About that whole Protestant work ethic thing…

About that whole Protestant work ethic thing…

This has been one of the most popular posts we’ve ever published here on Family Trek. Originally written in 2012, I recently updated the post and one of our most loyal readers who often came back to the post hated the changes. He felt this version was too polished. If you’d like to read this post as it was originally published, you can go here.


I was listening to a politician speak recently when he started talking about the value of the good old American work ethic.  He said his dad never had to teach him about work ethic, that he had learned it by watching him.  His dad was up every morning before sunrise.  He left the house before all the kids were up.  He worked long hours and didn’t come home till the sun went down.

I thought to myself, “the guy never saw his dad.”

 I don’t want to trivialize how hard life can be and the need at times to adjust to the cards life deals us.  I remember a season of my childhood when my dad was working three jobs to try to hold onto the life he’d built up for us.

The whole idea of the Protestant work ethic, which America was supposedly built on, has been on my mind recently.  The tagline of our blog is “Our quest to work less, live more, and travel the world as a family.”  My book, unWorking: Lifestyle Design in the emerging already here world, questions long held assumptions about work. It’s call unWorking, after-all, emphasis un.

What’s my problem with work?

It’s not that I have a problem with work.  In fact, I rather enjoy working.  I get satisfaction out of my work and it brings real meaning to my leisure.  I’m just not sure what we call an “ethic” — the Protestant or American work ethic — is an ethic at all.

I can hear the chorus now.  “How can providing for your family not be an ethic?  How can you not place value on that?  How can you not champion that?”

First, let’s clarify what providing for one’s family means.  Are we talking about basic needs?  Food.  Shelter.  Clothing.  Medical care.  I champion parents who do whatever it takes to provide these things for their kids.  Trust me, I’m a dad… I get the desire to give everything to your kids.  But it doesn’t take long for “providing for my kids” to slide into second cars and second mortgages.  Soon, the late model Ford just isn’t good enough and it’s time for a new car.  Soon, the neighborhood you’re living in isn’t nice enough and the house isn’t big enough either.

Is that stuff really for the kids?  My wife and I have adopted a patchwork income approach to providing for our family’s needs.  Because of our lifestyle choice, we get to spend a lot of time together as a couple and a lot of time together as a family.  There are times, however, when we just have to work.  I have to go out and see clients or one of us just needs to take the computer and go to Starbucks for a few hours to work.  Our kids get that.  And here’s a common dialogue in our house:

Me: Hey, Jackson, mommy has to go to work.  We’re just going to hang our for a while.  Just you, Emery, and me.”
Jackson: Why does mommy have to go to work?
Monica: I’m going to go to work so we can make some money to have things that we need and to do fun things.
Jackson: No, I want you to stay here.

Jackson is 4 and he may not get the fact that his mom and I have to work in order to live in the house that we do.  The bunk-beds that he and his sister love cost money.  All the travels we do together as a family that he loves so much cost money.  All those hot dogs he’ll eat at the beach this summer cost money.  But when given a basic choice between time with his mom and dad or our family having more money…. he chooses time with us every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

The sad thing is that I know people who are hiding behind either that good ol’ fashioned American work ethic or the life they say they’re providing for their kids… and all their kids want is them, not the money and the stuff that they’re trading themselves for.

We need to knock work down a notch. It’s not a glorious thing. It’s not a cross to bear. It’s just a means to an end.

We talk about people who have a strong work ethic with such admiration, “Michael is such a hard worker. His family is lucky to have such a hard working dad….” When I hear things like this I usually think one of two things. Poor Michael either hasn’t figured out how the world works or he’s avoiding his family by putting in long hours. Neither of these are admirable. It’s just sad.

We applaud the wrong behavior, the intent not the result, and our society has pushed people to work so hard that they can’t wait until they can someday retire, if they don’t end up working themselves to death.

Rather than putting my nose to the grindstone and missing these years with my family, I’d rather live a life now I never want to retire from.  My work brings meaning to my life.  My family brings meaning to my life.  My traveling brings meaning to my life.  My faith and friendships bring meaning to my life.  Why would I want to retire from this?  I choose to live this life now rather than waiting till tomorrow because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed to me and even if it comes my kids will be grown.

What do you think?

Is the American, Protestant Work ethic an ethic at all?



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  • Such a fantastic approach to discussing work ethic. I agree–100% (yet again)!! Thanks for sharing!

  • I think it is interesting to think about how little time is spent teaching our kids to think about what they want their life to look like and so much time teaching them to be “productive members of society”. What are they good at? What can they do quickly and efficiently? No talk about what will make their life rich and how much that particular occupation will cost them in terms of their family life and possible happiness.

  • I wake up just before 5 and do my writing. As soon as the kids rise, that laptop closes. My goal in life regarding work is to do it smart and fast so I can spend quality time with everything else.

    SO I would say work ethic is a good thing? But, you have to be smart about it. You have to work with true purpose. Not just for some myth or excuse you made up in your head.

    This is part of the whole game we’re playing. Trying to figure how to do everything in life wisely so we get the most out of it.

    Nice thoughts! Nice Article!

    • Yes, Justin… you said it. It’s all just part of trying to figure out how to do everything in life wisely. For me, it is a continuing quest to ensure my actions and the way I spend my time matches up with what I say I value most. In that sense, nothing I write is definitive — it’s all just a part of the journey.

      I would say that work ethic is a good thing — but not the way the Protestant, American work ethic has evolved. That type of work ethic champions long hours and never taking a day off work. It’s taught to our kids by encouraging perfect attendance in school and long nights doing homework. I think that type of work ethic places an over-emphasis on work at the expense of other things in life.

  • Great points. Something we should all be asking ourselves daily: “am I providing for my family’s real, basic needs, or am I working overtime to provide for my own selfish desire for power, prestige, luxury, excessive security, etc.” Great reminder.

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  • Well said Clark. I would also venture to add that some hide behind their work for a variety of sad, complicated reasons. It’s a cop out that most people won’t question so the myth of the work ethic continues…

    • Val, sadly, I think you are right. I was not sure how to delicately address that issue in the article but sadly I think there are a lot of people out there who work long hours because it’s easier than going home.

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  • “I’d rather live I life now I never want to retire from.” This is brilliant. What an awesome quote! That’s exactly how I feel, too. Work can be an enjoyable thing when it isn’t consuming your life. Even doing work you really love will soon become a drag when it’s all you ever do.

    And you’re writing a book? I want to buy a copy!

    • Thanks, Christina! When someone tells me they went to buy a copy of my book it confirms I’m not crazy for writing it! Wait, maybe we’re both crazy. (I’m crazy for writing it and you’re crazy for wanting to buy it)…

      That wanting to live a life I’d never want to retire from thing really is my goal. I love my work and because it does not consume me I have every reason to believe I’ll always want to work.

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  • I think I’ve re-read this post 20 times, about once a month. I guess that means its a good post.

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