The Protestant Work Ethic in These Here United States

…is alive and well, no matter what you might think. And even if you’re not Protestant.

Have you ever noticed commercials for cold and flu medicines that seem to be aimed at getting you better so you can go back to work? How about just getting you better so you feel better? And then you have this, which notes that our stingy sick leave policy really does have detrimental effects? Even economic ones, for those who think that’s all that matters?

As someone with ongoing-but-not-life-threatening health issues, and also as someone who thinks life should be about more than just one’s paycheck, I sometimes really feel I’m in the wrong country.  (Well, also, we don’t have national health care or nationally mandated vacation time or double cream or jambon beurre on a baguette sold in the subway for almost nothing or naps in the afternoon or ancient buildings on every street or Gothic cathedrals or… um… sorry.)

I do like 24-hour supermarkets, our widely varied landscapes, and the fact that books are comparatively inexpensive, though.

Still, why is it that we can’t balance our jobs and our lives better? I understand there are people fortunate enough to earn their livings at their passions, or at least at something they’re trained for and enjoy.  Most of us, though, have a job that is simply a means to an end — we sell our time and efforts in return for the money that allows us to live. It may be interesting sometimes, it may be rewarding sometimes, we may feel pride in a job well done. Or maybe not. But even when it’s a fairly good situation, most people can’t wait for the weekend. I know I can’t; I know all my friends can’t. And that’s terribly sad.

My mother used to accuse me of wishing my life away. Looking back on my school years, I have to say I agree with her there — I don’t miss living under someone else’s rules at home; I like the autonomy of being an adult. But I certainly miss the absence of the angst that can come from having to support oneself, and the feeling of loneliness sometimes as a single person. Mostly I miss the sense of potential, and I kick myself regularly for missing a lot of opportunities that would have been good for me at the time and may have made my adulthood easier, as well.

But we adults wish our lives away too, and that’s because most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at our jobs, which can run the gamut from wonderful ways to express our creativity and expertise through “just a job” to “OMG, is it Friday yet?” Then we try to cram our living into our weekends and the few hours of the evening.

Obviously people need to work — society needs goods and services and people need things to do. I simply wish there was more time for balance. It’s been pointed out before that labor-saving devices just seem to create demand for things more quickly — now that we can email or fax rather than wait for the mail or even a messenger, people expect the recipients of these documents to produce more, faster, rather than to produce the same amount and get to work fewer hours. Years ago I read an article about New York City that made a similar case regarding air conditioning — pre-A/C, in the summer NYC slowed down, dress codes relaxed, offices had summer hours. Now, it’s business as usual all the time.

And as we know, “business as usual” in the American workplace has become a source of a lot of anxiety and insecurity over the past generation.

I’ve talked to therapists and I’ve talked to a life coach, and I’ve yet to figure out how to negotiate a balance, alas.

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