school sprinter. At 6 ft 2 in (188 cm), he easily scrambled up the nine-foot fence, and in a single bound, cleared three rounds of barbed wire and landed on the other side of the wall.

He headed straight for the cornfields, not far from the ones he worked as a kid. The High Plains are unrelenting in their vastness. They represent a geologic formation that was pushed upward when the Farallon Plate was subducted into the Earth’s mantle, exuding water and hydrous minerals into the lower crust, causing a plateau to form. But, from ground level, the area embodies the gently rolling grasslands and vast skies that have long inspired artists, drifters and dreamers. They also produce violent fluctuations in temperature and, on that day, it was very cold. He kept a six-minute-mile pace, partly to keep warm, and because he was running for his life.

As news of Russell’s escape spread among old social networks, the smallness of his former life closed in on him. An old friend called the tribal police in South Dakota and turned him in, in exchange for a small reward. It was Christmas morning when he was captured and returned to prison, with an extra year tacked on to his sentence.

When I finally caught up with him, he was only months away from his release. In letters we exchanged, he filled me in on what it’s like to learn the goodness of work when you have no ability to get an actual job. ‘I know how to work just fine, been doing it as a kid. What are they trying to prove?’ After three years of prison labour at a ‘camp’ designed specifically to inspire a fervent belief in hard work, Russell walked out of prison on 8 April 2019 with barely enough money to buy a bus ticket to his parents’ house. ‘It does make you wonder what the point is,’ he confessed. ‘I like to work hard, but there’s gotta be a point, so I don’t feel I completely wasted my time. I wanna do real work,’ he stressed, meaning something he felt that made a social impact and improved his own quality of life.

‘What really matters is everything we do outside our jobs to strengthen our community – that’s the real work’

To make the odd, short documentary film The Real Work (2016), I hired a group of people to dig holes in an empty field for the day, and then interviewed them about their work lives. Some of the people I hired were local acquaintances, and others responded to a Craigslist ad I placed for day labourers. Making this little film drew the ire of many people who saw it as a cruel trick to play on those who needed a little extra money. But during interviews, the film’s participants spoke about how digging holes for a day compared with their usual paid employment. Some said their jobs illuminated a central aspect of their identity, which digging holes didn’t do. For others, shovelling dirt in an empty field reminded them of jobs they’d held that they found socially useless, personally meaningless or degrading. This sentiment was especially popular with people who had to do these jobs to supplement socially useful work they loved, but that didn’t pay well.

Some were confused about why they were digging holes; others didn’t even ask. Everyone insisted, however, that they would seek out ways to be socially useful in their communities if they could afford more time away from work. ‘There are some guys that think the amount of hours they work is a measure of who they are,’ one digger said, ‘but what really matters is everything we do outside our jobs to strengthen our community – that’s the real work.’ He was defining ‘real work’ as something explicitly beyond the value of the market, something good in and of itself. If we want ‘the real work’ to become a priority, we’ll need to transform our society’s dependence on low-wage/long-hour jobs, and free up time for people to lead a meaningful life outside of their daily grind. That can happen only through a renewed public debate about labour time such as what occurred in the late-19th century until the 1940s. The spectre of life without work has fuelled many utopian schemes for centuries. But there’s also a pragmatic rationale – we simply don’t need to work as much to produce what we need and want as we once did. Long hours serve a political and cultural agenda as much as they do an economic imperative. Transcending a long-hours economy will, in the process, transform our ideological commitments to work, offering different lessons about ‘time well spent’.

We don’t need prisons to teach the work ethic any more than Nazis needed that ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign at the entrance to Auschwitz. The Work Ethic Camp shows just how desperate we have become to instil the value of work as a substitute for good jobs. The work ethic is easily weaponised these days, because it has a great affinity with what it means to be successful in a capitalist society. But the fact that the work ethic is also based on practice, and requires a lot of upkeep, is evidence that it might not be as sturdy as it seems on the surface. It’s that vulnerability that offers us some hope of transcending it.

If it’s ever truly renounced, it will happen only after work itself is no longer something we do all the live-long day to generate private profit, but something brought firmly under social control, to satisfy human need. We can’t escape the contradictions of some necessary work, but we can remake the institutions and jobs that promote a work ethic. For that, we need to revive labour’s forgotten fight, a movement for shorter hours to revalue our time. An ambitious movement to reduce the role of necessary toil in our lives will be the struggle of a lifetime, and it will happen only in fits and starts over many years – day by day, hour after hour.