What could be more American than hard work? We are a country of people who believe in meritocracy, in striving to achieve The American Dream. Hard work traces back to our roots - much of it comes from the felt moral heritage of the Protestant Work Ethic. Yet, sadly, today's American "hard work" is a hollow echo of hard work rightly understood.
Consider the recent Cadillac commercial featuring Neal McDonough talking about how great we are. He says, "Other countries, they work, they stroll home. They stop by the cafe…. Why aren't we like that? Because we are crazy driven, hard working believers - that's why…. You work hard, you create your own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible. As for all the stuff, that's the upside of only taking two weeks off in August." McDonough’s bravado is the moral equivalent of a chest-bump. If stuff is just an "upside", then his point is that working hard is somehow good because it’s… hard? And of course, cafes, walking, and time spent on things other than racing to and from work are all a waste of time.
One particular word in the commercial stands out: "believers." Believers in what? That "anything is possible." That’s pretty empty when you consider that for most Americans, a culture of hard workers simply isn’t working out. Inflation-adjusted middle-class earnings are similar to where they were in the 1980s. The occasional hard worker may indeed achieve the impossible, but the vast majority of hard workers aren't going to see much positive change at all. Anything is possible, but it’s looking increasingly improbable for the average American.
A Better Definition for Work
The current American problem with work is twofold. The first is that we have the wrong definition of work. We think of work as our employment, what we are paid to do. If we believe the cute Lowe’s commercials, we may even lump in working on our house or yard as part of the "work" that we do. But that’s about it. All other activities fall into leisure or some other category that we do not call "work." Yet despite this narrow definition of work, we continue to insist on the American Individual Moral Duty to Work Hard. Which essentially boils down to more time at the office, or bragging that we never take all of our vacation days (we’ve been leaving about 49% unused lately). Even our idea of "making it" is getting to a financial place where we can hire other people to do our "menial" chores while we spend more time at the office, only to finish out entirely no later than 65 and retire into absolute leisure with no further work necessary.
This narrow view of work leads us to a low view of ourselves. We ought to reclaim a broader definition of work. Webster has many definitions for work, but its simplest is appropriate here: "1: activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something." In this sense we say we are "working on" things that have nothing to do with our full-time job, and this is the definition of work that needs to become our American default.
We scoff at the vacation taken by Europeans or that fact that workers in nearly all of the richest countries except the U.S. have at least some guaranteed vacation - why? Is it more honorable or "tough" somehow to never take a day off from a job? From an employee perspective, is it more rewarding to have to show up day in and day out without significant flexibility for the needs of your family or your various other duties (church, home, community, independent projects, charity, etc.)? From an employer perspective, shouldn’t you be more worried about actual productivity and the health of your employees than restraining days off? It has been established through research over recent decades that simply getting more hours from your people does not equal more productivity. Maximizing productivity requires a balanced approach to the lives of your employees, which is actually quite convenient because moral responsibility also demands that you should want your employees to lead balanced, healthy lives that aren’t centered on their work for you. An employee who shows "commitment" by putting their job before everything else in their life is an employee who should be fired, not promoted.
We need to have a bigger view of work. It’s no surprise that stay-at-home moms are often looked down upon in our culture. Regardless of how productive the stay at home mom is or what she does, if she’s not getting a paycheck she’s not really working. And if she’s not really working then she really has no purpose. That’s the logic of our modern "hard working America." Small wonder both parents feel the need to work outside the home, pushing off the children to be cared for by other services. After all, that’s the logical goal of our current mentality: Hire other people to do all of the rest of your responsibilities (cleaning, child-rearing, mowing the lawn, charity, etc.) so you can spend more time at the office doing your real job.
We are missing the big picture. These various responsibilities are a part of our true, broader work. They make us well-rounded people. Training up our children is important. Planting and tending a garden is rewarding. Helping our neighbor and the needy around us is essential. Participating in the lives of our church, family, and community is vital to how we are Created. If our time at the office makes these other important forms of work impossible, we need to stop and ask what we are obtaining by sacrificing our humanity? Is it American "toughness"? Is it all the stuff we can buy? Is it an effort to live up to our culture’s warped priorities so we can find a sense of personal meaning?
If it’s about meaning, it is no wonder so many in the lower and middle classes lately feel the burden of growing income disparity. They are expected to give so much to their jobs, to define themselves by their employment, to sacrifice all other interests to their careers. Once they’ve done all that, what are they left with? Job loss. Average wages and salaries not much higher today than in the 80s. They hear the economy is in the rebound but they aren’t seeing it.
Even the upper classes won't find fulfillment in this scenario. They may be doing better than the lower classes. They may have the stuff of the Cadillac commercial. But they too are losing their humanity by reducing their identity to their employment.
Viewing ourselves through this job-centered lens is a recipe for long-term cultural disaster. Fundamentally, work is about so much more than a job. It is about dominion-taking. It can involve teaching your children, volunteering, working on your house or yard, spending time with a community organization, serving your church, becoming an informed citizen, or working on your mind and soul by studying and praying.
Work is a much broader concept than our "work vs. play" dichotomy allows for. Such a dichotomy sets us up for unnecessary conflicts. A broader definition of work helps us to keep things in perspective. It’s not your work vs. your family vs. your church. Your employment is merely one part (albeit a very important part) of your broader work during your life on earth. Thinking in this way tends to reduce conflicts between spheres that should not be in conflict, like spending time at the office vs. rearing your children vs. volunteering. They are all essential parts of our dominion in the world. They should not be put in separate categories, as if they were somehow completely alternate possibilities for how we might use our time. "Work", broadly understood, leads to a balanced human life.
Why Work Hard?
Our second modern American problem with work is that we have the wrong reason for work. We have lost the real purpose of "hard work." It is not because "anything is possible," and it’s not to achieve the American Dream. We ought to work hard for the glory of God, fulfilling our purpose in having dominion in the earth. The Cadillac commercial is sadly correct - many modern Americans work hard for the paycheck, or the future raise, or job security, or because working hard is "tough". A consciousness of working hard for God's glory is dead among most Americans, sadly even among many believers. It’s been replaced by a work-hard-play-hard approach or the idea that it's "just what you do."
Taking dominion for God’s glory in all aspects of our lives is a far more fulfilling purpose than maximizing our effort at our place of employment. Not only is this moral duty far more important than a Cadillac or the American Dream, but it imitates the very work of the Creator Himself and provides us with the kind of human fulfillment we can’t find merely pursuing the hollowness of the modern American hard work mandate.
C.S. Lewis presents a beautiful picture of work and life in The Screwtape Letters:
"[God] does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it.... His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him."
A well-lived life is not obsessed with occupation now or promotion in the future. Work is done and then put aside. Life is lived in the moment and with an eye towards heaven, not the stuff we can get on earth by maximizing office time. This eye towards heaven does indeed induce us to work hard, but only with a holistic view of work directed to the glory of God.