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Observations on Workaholics and American Work Ethic

The American Dream is Shiny with 0% APR.

I want to talk for a second about my friend’s mom, which is actually an amalgamation of several friends’ moms, but for the purposes of this post will be presented as a singular archetype.

(For a more academic read on cultural values read this good article by Harvard professor Juliet Schor. Or if you’re looking for statistics of US workers compared to European workers read here.)

My friend’s mom is a highly competent and well-salaried woman who is seemingly successful in all personal and professional aspects of her life. I respect her immensely for her management skills and her ability to disassemble a bed and have it stacked for moving in a minute flat. (It was the easiest helping a friend move stint I have ever done, because her mom practically did it all for me.)

MFM works as high level administrative position for a major pharmaceutical company. She has a caring husband with whom she owns a nice house, dresses well, and drives a Beemer. We get along because I’m generally pleasant and avoid political conversation with people with the title of My Friend’s Parents. Little does she know that I’m judging her, not for the qualities or material goods she possesses, but for the tacit arrogance with which she presents them.

More after cut.

Even though I’ve only conversed in depth with MFM’s the few times she is home in time for dinner, it’s clear what side of the political spectrum she lies on. I grew up in a Red county. Not “grab yer guns n’ bash some gays” Red, but a highly educated Red that can’t remember what it’s like to sleep past 9 AM and pops antidepressants like there’s no tomorrow and is highly possessive of everything they own and would prefer not to interact with neighbors to a reasonable degree. She fits in perfectly.

It’s a personal choice to dedicate a more than global average amount of time and effort to a career. But what’s interesting about MFM is her need to instill this work ethic into her daughter. A while back, her daughter was clearly distressed from working while doing school because her food-service job had late, demanding hours. Her grades were suffering. She had to increase her anxiety medications. All her friends recommended she take a break, quit, and get a less demanding job. Yet her mom encouraged her to keep working, justifying the experience with trite platitudes like, “Work builds character.”

Character.

Playing World of War Crafts builds character too, but it’s not the type of character that the American work ethos values. There is a basic psychological difference between the people who contribute to The 53% and the people who re-blog Actually, You’re the 47% and a lot of it comes down to what we value and how we process pride.

MFM’s once took the time to talk to me once over my financial aid difficulties. She relayed a story about how she was “dirt poor” when she was a teenager and “now I run 26 mile marathons.” I couldn’t relate that that life story because I don’t gage my primary success in life by my ability to run long distances without stopping.

I know someone’s going to interpret this anecdote as that I don’t value hard work or I’m not respectful of those that do, and I’ll explain why they’re wrong in a minute. MFM was a single mother at 19, and that’s fucking hard. I’m sure she worked her ass off to get through undergrad and then grad school. But I was immediately suspicious of hyperbole in her claim that she got to where she is now “by herself.”

Student loans for undergrad won’t cover tuition, books, and diapers. Most scholarships won’t pay for someone to watch your newborn, which needs to be fed every two hours. Unless you had a credit card when you 14, chances are someone had to co-sign your loans. I know that MFM’s has a large family that she’s on good terms with. What I’m guessing she left out of her self-made story, was the hours that her own mom spent watching her granddaughter. And the taxpayers that helped fund her public school and grants.

It’s not that I or the Occupy Wall Street crowd devalue work. It’s that we crave a certain type of result from our work that we perceive society is not making it possible for people in certain circumstances to achieve anymore. And when people like MFM fail to recognizes the support structures they had in their success and the elements of luck (right major, right time) involved, it devalues the meaning of work for the rest of us.

What I’m really trying to say is my friend’s mom is Ayn Rand.

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