Is the American work ethic really dead?

I read an article the other day that boldly proclaimed:

“The work ethic in our great country is going straight down the tubes and if that doesn’t change, we’re in BIG trouble!”

The author, a motivational speaker who travels around the country, went on to present as evidence the stories he’s heard from employers throughout the U.S. about lazy, entitled America workers who want pay increases for no reason whatsoever even as they casually shuffle into work wearing PJs and flip flops.

Hmmm …

Learn More About Our Compensation Software


What is the “American work ethic” anyway?

Simply put, the “American work ethic” is a belief in the moral value of work. This belief was recently exemplified in that widely criticized Cadillac commercial starring Neal McDonough in which he states:

“Why do we work so hard? … Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the cafe … they take August off. Off. Why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that? Because we’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers, that’s why.”

Later, McDonough sums up the belief system this way:

“You work hard, you create your own luck, and you gotta believe that anything is possible.”

Because work is virtuous, by definition those who work harder (or longer) are more virtuous than those who don’t.

That’s the American work ethic—belief in a meritocracy that’s driven by sheer force of will.

The GDP and the American work ethic

Other than anecdotes about improperly clad workers clamoring for “more, more, more!” is there another way to gauge the health of the American work ethic?

The U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) measures our national income and output. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the current-dollar GDP increased 1.4 percent, or $60.0 billion, in the first quarter of 2013. In the fourth quarter of 2013, current-dollar GDP increased 4.2 percent, or $176.7 billion.

However, according to a January 2013 article in The New York Times, “wages have fallen to a record low as a share of America’s gross domestic product.”

I’m no economist, but that sounds like Americans are working harder while earning less money, which isn’t what I’d expect from a bunch of slugs. What am I missing?

No work ethic or a different work ethic?

Some say the issue isn’t that Americans no longer have any work ethic but rather that they have a different kind of work ethic, a more self-centered work ethic that causes an employee to question “What’s in it for me?” before expending effort.

Others say the American work ethic has limits, and our love affair with work is a little ridiculous, anyway. When we view the world dispassionately, we know good and well that hard work can’t make anything possible, so why do we keep maintaining that it will?

How much is enough?

It’s no secret that Americans take less vacation, work longer hours, and retire later than citizens of other industrialized nations. If that’s not evidence of an intact work ethic, than what is?

And in the midst of wage freezes, pay cuts, layoffs, and increases in benefit costs, exactly how should American workers view work?

What do you think?

Want to learn more about PayScale and compensation best practices or gain certification credits?

Attend a FREE upcoming educational or accredited webinar.


Leave a Reply

2 Comments on "Is the American work ethic really dead?"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Blue Ocean

huh…..americans are lazy thats all i know….people from other countries come to USA and develop the country still and the name comes to people is american….what if they do there work without depending on other countries…..there will be a major drawback for the underdevelopment of the this BULLSHIT country !!!


Nice broad generalizations. I have 300 employees who do “there” work without depending on other nations. If the country is bullshit, go work with someone else.