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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  • Kenneallyd

    I often reflect on this very topic, but from a slightly different viewpoint. I vividly remember the mom and pop shops and the friendly staff eager to be of service. those were the “Ford” days, when there were a multitude of small businesses and true free market competition. Employers wanted happy workers and happy customers. they were willing to pay it forward. With the dilution of antitrust laws, and companies voraciously swallowing up one another, the bottom line became more important than the human line. Employers now squeeze out what they can from their employees, offering customers more for less… but not necessarily better and rarely with a smile. Welcome to the “Walmart” days. The corporations have won… they just want to keep it a secret so they can keep winning bigger. … and they now have personhood status so they can keep electing politicians who will help them do this. 🙁

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      I’m not sure I fully agree with your political angle in your comment, but we are mostly on the same page Dori and I sure appreciate your care and interest (in commenting). Thanks so much. We are completely in agreement that times have changed – and maybe not for the best!

  • http://mistermamasir.wordpress.com/ Nicole

    One thing that I have instilled in my son since he was just little is manners and respect. He isn’t even 4 years old yet and he ALWAYS says please, thank you and you’re welcome, without hesitation.
    I see a lot of value in it.

    I don’t know if my parents did the same while I was growing up – although I’m sure they must have, because I must have learned it somewhere, but I’ve always been that way myself and I have to say, growing up and working in retail was confusing and incredibly frustrating.

    I worked in the seasonal department of a hardware store and any customer that I passed, I always greeted and always offered to help out. I had customers who’s names I knew and who would come straight to me as soon as they stepped into the store.
    My co-workers on the other hand, also my age and a few quite a bit older, would run off, the second they saw a customer coming – into the warehouse, into the greenhouse, into the break room – and it was embarrassing.
    That is not how people should be treated no matter where you work.

    Unfortunately, at the same time, I think it is a fairly accurate and nonetheless embarrassing depiction of my generation and it’s only going downhill from here..
    That really saddens me.

    I’m really proud of my son.
    He will be 4 in May and he’s always excited to help out around the house, putting groceries away, cleaning, shovelling the driveway – and while there’s still a lot of time for that to change I really hope that it’s a preview of what he’ll be as he grows and matures.
    I hope that, no matter what the job or the task at hand, he will still have that hard working attitude and show respect to everyone he comes into contact with whether it’s his employer, his coworkers or clients and customers.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      I, too, was taught those manners. My boys were as well and they do say “Please” and “Thank You.” Nonetheless, the inherent drive, persistence, and general work ethic I witnessed on my trip does not rest in them (yet) nor so many other kids and even adults, it seems, today here in America. And, this concerns me a great deal!

      • http://mistermamasir.wordpress.com/ Nicole

        It really does worry me too and I’ve thought about it all night since I read your post. lol
        I honestly don’t understand why/how it happens. I have three sisters, we were all raised the same way, in the same environment and there is still one that expects everything to be done for her and handed to her without any actual work – 21 years old and she can’t so much as do her own laundry.
        The cultural differences between us as North Americans and Asian cultures, and even some European cultures really fascinates me.
        This was a really great post Bruce!

        • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

          Thanks Nicole. I will have to devote another column to the reasons I think this is occurring and what we might be able to do, at least in our own homes, to combat this poor attitude!

  • http://www.dragonsearchmarketing.com/ John

    I think what you are saying is quite obvious given your examples of hard work. When I worked in retail, I witnessed the lazy and jaded workers run away from helping out customers too, that is to say, they run away from work; they’d rather be bored and watch the clock than work and allow time to go by quickly. But whose fault is it? The worker who make six dollars an hour after taxes, or the corporation that doesn’t have to give them a meaningful salary? The jaded worker or the office that frowns upon employees talking to one another? The lazy, sick worker or the company that doesn’t give any medical benefits? If businesses were forced to treat employees better, I think employees would be more spirited and that American work ethic of the days of yore would return in a heart beat.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Sorry, John, I can’t blame the employers when I see people the world over work much harder for soooooo much less. There’s an ethos here that has nothing to do with wages – that is new, that is not good. I much appreciate your comment. Thanks.

  • http://www.dragonsearchmarketing.com/ John

    I have also been to foreign countries where I am overly impressed with their work ethic. I went to St. Lucia on my honeymoon, and everyone there seemed to love their service job and excel at it. But Sandals pay so well that employees of Sandals live very very well by island standards. Also, a lot of their work is based upon tipping which helps everyone display a happy attitude. I guess what I am trying to say is that if one is happy with their job, it shows.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      On that we totally agree John. How’s this for a coincidence – I went to St. Lucia for my (1st) honeymoon, too!

