Old Time Work Ethic

by Ouida on June 17, 2010


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Recently I was sitting with two friends at dinner.  Both women are over age 60 and both found jobs in this economy.  The jobs are high-paying. One of my friends said that she thought the reason she had been able to find a job was her work ethic.  “We may be 60,” she chuckled, “but at least folks know we will show up.

At the time of the Great Depression, the number of self employed individuals was significantly higher than it is today. Since 1948 the percentage of self-employed individuals has declined steadily. Since the 1970’s the self-employment rate has ranged between 6 and 8 percent of total employment.  Has the work ethic in America changed as the rate of self-employment has fallen?

I thought about what she said and filed it.  Back in the roaring 1990’s the labor market was so tight that all kinds of bad employee behavior was tolerated. Monday/Friday absenteeism was high and folks figured they could just get other jobs if they got fired.

I recently Tweeted an article that appeared on CNN Money about the success of Amish businesses.  Their long term survival rate  is over 90%.  By comparison, the 5-year business success rate is 65% for the general population.  They attribute their success to humility and extremely hard work.

The other day we got a call from a colleague.  Her car had broken down and she was calling to cancel her clinic scheduled for the next day.  She was told to rent a car if she had to but she needed to be present as scheduled.  She showed up.  A couple of years ago, I got a call from another colleague.  She was about to leave on vacation in a few days and noticed a spasm in her back.  She wanted to see a massage therapist to work the spasm out.   Trouble was, the only appointment she could get prior to the start of her vacation was right in the middle of one of her clinics.  She called and, explaining to me that she did not want to head off to her vacation with a spasm in her back, asked if I would excuse her from her scheduled clinic.  My answer was, as Madea would say, “hell to the no.”

Many years ago, I wasn’t much better.  I was chronically 10-15 minutes late for work.  My dogs were sick, my car was sick, I had a hot date the night before.  Silly, silly stuff.  My mama told me that as long as I needed the income, I had better prioritize the job.  My mother raised 2 kids alone and rarely missed a day of work. The truth is that as long as someone needs their income, they had better prioritize their job or business.

Is this behavior a function of age?  Meaning the younger you are the more likely you are to see the need to earn an income in conflict with other activities like getting the car fixed.  I don’t know. I do believe, however, that something has happened.  In the name of family values people shirk work.  Even in households where a parent is home full time, I have watched adult health care professionals walk off the job to take care of something at home.  “Family first” being the last words they utter as they walk out the door. How about “without an income, there is no family, so I’ll just stay on the job.”  It is a foregone conclusion that work comes second.

We might just find ourselves in a position in which we lose our competitive edge to nations in which their citizens are happy for work and for whom the job or the business comes first.

Please comment.  What are you seeing at work?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

tonya thames taylor June 18, 2010 at 4:51 am

Normally, we are on the same page, here we depart, I am sure only temporarily. You wrote, “How about ‘without an income, there is no family,’ so I’ll just stay on the job.” You were off here. Family and its ties will persist long after any employment. “Family First” should be the mantra of anyone, working or not. My grandmother is a pre-Depression child, along with the most influential people in my life. Already this morning, I called two of them and shared your post. They, too, thought it was misleading. My grandmother, who worked as a sharecropper and domestic, said that after her fifth child was born, she could not raise her family, work for the Doolittles, and ‘chop’ cotton. She asked herself what was more important; she explained why she asked that question: “tonya, I had to ask myself that question because white folks didn’t take kindly black women choosing their families over any aspect white.” Yet, she choose her family in spite of the fact her former employer, a white woman, demanded she bring her black a** back to work (this was the same woman who demanded that she leave her ni**a baby at home even when the baby was an infant and it was customarily to let a breastfeeding mother have her baby near–oh yeah, my grandmother fed the white woman’s baby off her breast at the same time). The another person said you failed to take account the racial and ethnic separation and hatred at the time. He said, in his day, the Irish and Jews had their areas and places because of discrimination. Segregation, although it may sound ironic now, fostered independent businesses. So, the decline could be related to the fall of visible, enforced segregation (he is not arguing that we live in a melting pot today, but at least in theory folks can go where they want and try on some item like shoes). These folks were both born in 1925, so they grew up black (one in the North, the other in the South) in the Depression. Both said to tell you that ‘man can not live off bread alone.’ Jobs will fire you, family is stuck with you.

Do I believe that America has changed in regards to work? No. Documents show that management has complained about workers since the 18th century in America. Where do you think we get the stereotypes about which groups are lazy v. industrious? Taxonomy charts were made from these stereotypes. Masters justified the use of the whip by such claims. Irish were deemed not good workers from such. The federal government taxed Chinese workers in 1852 and later banned Chinese immigration in 1882 b/c whites felt threatened by their industry.

Even Biblically, Paul had to encourage the Thessalonians (see 3:11-12) to work telling them that ‘if you don’t work, you don’t eat.” Remember why the Anglo colonists abandoned Indian labor for that of African labor in the Caribbean and South America?

Humans simply feel entitled to their time. External factors like religion, culture, and health determine how that time should be spent. In the case of the Amish, it is in their religion and culture (I live in PA and only seven miles from Amish country). I do laugh at how folks are so easily persuaded by what is “Amish” like a horse ride. To me, it is like the adjective “middle-class” folks use on values like work, homelife, and character. I grew up with a single mom who never drank and went to work every day in subsidized housing –far from middle class. Okay, I have digressed here. But, I hope you get my point. America doesn’t have a monopoly on labor ‘ethics.’ In America people were forced to work b/c of various factors; these does not translate into a desired path of most workers. Having visited other countries and understanding my own, most folks actually work to get to a point when they don’t have to work again or to get by. Hence, the love for lotteries and casinos. Also, today, we probably find less independent business b/c we have to pay for more services than previous generations had to: water, electricity, and now cable if you want any reception; covering these monthly expenses seem more manageable in a labor economy. That said, families should come first, consumerism should come last. The history of labor economy shows that jobs have no loyalty to workers and aim to exploit the workers, so why should workers chose a job over family? I would love to see a study done on how many retirees after five years actually get invited to their previous job programs and events non-related to fundraising. The goal of a business is to extract labor at any human cost (hence the rough conditions of slavery and the horrible working conditions in factories in America and abroad even today); I cringe and verbally fight with folks I know who actually say “get a Mexican” to do work they do not want to do and want the work to be done cheaply. Some of these folks are minorities themselves. So, the cycle of exploitation continues and perpetuates itself.

Another point you mentioned I firmly disagree with is the audacity of a parent/guardian who leaves work even with a full-time parent is at home. First, what are the contexts? You don’t know what is going on in that household that warrants that reaction: a postpartum parent, sick children, a sick parent, a doctor’s visit concerning the other parent or the child, etc..,

That said, if a person chooses their family and sanity over a job–more power to them!!

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Ouida Vincent June 18, 2010 at 9:46 am

Thank you for your comment. I don’t think that sore backs, car and pet care constitute choosing family and sanity and that is my point. Family values have become a catch phrase for all sorts of behavior in the work place. Institutions exploit people, their only instinct is for survival, but that is not what this post was about. I tend to agree with you that people work for specific reasons and there may be a certain steady-state that is attained, but in general, people work to provide a better life for themselves and their families. The irony is that decisions made in the workplace by employees can jeopardize the very income they need for themselves and their families. It is amazing to me that family values may mean business success for one group of people and business failure for another. Thank you for your participation in my blog.
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