Whistle While You Work

When I asked Vanita Madan, an Indian immigrant, what she thought about American workers, I expected her to say that they're lazy. Instead, Madan, who received her U.S. citizenship a few months ago, responded: "Americans. They run, run, run, run."Madan has a master's in English, and her husband is a civil engineer. They came to the states in 1989 from India seeking a better life. Although it was months before they found jobs, the Madans have carved out an affluent lifestyle in suburban Detroit. Whether it's a better one, Vanita is not sure."There's just too much rushing around," she says. "At home, we work hard, save our money and educate our children. Here, your hard work may bear fruit in material terms. But that does not lead to happiness."An Idle HandEvery day, nearly 130 million Americans go to work. And at least since the 1980s, they have been complaining that they work too many hours for too little pay-off -- both in financial gain and quality of life.Their complaints were validated in 1991 when Harvard economics professor Juliet Schor revealed in her best-seller, The Overworked American, that at the beginning of this decade Americans worked the equivalent of an extra month of full-time work per year compared to 20 years ago.A 1993 poll by a Gallup Organization affiliate showed that Americans feel more rushed than even the notoriously workaholic Japanese. And new data soon to be released by researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Boston will show there has been a significant increase in average weekly work hours across socio-economic lines.What does this say about the American work ethic? "It says that, the transition has gone from working to live to living to work," says Jim Bristor, a professor in the Department of Park (CQ), Recreation and Tourism Resources at Michigan State University. "And it may be time for Americans to worry less about getting a job, and worry more about getting a life."As You Sow, So Shall You ReapMaybe that's why I am suddenly uttering words like "fulfillment" and "quality of life" during job interviews. But that's not how I was raised. I grew up thinking that the most important thing was to find a good job and work hard to keep it.In fact, if you look at the Judeo-Christian tradition, which shaped this nation's attitude toward employment, work began not as source of personal fulfillment, but as a form of punishment. After partaking of the apple, God cursed Adam and Eve: "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground."I view work as my punishment for not being rich. In that regard, I'm in the company of the great minds of Western thought, namely the Aristotle and Plato, who saw work as incompatible with higher thinking. Animals scrounge to feed and house themselves. Only humans can engage in pure exercises of the mind.What we think of as the American work ethic, however, is directly related to ideals out of the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, equated a vocation to a religious calling. Therefore, all work had equal dignity. Later, John Calvin argued that success was evidence that you were among the chosen who would inherit everlasting life.Together, Luther and Calvin articulated what became the Protestant work ethic: work is intrinsically good; success achieved through hard work and saving is evidence of spiritual blessings.Early to Bed, Early to RiseIt's an ethic which drove this country through fields of cotton and fires of industry. But I wonder how our work attitudes are being shaped by the Information Age. When a minute is too long to wait for a potato, do people still expect to spend a lifetime making a living? I searched for the answer in the two places where the payoff for an honest day's work -- or the lack of it -- are most evident: in prison and at the mall."Hello, ma'am, this is Scott Stevens."The voice on the phone could have been Wally Cleaver's: respectful, articulate and engaging. Except this young man was doing two years for unlawful possession of a firearm. At 22, Stevens is an accomplished law-breaker now serving time at the Work Ethic Program on McNeal island in Washington state. The program opened there in 1993 at the tail-end of the prison boot camp fad, says camp Superintendent Jackie Campbell. "The military style is not relevant to life outside of prison walls," says Campbell. "We asked ourselves, what are offenders missing?"The answer, they decided, was the work ethic. So they built a facility where 250 prisoners could get education and job-readiness training."When I get done working, and I've done a good job, I get a feeling of accomplishment," says Stevens. "Teamwork is something I've never understood. It's almost like a benefit to working, an added privilege. Being a part of something good is important to me." He's about to "graduate" from the camp after four months. He says he's enrolled in community college, recovering from drug addiction, reunited with his parents, and is ready to work.But, ironically, some of his more straight and narrow contemporaries are not so ready to embrace old values."I don't want to be a workaholic," says a young, brunette woman I approached at the Somerset Collection in Oakland County, Mich. Somerset is an exclusive mall nestled in the nation's ninth most affluent county.I spotted her in the company of four friends gabbing over lunch. Before long I discovered that all five had come from two-worker families, had worked every summer since they were 15, and had kept weekend jobs through high school and college. "Is there a job you wouldn't do?" I asked, expecting a list from household domestic work to bus driver. Instead, the said a "bad job" was one which keeps you tethered from dawn to dusk -- not one that requires hard work. "There's other things in life besides work. Family comes before a job," said the brunette.The freckled one chimed in: "I'm majoring in physical therapy, and I love sports. Lately, I've been thinking that if I combine my two loves and do exercise therapy, I'll be able to tie in my interest with my job. Money isn't the goal, I want to be happy with my work."That vibe didn't exist among the 100 kids who graduated with me in 1977. When we got our high school diplomas, we grateful to get a job -- any job -- or a chance at higher education. But these days, younger people seemed to be viewing work not as a trade, but a trade-off."Older generations would accept things and be happy just to have some work," says Jeff Pawloski. Eight years ago, he was a college drop-out. At 29, he co-owns a successful restaurant, Seven Fish, in Key West, Fla. "Our generation is appreciative of what we have, but we're striving for something else."After leaving college, he moved to New York and worked in a securities clearing firm, saw co-workers "bored with their lives," and went back for his degree. His subsequent jobs included working for a caterer on weekends while holding down a full time job as a newspaper production manager in Detroit. When the caterer decided to open a restaurant in Florida, Pawloski followed