I grew up the ninth of eleven children. Though a Gen Xer, my parents are older and cut from a depression-era cloth. If you add this to the fact that their parents were immigrants, you’d find a family with a very traditional, very American work ethic.

Recently, in the Huffington Post, Economist Daniel Hammermesh, pointed out that:

“Americans have a reputation for prioritizing work over play, often sacrificing personal time entirely in favor of finishing professional tasks. Other countries look at Americans as workaholics, and similarly, Americans often laugh at the European work ethic.”

Growing up with depression-era parents, I was always taught that hard work was good for you. It was a noble, almost sacred thing to be able work hard for your daily bread. You never turned down the opportunity to work or even work more hours, as you never knew when the work (and the money) would go away.

This attitude and approach has served me well in my career. But as I get older, I see a modernizing of the traditional American Work Ethic.

Hard work is not enough.

Since America has drawn itself up from its agrarian roots, through an industrial revolution, and into the technology age, the model of laboring from sun up to sundown seems archaic. It made sense when the fruits of our labors could only be reaped between the arms of the day. But now, with no barriers, and no limitations to the length of the work day, our traditional work ethic has the capacity to spin us off into oblivion.

No, hard work is not enough.

I was raised with the idea that if you worked hard, people would notice, and you would move up the food chain, getting a better job with better pay. Now that idea has changed. Now, you must work hard AND ensure that your accomplishments get noticed. With the flux that continues throughout the workforce, people are beginning to see that they (not their employers) are the ones responsible for their own work and their own careers. Your employer is not the one who ultimately accountable for recognizing your hard work — you are.

If you can’t get the money, get credit.

We’ve come a long way from our traditional American work ethic. The focus in our modern world has shifted from quantity to quality. That means it’s not so much about how long you were in the office, but what you did while you were there (or not there!).

Hard work must be directly aligned with performance.

In 1899, Teddy Roosevelt ended a Chicago speech, “In Praise of a Strenuous Life,” with this:

“I preach to you, then, my countrymen, that our country calls not for the life of ease but for the life of strenuous endeavor. The twentieth century looms before us big with the fate of many nations. If we stand idly by, if we seek merely swollen, slothful ease and ignoble peace, if we shrink from the hard contests where men must win at hazard of their lives and at the risk of all they hold dear, then the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world. Let us therefore boldly face the life of strife, resolute to do our duty well and manfully; resolute to uphold righteousness by deed and by word; resolute to be both honest and brave, to serve high ideals, yet to use practical methods. Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”

Much has changed in the past 117 years since Roosevelt’s words echoed through that Chicago hall. Our work ethic is tied less to a mindset of Manifest Destiny and more to a mindset of finding meaning and purpose in the work that we do.

Hard work is still an honorable thing.

Ultimately, as we mature as a nation, so should our values, ethics and attitudes; especially when it comes to how we work.


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