What Happened to the American Work Ethic?

Category: Weekly Columns

work ethic

Hard-working woman in Vietnam – Photo by Bruce Sallan

I just returned from a fascinating cruise to the Far East where I visited eight different countries. As you can imagine, the diversity of cultures, sites, and people was considerable, but the thing that struck me the most was the exceptional work ethic I experienced.


 Self Portrait in Taiwan – Photo by Bruce Sallan

For a variety of reasons, mostly due to labor laws but I also believe due to a diminished American work ethic, the majority of the staff on our cruise ship came from Eastern European, South American, and Asian countries. Their demeanor and good cheer was so startling that I almost believed it was artificial.  It wasn’t.

Sadly, I’ve grown accustomed to a lack of friendly, quick, and accessible customer service in the States. I remember it being different in my childhood, when my parents would pull into a gas station and a cheerful, uniformed gas station attendant would rush out and ask what kind of gas we wanted and offer to check our water and oil, as well as without-being-asked, automatically wash our windows. Can you imagine such service today, even if most gas stations were not self-serve?

I also remember going into department stores and having a professional sales-person, whichever department I happened into, quickly approach me and offer his or her assistance. At shoe stores, the shoe salesperson would know my name, my size, and often have the perfect suggestion of a pair of shoes for me.  This seems so long gone as to be an urban legend. When was the last time you entered a department store and could even find a salesperson, let alone one with a smile and professional attitude towards their job?

Every staff person on our cruise greeted us with a smile, a warm “Hello,” and an offer of help no matter where or what his or her job was. The service in the restaurants was impeccable, professional, and a pleasure to experience. But, mostly I was struck by the apparent joy and pride they took in their jobs.

The same attitudes applied to every tour guide we traveled with in each of the eight countries we visited. Not only were they completely professional, they brought a positive approach, pride of country, and great desire that each guest was satisfied on their tours. Again, it struck me as so “foreign” given how much different all forms of “service” are at home.

Vietnamese Canoe Man – Photo by Bruce Sallan

What changed? Why is this the case? And, what does it mean for America’s future, let alone our kids who view most entry-level jobs as beneath them? For me it doesn’t instill confidence in our country’s stature in the world economy.  And, closer to home, I worry about my own two boy’s potential in the work place.

As I studiously avoid politics in my writing, I won’t approach the answers to these questions from that viewpoint, though I think both sides of the aisle would agree that the role of unions in our country has changed from advocate for fair wages and safe working conditions to advocate for time off and benefits. We see the extreme example of that in working conditions in Europe where they riot if it’s suggested their workweek be increased from 32 to 34 hours (or whatever the numbers are over there). But, I don’t touch politics.

I do “touch” on personal experience. My own two boys are great examples of the difference between work attitudes when I was growing up and how some of our kids are growing up today. Of course, each family has its own dynamic and ethic, whether work-related or otherwise, and my particular family is just a small sample, but I believe a relevant one.

My kids resist work, period. Even when given the opportunity to make money for extra chores, they would rather not. I’m not proud to admit this fact nor do I believe that I’ve done the best job of parenting if this is the result. But, it seems true for all of my friend’s children and a general pattern of our generation of parenting and our generation’s offspring. Again, I’m not sure why?

 In my case, there was a period of time after my wife left where I paid more attention to my boys’ emotional well being than I did to discipline and tough-love parenting. I felt bad. And, the moment we allow “feelings” to enter our parenting, we are likely undermining our job and the best raising and education of our children. Our job is not to make them feel good, but rather to prepare them for independence and to give them the needed skills to thrive, in what is an increasingly more difficult work place.

I did my boys no favors in pampering them during those transition years, when I was emotionally weak myself from the rigors of the changes wrought by my divorce. Now, while I’ve been blessed to create a new, good family unit with my second marriage, much of the damage has been done and instilling that needed work ethic is that much harder.

Water Village in Brunei – Photo by Bruce Sallan

My point is that many of my generation of parents have failed in preparing their kids to compete in today’s work place. Maybe “Tiger Mom” is too extreme an approach, but it’s clear my approach was too lax. What do you think?


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