Work Ethic

November 23, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Thanksgiving again. The blur of football on TV, Macy’s parade, the meal idealized by Norman Rockwell. Thanksgiving again. But this year an unease threatens the traditional point of the day. Most other countries of the world have national holidays like our 4th of July and Memorial Day, very few have a holiday like Thanksgiving.

It is a deeply American Protestant celebration, shaped by notions of a benevolent God, predestination, blessed, bountiful nature, and, of course, work rewarded, much more than Labor Day, which is a celebration of the American union movement. Thanksgiving has been the harvest festival permitting Americans to remember the goodness of God and the value of work. What is the value of work in America? That is now the question.

Recently, in Washington, the Labor Department reported that over the last 12 months the wages of American workers rose at the lowest rate ever. Medical benefits are also down. At the same that the U.S. Stock Market is booming, the wages of the American middle class are stagnant. Those early Protestants, the Pilgrims, who gave us Thanksgiving, planted on American soil a belief in the value of work.

Generations since, Protestant or not, have come to assume what we loosely called our Protestant work ethic. Elsewhere in the world when strangers meet, they ask about one another’s village or family name or tribe. There are cultures where the first question a stranger asks another is about children, how many children do you have? Here in the United States, the first question we ask is about work: What do you do?

Work is central to our sense of identity. In recent years, Americans have been losing their jobs, or given early retirement, or forced to work harder or longer hours as their companies euphemistically downsize, or Americans have found them displaced by Third World peasants who will assemble a television set or will sew faster or more cheaply than we an manage. The world increasingly seems not to need our labor.

WOMAN: (talking to workers) I want to apologize for yesterday, for the delay that we had with the meeting, but the driver have accident, and they promise–

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Here in San Francisco, within the last 10 years, the language of labor, I mean, literally the language of maids, restaurant workers, car washers, that language is suddenly Spanish, as was clear at the recent AFL-CIO convention, where a slate of young Turks took over the leadership, the future of the U.S. Labor Movement will depend on whether or not it can organize a new labor class, much of it Latino, much of it Democrat, both legal and undocumented, work, paint the wall, wash the car, faster, make the bed. Work, assemble the computer faster, work.

At a time of widespread job uncertainty, politicians in Washington, politicians in Washington seem to sense a middle class impatience with the poor who are perceived to be unwilling to work. What is new these days, what the politicians seem not to sense, what I hear is a growing middle class anger at the rich, baseball salaries, or the multi-million dollar bonus for the CEO.

It used to be the distinguishing mark of the American. We didn’t envy the rich, as much as we yearn to be rich ourselves, someday. But someday is troubling in a new way. Futurists tell us that the world would require the work of fewer and fewer of us, or we will have to redefine, expound our sense of the meaning of work. Make the care of aged parents or the raising of children salaried work. We will also need to redefine the meaning of leisure. Already, I meet young people of slight expectation. They assume menial jobs as bike messengers or coffee house waitresses.

They do not take their identity from their job. They take their identity from what they do after work, what they call their lifestyle. Perhaps we are destined to become ancient people again, rediscovering the earliest reason for holidays which were holy days. Perhaps we are moving toward a future when we will take our identity not from work, but from the deepest moments of leisure as when we gather together as family with friends, in the warmth of a room in late Autumn.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.