with one condition -- that he be a partner.The restaurant opened to rave reviews. A year later, Pawloski and his partner are planning their next step."I could never make enough money to slow me down," he says. "When I get free time, I think about what else I could be doing. I'm making money now to take me to the next big thing. I don't want fancy cars or big houses."Through The Looking Glass"The best thing about money is the freedom it buys you," says Janice Ernst. She's a 37-year-old attorney and mother of two. Ernst married 12 years ago, right after she and her husband graduated from Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. Two children and several part time jobs later, she is ready to take on full-time employment again. She's found a position which will allow her to do work that's socially relevant -- running a law clinic at North Carolina Central University -- while bringing in welcome extra money."But I'm terrified about what impact full-time work will have on my family life," says Ernst. "I'll probably spend all of the extra money trying to replace all that I do in the home, but I'll be happy, right?"According to studies, she'll at least be happier than most two-worker families trying to eke out a living."Families are trapped in an Alice in Wonderland world, running faster and faster just to stay in place," says Barry Bluestone, professor of political economy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. According to Bluestone, families are working harder because hourly wage rates have stagnated and are even declining for large sectors of the economy. Also, there's a trend toward greater job instability. These conditions, says Bluestone, have caused many Americans to be at once chronically overworked and chronically underemployed. For example, he says, in 1993, almost one-third of part-timers wanted full-time jobs, but couldn't find them. Manpower Inc., a temporary employment agency, now boasts it is the largest employer in America. That, says Bluestone, is an indication of how workers are being squeezed out of full employment and forced to take on several part-time or temporary positions to make ends meet."This suggests that during times of economic growth, people will work as much as they can for fear that in a year or two, those jobs won't be available." says Bluestone.The irony is, that particularly in families where the breadwinners have less than a college degree, taking on more jobs doesn't yield higher living standards. Between 1973 and 1988, says Bluestone, families headed by high school dropouts increased their work effort by nearly 12 percent, yet ended up with 8 percent less annual income.The result has been better for college-educated, two-earner families. Bluestone says these families, which comprise less than one-third of American dual-income families, increased their material consumption standard by nearly 30 percent between 1973 and 1988. Bluestone says that updated research to be released this fall confirms these findings: Families are working hard across socio-economic lines. Still, even for the families making gains, the choices are often difficult."When I worked part time, I couldn't legitimize my (housekeeping) expenses, so I was doing both jobs and nothing was getting done," says Ernst. "When I worked full time, my weekends were a disaster, and I had no time for my children."You can't have it all. That's a real myth."Whistle While You WorkA backlash is brewing, and its name is leisure."There is more and more interest in the concept of leisure," says Michigan State University's Bristor. "Young people are still committed to work, and are preparing for it. But at the same time, they're very absorbed with leisure. They look at it as a right to engage in recreational experiences."I'm pleased with this attitude," says Bristor. "We're talking about quality of life."Millionaire business-owner Bella Marshall agrees that many younger people seem to have a healthier work ethic. Marshall, 47, is the president of Michigan's Waycor Development Co., and Barden International, both multi-million dollar companies."I was raised to believe if you want something, you work for it," says Marshall. Her father got sick when she was 8, forcing her mother into the labor force in her mid-30s. As an African-American woman, her mother found herself initially limited to domestic work, despite the fact that she had completed a few years of college. She worked two or three jobs at a time, and didn't retire until she was 70.But Marshall says she respects a generation not always willing to put work ahead of all else: "They're saying, ÔI'll spend five or 10 years working like a maniac. After that, I'm not going to work harder, I'm going to work happier.'"That was certainly Michelle Gallagher's intention. But at 32, she's discovering that "working happier" often means sacrifice.After college she worked with computer animation firms in California, but became disillusioned by office politics. For the last year, she has lived in Seattle, Wash., launching her career as an artist, and working full-time as a museum guard. To date, she has sold four pencil and ink drawings, and over 40 prints."I've settled for making a comfortable living, enough to get by," she says. "I'd like to be a freelance illustrator. If it took 60 hours a week, it wouldn't be as stressful as my other jobs were. I would be doing what I enjoyed."Still, the old "work your way up the ladder" ethic haunts Gallagher."If someone is looking at my resume, they would think I wasn't making progress. That depresses me," she says. "And I worry about my financial future." The Bare Necessities"Here, this ought to help you with your work ethic story," said a co-worker as he handed me a copy of Man on Earth, by John Reader. He had marked the chapter on "hunters and gatherers." There I discovered that during the 1960 drought in southern Africa, the !Kung met their calorie needs "with surprisingly little effort." The tribe spent an average of 12 - 19 hours a week gathering food. The hardest worker, who went hunting 16 of 28 days, put in 32 hours a week -- well below our modern concept of full time. And in the highlands of New Guinea, the swiddeners (who still practice a slash and burn style of agriculture), spend about 15.5 hours a week producing food, cooking and performing household chores.Come to think of it, even enslaved Africans sometimes got a day off: "Come, day/Go, day/God send Sunday."Clearly, the chase for the finer things has left us tired, frustrated and possessed by those very things we work to possess. It's a treadmill fewer and fewer workers seem to be willing to board.Maybe we aren't so much developing a new work ethic for the Information Age as longing for one that served us centuries before industrialization. Perhaps the worker of the future will have two simple demands: an employer which respects employees' humanity, and a job which allows each worker to express the humanity within.Desiree Cooper is the Metro Times editor-at-large.


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