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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