Application of the Critical Theory

"Good-bye to the Work Ethic"

By Barbara Ehrenreich

The MEDIA have just buried the last yuppie, a pathetic creature who had not heard the news that the great pendulum of public consciousness has just swung from Greed to Compassion and from Tex-Mex to meatballs. Folks are already lining up outside the mausoleum bearing the many items he had hoped to take with him, including a quart bottle of raspberry vinegar and the Cliff Notes for The Wealth of Nations. I, too, have brought something to throw onto the funeral pyre - the very essence of yupdom, its creed and its meaning. Not the passion for money, not even the lust for tiny vegetables, but the work ethic.

Yes, I realize how important the work ethic is. I understand that it occupies the position, in the American constellation of values, once held by motherhood and the Girl Scout cookies. But yuppies took it too far; they abused it.

In fact, one of the reasons they only lived for three years (1984-87) was that they never rested, never took the time to chew between bites or gaze soulfully past their computer screens. What's worst, the mere rumor that someone - anyone - was not holding up his or her end of the work ethic was enough to send them into tantrums. They blamed lazy welfare mothers for the Budget Deficit. Their idea of utopia (as once laid out in the journal of higher yup thought, the New Republic) was the "Work Ethic State": no free lunches, no handouts, and too bad for all the miscreants and losers refuse to fight their way up to the poverty level by working eighty hours a week at Wendy's.

Personally, I have nothing against work, particularly when performed, quietly and unobtrusively by someone else. I just don't happen to think it's an appropriate subject for an "ethic". As a general rule, when something gets elevated to apple-pie status in the hierarchy of American values, you have to suspect that its actual monetary value is skidding towards zero.

Take motherhood: nobody ever thought of putting it on a moral pedestal until some brash feminists pointed out, about a century ago, that the pay is lousy and the career ladder nonexistent. The same thing with work: would we be so reverent about the "work ethic" if it wasn't for the fact that the average working stiff's hourly pay is shrinking, year by year, toward the price of a local phone call? 

In fact, let us set the record straight: the work ethic is not a "traditional value." It is a johnny-come-lately value, along with thin thighs and nonsmoking hotel rooms. In ancient times, work was considered a disgrace inflicted on those who had failed to amass a nest egg through imperial conquest or other forms of organized looting. Only serfs, slaves, and women worked. The yuppies of ancient Athens - which we all know was a perfect cornucopia of "traditional values" - passed their time rubbing their bodies with olive oil and discussing the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

The work ethic came along a couple of millennia later, in the form of Puritanism - the idea that the amount of self-denial you endured in this life was a good measure of the amount of fun waiting you in the next. But the work ethic only got off the ground with the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of the factory system. This was - let us be honest about it - simply a scheme for extending the benefits of the slave system into the age of emancipation.

Under the new system (aka capitalism in this part of the world), huge numbers of people had to be convinced to work extra hard, at pitifully low wages, so that the employing class would not have to work at all. Overnight, with the help of a great number of preachers and other well-rested propagandists, work was upgraded from an indignity to an "ethic."

But there was a catch: the aptly named working class came to resent the resting class. There followed riots, resolutions, graffiti. Quickly, the word went out from the robber barons to the swelling middle class of lawyers, financial consultants, plant managers, and other forerunners of the yuppie: Look busy! Don't go home until the proles have punched out! Make'em think we're doing the work and that they're lucky to be able to hang around and help out!

The lawyers, managers, etc., were only too happy to comply, for as the perennially clever John Kenneth Galbraith once pointed out, they themselves comprised a "new leisure class" within industrial society. Of course, they "work," but only under the most pleasant air-conditioned, centrally heated, and fully carpeted conditions, and then only in a sitting position. It was in their own interest to convince the working class that what looks like lounging requires intense but invisible effort. 

The yuppies, when they came along, had to look more righteously busy than anyone, for the simple reason that they did nothing at all. Workwise, that is. They did not sow, neither did they reap, but rather sat around pushing money through their modems in games known as "corporate takeover" and "international currency speculation." Hence their rage at anyone who actually works - the "unproductive" American worker, or the woman attempting to raise a finally on welfare benefits set below, the average yuppie's monthly health spa fee.

So let us replace their cruel and empty slogan - "Go for it!" - with the cry that lies deep in every true worker's heart: "Gimme a break!" What this nation needs is not the work ethic, but a job ethic: If it needs doing - highways repaired, babies changed, fields plowed - let's get it done. Otherwise, take five. Listen to some New Wave music, have a serious conversation with a three-year-old, write a poem, look at the ski. Let the yuppies Rest in Peace; the rest of deserve a break.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a Vice-Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, and a writer, activist and novelist who appears in publications ranging from the Nation to Z to Time. A new collection of her essays "Snarling Citizen" was just published. A couple of years ago, I found a copy of this article near the recycle bin at work and really enjoyed it. If anyone knows what book it came from, please email me so I can give the book proper credit.