A few years back I had a conversation with an exchange student from Colombia who was working as a busboy to earn some spending money. He spoke English fluently – an aberration in Los Angeles – and I asked him what he thought was the most surprising thing about America. He said “How hard everyone works.” That may have been true then, but we are quickly becoming a nation of slackers.
America’s work ethic comes from our Puritan past. When we were an agrarian country, you either worked or starved. In the 19th and 20th Centuries, we developed into an industrialized nation, led by men with a solid work ethic, that became the strongest economy in the world. This attitude was essential to our victory in two world wars and our transformation into the globe’s sole superpower.
Regrettably, cultural attitudes have changed substantially, and we now often see derision of our traditional principles. Puritanism is now equated to a 1950’s society in which men were the breadwinners and women were stay-at-home moms. Whether that is true or not, working hard has nothing to do with anything other than the desire to become successful. Work equals money, and money comes from work. It is a simple, yet elegant, concept.
Today, however, we often see a different reality. And while it’s easy to recognize how rapidly-advancing technology has made our lives easier both at home and in the workplace, the change in the American work ethic has many causes and has not taken place overnight.
Many people have observed how this new generation is different from its predecessors, and much has been written about the rules under which they now wish to live. The most dismaying aspect is how pervasive this attitude has become. Not only is the average worker or college graduate unwilling to put forth the effort of prior generations, but so are the elite educated classes.
Several attorneys tell me how difficult it is to get young lawyers to work today. The young ones want what the older ones have, but don’t want to make the requisite sacrifices. This might be an aberration – if it weren’t for so many people telling me the same story!
One of my clients proudly told me about his son and daughter-in-law – newly-graduated attorneys working their way up the ladder at big, reputable firms. The next time we spoke, he informed me that they had resigned their positions to go on a worldwide vacation. And last month, he called to let me know that they were now both working for the government – with 9-5 jobs and built-in benefits.
22.5 million Americans – an utterly staggering number – now work for federal, state, and local government. Stephen Moore, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, wrote that there are now twice as many people working for government than for manufacturers, and that more people now work for government than for several basic industries combined. Unfortunately, his excellent column failed to identify the most prominent reasons for this dismal situation.
Why do college graduates now seek jobs in government instead of private industry? It has largely to do with lack of ambition. Why take the risks inherent in the private sector when you can have a position that is virtually immune from layoffs, and for which you get vacations, sick days, health insurance, pensions, and every holiday on the calendar including imagined ones? Why accept a job requiring effort and productivity when you can get a government job in which your compensation and benefits have absolutely nothing to do with your performance? In fact, you may actually be discouraged from working too hard because it would embarrass your colleagues. Additionally, there is almost nothing that can cause you to be fired! So why take any risks in the private sector?
Ironically, the government then tries to force these same preposterous work rules onto the private sector – so that government doesn’t appear out of step with private industry.
The fact is that there is just too much government. Government now employs 16% of the current work force, amounting to 138.9 million people. That means that 116.4 million private- sector workers support this country of 308 million people. Government workers don’t help support the rest of us because the taxes they pay are just a reduction of the amount we pay them. They are just a drag on the private economy that needs to support them.
This economic model cannot sustain itself – especially with the current work ethic. When an ever smaller group of people is asked to support the rest of us, while the government hands out lavish employee benefits that far outstrip those found in the private sector, it’s no wonder that young people quickly conclude that a public-sector job is the perfect fit for their slacker attitudes.
While there are certainly exceptions, it seems that the generation now entering the workforce has been raised on the idea that hard work should take a back seat to lifestyle. They have seen – and sheepishly accepted – an ever-growing government sector making decisions for them. At this rate, there will soon not be enough private sector employees to support the government workers, the retired people, and the children of this society.
If we don’t change our current trajectory – and quickly! – then the next time my young Colombian friend comes to America, he will ask: “What the heck happened to this country?”
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