    • Truth Or Dare

      Please. You’re a tourist. Of course everyone will be pleasant to you. You’re probably white and perceived as rich or at least likely to be offering a good tip. Try living here for a while. Try requesting a basic service that is not followed by a tip. Then tell me about customer service. Truth is, I live here, I was born here and our customer service sucks and our work ethic is generally very poor.

  • Crayonwrangler

    Not even touching politics here. (It would be easy though, huh?)

    I was recently made to feel horrible (although that was their intention…I didn’t allow it) over the fact that my 5yo and 3yo must work for commission on items that they want. They are expected to do their chores for no pay at all (it’s the price you pay for living under my roof) but when they take initiative and go over and beyond; they are compensated. When they want a “luxury” item an envelope goes up on the fridge. They must earn the money before purchasing and it’s amazing how their wants change when they have to work for it.

    My husband and I both own our own businesses and our income is based on how hard we want to work. Not having the luxury of a salary or pay-by-hour job, we have learned what work ethic is and I’ll be darned if my kids get a free pass.

    Great post!

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      LOVE that plan for your kids! Terrific and thanks so much for commenting and sharing that!

    • http://mistermamasir.wordpress.com/ Nicole

      That is such a great idea.. I’m thinking it’s something I need to implement in our home!
      Love it!

  • http://brandontheduncan.com Brandon

    This is an interesting quandary. I can say from my experience, that I was never given an allowance, I was never paid for making good grades, chores on the farm (when older) were a part of life—not something contractual, and I was not allowed to have a job while I went to school.

    Did it build work ethic? I like to think so, and only because I had to earn what I received, whether it be making a pot of coffee for a quarter as substitute for allowance or doing extra around the house for spending money later on.

    I’ll admit I have gone through lazy spells, but I work my tail off now, even when I don’t have to. Something must have been done right.

    I don’t think your boys’ attitude is a failure of yours, I would be willing to bet that its simply a phase. Active engagement in your work will leave a lasting impression. They will eventually imitate that in one way or another.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Seems you were raised right Brandon. I appreciate your perspective and I pray you’re right that my modeling a good work ethic (and moral life) will rub off. Right now, given both boys are teens, I just hope I can keep them alive!

  • http://angiemedia.com/2010/08/20/escaping-sociopathic-abuse-almost-impossible-when-children-are-involved/ Rob

    Perhaps the American work ethic declining is in part due to how the public can see how so many get ahead by abusing and victimizing others. There are so many examples of prominent and powerful people who maintain job security and earn riches by milking children and parents for a profit. I’m not just talking about the Bernie Maddoffs of the world, but about the family law judges and attorneys and psychologists who strange, financially pillage, and abuse innocent children and parents.

    Then there are the sociopathic parents out there who refuse to share children. They direct endless streams of false allegations, harassment, and threats at good parents, severely damaging these people in the process. Meanwhile the lawyers and judges and their many friends get rich from the abuse and justify it as necessary to “protect the best interests of the children.”

    Realizing being a criminal is how many get ahead in America might make you lose some incentive to work. But more likely is that the psychological damage and even physiological damage caused by this unrelenting abuse can destroy a person. How many people who are chronically unemployed or underemployed are victims of government abuse by the family law and juvenile law systems manipulated by sociopathic parents? I suspect the numbers are very significant.

  • Lacubfan

    Although my politics differ from those that are likely of Kenneallyd, I must agree with his assertion that cultures have changed at corporations over the last 50 years. And you are right Bruce, so have the unions. But who runs both? People. And these ‘people’ are trained by parents and schools. Children are not encouraged to take risks in schools like they used to be when we grew up. It’s about getting an ‘A’ as the teacher tells you how to do it, and not about instilling the joy of learning. Parents don’t want to disappoint, so we pass out trophies to every player…win or lose…no matter how hard they tried or trained (or didn’t). Hard work is at best ‘expected’ but not valued like it used to be. “Work ethic” starts way before work.

    I treat my employees very well. They are highly paid, encouraged to grow and given generous time off to recharge. In my 15 years as an employer, I can honestly say, those with high work ethic as characteristics excelled, and those who lacked due to laziness or entitlement did not. Ironically, the hard workers were much happier than their counterparts. “pride in work?” What a concept.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      I couldn’t agree with you more Lacubfan! Do you have any open jobs for me or my boys?

  • http://lifeonprint.wordpress.com Cindy H

    I know exactly what you mean…and it saddens me to tears at times. When I was young, I would beg my dad to let me wash and wax his truck for some spending money. I had to do the dishes, take out the trash, vacuum, wash the cars, run to the store when ever asked, and guess what? I never minded! It was just what we did! Today’s kids and young adults (and some older adults) have no idea what it is to work..or even care to. They want and have instant gratification in all areas of their lives.
    I can get my boy to take the trash out..sometimes, he will unload the dishwasher, when asked several times…but I too laid the disservice upon the boy by not teaching him at a very young age how to do these things and by giving him the choice NOT to do them. Many times because it was just easier for me to do them myself 🙁
    But when I think about it, it kills me that I alone, as a single working mom, am going to have to teach my boy how to be a good, hard working man. He will one day be someones husband, someones employee, someones dad…and it is my responsibility to teach him. It is not easy and I have alot of catching up to do.

