What's missing in America's work ethic?

Donna Schaper

March 05, 1992|By Donna Schaper

THE JAPANESE are not all wrong in their assessment of the work habits of Americans. They have noticed that we spend a lot of time at work but don't seem to be doing anything.

I first noticed this pattern in the homes of depressed welfare women. They would "work" all day at cleaning up their houses, but nothing would get cleaned up. I noticed it again when I took my VCR to a very small shop for repairs and didn't get it back for two weeks. And although the owner complained to me that business was terrible, no one was doing anything whenever I walked by the store.

My own work is just as speeded up as everyone else's. I fax and I do voice mail and E-mail and talk to people on car phones. I buzz about with a fierce look on my face. And I get all dressed up to do it.

Am I accomplishing more than I was a decade ago when I was less ably assisted by machinery? No. But I know I am supposed to look very much like I am. I never miss a chance to take out my calendar and show its hieroglyphics. If I have a day that is too empty, I pencil in, "Brush your teeth; wash your hair." I wouldn't want anyone to think I was not busy.

I work as a parish pastor and, therefore, all day long I observe people at their jobs and overhear them talking about their work. I see the frustration of office workers who can't get much done because they are in an interdependent situation: "I can't do this till Joe does that." Or, "The photocopier is in use and I'm waiting for it." I have heard just about every reason ever invented about why a thing can't get done. Many people spend much of their time talking about the obstacles.

When I first suggested to my husband that I agreed with the Japanese in their assessment of the phoniness of the American work ethic, he accused me of excessive German-ness. Which is true. My ethnicity is excessive. It comes straight from that other part of the world, Germany, whose work ethic resembles that of the Japanese, and another people we're urged to emulate.

I don't sense that the modern Germany is any less well organized than modern America. But I do think that you can clean an ordinary house in two hours. I also think that a secretary can get a dozen letters out in a morning. If the appliance dealer says he is going to deliver an appliance "sometime" on the 15th, I think he should do it.

I feel faint every time I hear a college graduate's life expectations -- that he or she should get a job that will bring a lot of money soon so that the person can retire early. Minimally, the graduate expects, or at least hopes for, long vacations, serious lunches and frequent coffee breaks and to be able to buy a houseful of good furniture by age 30. But this is not the point of life; it's to make or do something that has some worth. If it is German of me to object to these life goals in a parsimonious sort of way, then so be it.

I also feel faint every time I hear people condemning the laziness of those on welfare. This projection of the middle classes is a costume they wear to hide from their own laziness. Try to live the life of a welfare mother sometime. Wait with her and her children all morning at Social Services. Then wait for a cab to get the groceries. Then try to clean an uncleanable house. Then wait at the clinic for the baby's ears to be looked at.

With all this waiting around, it is no wonder many poor folks join the rest of at-home America in watching soap operas all afternoon (and if you think poor people are the only ones watching soap operas, you haven't seen the commercials lately). Do I have moral objections to people watching soap operas all afternoon? You bet. And do I have moral objections to people who watch TV all night, every night? Absolutely. No doubt my husband thinks it is my excessive ethnicity.

I might want to argue another source to my judgment, one more complex than blood or origin. The insignificance of most lives depresses many people. Most jobs have too many bosses and therefore most people who work are bossed around too much. And so they rebel through depression or slowness. Many Americans are depressed, more so at work than they are at home. The reason is that they have too little control over their work. They are not in charge of what they are doing. Sprawled on a couch, at least they are in charge. They decided to harm their body and mind by feeding it television -- which then encourages them to buy things to fill up the emptiness. The "work and spend" syndrome begins.

If people had significant work to do, or if they had more control in insignificant work, they might be more capable on the job. I don't just mean morally significant work but physically significant work. Bridge building. Pot-hole filling. Dressmaking. Breadmaking. Making is at least part of what the Japanese mean by manufacturing. I'm not enthralled with the great significance of making a lot of anything, but I am enthralled with the mastery that comes from making something.

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