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The Evolution Of The American Work Ethic

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A study undertaken by Bowling Green State University researchers suggests that 31.9% of Americans would quit their job if they won the lottery. (Highhouse, Zickar, Yankelevich 351) More than a quarter of the American population values work solely because it provides them with financial security or luxury. A four-digit paycheck is one of the few things that validates a person’s success in today’s society; however, hard work was once equally commendable in and of itself. The United States has evolved over several centuries, and thus new ideologies have replaced old ones. Consumption, profit, and an increasingly competitive workforce have transformed the nation’s recipe for success. There are no strict criteria for leading a fulfilling life. The definition of success is more ambiguous than most people think.

Ideologies of work began to take shape in the earlier days of colonial America. (Applebaum 3) The land’s potential was waiting to be unlocked by optimistic Americans with a sense of mission. The territory was a white canvas to be painted with as many colors as the human imagination could conjure. They believed that the harder they worked, the better their lives would become. Predictably, they kept themselves busy. Work, payment, and consumption are nowhere near as informal and irregular as they used to be. The majority of work was extremely labor-intensive, whereas modern work is heavily reliant on technology. Although the rich could afford to be idle, most people thought this profligate lifestyle was morally questionable. Priority was given to community interests, though today personal gain is just as stressed as public contribution.

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Status and wealth can be powerful motivators. America advertises these things as indicators of hard work. The contradicting truth is, there are countless arduous, indispensable yet uncelebrated roles in modern capitalism. Food workers, retail salespeople, and construction laborers are just a few jobs that are characterized by their difficulty, low wages, low levels of job security, and high levels of stress. Obtaining recognition has something to do with hard work, but it has something more to do with luck and circumstance. America’s unsung heroes are the ones who contribute good to their country while living paycheck to paycheck. All too often their services are taken for granted. Unfortunately, society often associates income with success. “Success” recalls too strongly a go-getter whose paycheck allows for extravagance in their way of living. By this reasoning, regardless of how satisfied someone is with their life, or whether or not their job is physically or emotionally demanding, they are not successful. Americans used to believe that as long as a person has fulfilled their dreams they are successful.

The American dream saw a surge in popularity conditioned by President Ronald Reagan who defined it as attaining fortune and prestige. (Hochschild 140) Reagan’s definition barely scratches the surface of this ethos. America constantly strives to be a country where anyone from anywhere can become anything. This ideal is a remnant of the colonial period. All Americans have greater opportunities to pursue their dreams than they have ever had before. Many mistakenly believe that achieving the stereotypical American dream is essential to happiness. Because there are so many people who are chorusing this goal, they are, in a way, in competition with one another. There is a considerable amount of social pressure to conform to the American dream’s idyllic domestic set-up. People around the world have more modest ideas of what would constitute a comfortable lifestyle. The stresses and strains of living in an overwhelmingly progress orientated society are uniquely American.

The American work ethic has undergone dramatic changes over the course of the nation’s history. Success has been redefined by the increasingly materialistic nature of society. Colonial America emphasized the virtues of serving one’s community. Today, both personal achievement and charitable work are applauded. Originally, a high income wasn’t the difference between those who had achieved their ambitions and those who had not. Wealth and hard work do not always go hand in hand. Many Americans would take comfort in knowing that success is in the eyes of the beholder.

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