    But from a girl who began working at the age of 13 as a salad girl in the local Italian Restaurant and was taught to do almost everything from change a tire while pregnant to working on a construction site as an electrician at 18 years old….. I will can only hope that I can reverse some of the damage already done and teach my son the importance of a good work ethic and to become an honorable man with integrity.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      When you figure it out Cindy, please share with me how we’re going to get our boys (and girls) to understand this! As usual, I so appreciate your comment. Hope you’ll join us tomorrow night for #blogchat as Linda Sherman and I are sort of co-moderating after Mack took my topic suggestion (based on Linda’s great article – http://boomertechtalk.com/social-media-in-times-of-crisis-japan-earthquake-tsunami/

      • http://lifeonprint.wordpress.com Cindy H

        One day at a time my friend, one day at a time. It’s like breaking a bad habbit…they will scream, kick, whine, and cry…but it must be done. It is up to us to not be lazy or lax about it..and I am very lazy and ever so tired….so that makes me week..and he knows it, lol. Today I had to light the pilots that went out in someone’s apartment unit, because they didn’t know how to do it…they are much younger than me, yet I can do it…I took the boy back with me to help me, not because I needed the help, but because I dont want him to some day be a 25 year old man that has to have some woman light the pilot! lol…one step at a time 😉

  • http://www.collectiveinkwell.com Blogger Dad

    Here’s my thoughts on the manner, since you asked. My dad is the hardest working person I’ve ever known. He did everything right, by the book, and sacrificed his own interests in order to provide for his family. He grew up in a generation where if you worked hard your whole life, you could hope for job security and a pension not raided by corrupt businesses.

    As a child, I was taught if you work hard, you can achieve anything.

    However, in both my reality, and my fathers, I saw how doing the right thing was often not rewarded, but rather discouraged. Lazy people were rewarded for who they knew or whose interests they could serve, while hard working people who did the right thing were shoved aside and seen as a commodity whom you did not have to give anything to.

    I’ve actually had bosses who admitted to me that they routinely gave raises to people despite poor performance because they knew the people, as crappy an employees as they were, might leave and create an inconvenience in training new people. Meanwhile, hard workers, who actually deserved more money, were never given raises, because the bosses knew the hard workers were dedicated and wouldn’t leave.

    In short, hard-working people are often taken for granted. And many times, have nothing to show for their dedication and work. What child seeing this would come to value hard work when they see that other methods are likely to get them further?

    I think when companies, and political leaders (in both parties), begin to favor the interests of the few who help them get elected or put money in their pockets, the average, hard-working person is squeezed out and marginalized.

    Meanwhile, you get people who skate by through life, doing the bare minimum, raising children who will do the same. People who work hard and do the right thing are often looked down on by those who can use their position to get ahead. In short, the only perceived virtue left in hard work, for many people, is a job well done. But when you have no job security, when companies look only at the bottom line in shortsighted pursuit of driving up margins, what are you left with?

    I’m not saying that there are no companies left who value and reward hard work and innovative thinking. There are, and I’ve been lucky enough to work for and with some. But they are increasingly rare.

    Say what you will, but the state of America’s working class has declined due to the state of America’s bosses.

    • http://www.collectiveinkwell.com Blogger Dad

      Woops, I meant matter, not manner.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      You’re thrown a lot out there with this comment BD – have to digest it rather than offer a knee-jerk response. Thanks for taking the time!

  • Alexez

    Sadly, I think you’re right.  Even more sadly, it’s our fault.  The children we love have grown up and are growing up in a fantasy world where they don’t have to earn anything and are given what they want whether or not their parents can afford it. As you say, we’ve done them no favors.  I wonder how they will survive after we’re gone and their inheritance runs out?  

    As for work, it appears that college graduates believe they’re entitled to a job merely because they went to college.  Again, this may be our fault.  I look at pictures of people at college run job fairs and none of the people looking for jobs are smiling, exuding energy or even standing up straight.  Quite frankly, by their appearance alone (which speaks volumes) I don’t think they make employers reach for their wallets to hire them.

    In too many instances, those that have jobs especially client-facing jobs, don’t seem to satisfied with their station in life. Customer service in many instances is either a contradiction in terms or conjures up memories of an unpleasant, negative

    I agree, our children are not prepared mentally or emotionally for Workplace 2011 and Beyond ©.  They need help.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      How nice to get such a thoughtful comment so long after this was published! You mean people actually go back and look through archives? Wonders never cease!

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