In the early 2000s, Jennifer Sherman, a professor of sociology at Washington State University, went to study a poverty-stricken mountain town in Northern California for her thesis. The town had been stripped of its main source of jobs by an environmental ruling that shut down its logging industry, and she planned to look at that ruling's effects on marriage and family.
Instead, what she found upon meeting folks on the ground was that "every interview, people just talked about their own work ethic, somebody else lacking work ethic, or the value of hard work," she tells Grow. Even in the absence of jobs, work remained key in measuring human value. With whatever external proof they could find, "people really, really did make the big show of letting me know that, 'I'm a worker,'" she says.
That attitude toward employment — that belief that work and being a worker is at the core of someone's identity — is prevalent throughout the U.S.
"There are people who identify with their jobs everywhere," says Ludmila Praslova, a professor of psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California. "But I think the proportion of people who identify themselves by their work is very high in the States."
Steven Vallas, a professor of sociology at Northeastern University, goes even further in describing how Americans relate to work. "Whether it's personal fulfillment, social inclusion, or respectability," he says, in the U.S., "work is the single most important way of proving your worth" as a person.
The problem with connecting work and worth, experts say, is that it worsens the impact of job loss. Losing your job in America doesn't just mean struggling to pay bills and figuring out how you're going to get health insurance. It can also be a blow to your understanding of who you are in the world and why you matter.
A layoff in the U.S. can be a challenge to mental health and well-being. Without their jobs, Sherman's subjects — both the Northern California loggers and those she's interviewed since — "talk about depression, they talk about shame, they talk about self-hatred," she says. "It's not simply about can you afford your day-to-day existence but [about] are you worthy of human existence."
A loss this deep can cause anxiety and, as Sherman says, depression. On a societal level, if "work is so overwhelming a value," says Vallas, "when it's not available, that's when we see social pathologies develop." These can include drug abuse, alcoholism, and even suicide.
The Mayo Clinic recently posted a list of coping mechanisms for those dealing with job loss during the pandemic, which is projected to lead to 75,000 deaths of despair, according to research by the Well Being Trust.
If this linking of work and worth, then, is to the detriment of Americans' well-being, where did it come from? Why is it so prevalent?
Researchers and psychologists point to 3 pillars of messaging in American culture that hugely shape this thinking: the Protestant work ethic, the emphasis on individualism, and what gives one status in the States.
The Protestant work ethic dates back to the founding of the country.
When the Puritans, Protestant reformers escaping persecution, arrived in New England in the 1620s, they brought with them a certain set of religious principles. Among them was the belief that hard work and vocational success were a sign of eternal salvation. That, in fact, being a hard worker was a sign of one's value as a human.
But over these hundreds of years, even as the notion of working hard "for the glory of God," as Vallas describes it, faded away, the emphasis on the importance of working hard ― indeed, of working at all ― to prove oneself remained. In today's America, "the more you work," says burnout expert and author Anne Helen Petersen, "the better person you are."
That Protestant work ethic is still relevant today. It's evident even in government policy.
Among the federal government's largest public assistance programs are the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides low-income parents with children younger than 18 cash assistance for up to 5 years, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides low-income earners funds for grocery shopping, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides low-income earners tax credit to supplement their salaries. All 3 require people to work or partake in work-related activities like community service in order to qualify.
"The work requirements are built on this false assumption that people are choosing not to work," says Heather Hahn, senior fellow at the Urban Institute. In reality, for low-income earners, access to work or work-related activities can be complicated by anything from tenuous child-care arrangements to the limits of public transportation.
These policies "are very much focused on deservingness," says Hahn. "And deservingness is defined by your working a traditional job."
The outsized role individualism plays in American culture shapes this linking of work and worth, too.
In 1980, Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede developed a framework for comparing cultures featuring several key dimensions, including individualism versus collectivism. He defined individualism as a "social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families."
Today, Hofstede Insights, a private company co-founded by one of Hofstede's colleagues and building on his work, finds that the U.S. is one of "the most individualist cultures in the world," according to its website. Below is a comparison of how individualism as he defined it plays out in various world cultures based on its data from 2015-2018.
The simplest way to explain these scores, says Egbert Schram, CEO of Hofstede Insights, is that "the ranking represents the percent of time the median person from a given culture would choose the individualistic versus the collectivistic answer" when asked a question offering each as an option.
For example, he says, "the median American would choose the individualistic answer over the collectivistic answer 91% of the time."
Central to individualism is a belief in meritocracy, the idea that one succeeds by dint of ability, talent, and hard work, and therefore that every person is the master of their fate. This, too, is a popular lens through which to see the world in the States. But "it's important to identify that this is a myth," says Allison Pugh, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. "We all are dependent on others."
In many cultures, when people are unemployed for a long time, their conclusion is that "something is messed up with the system. The system is rigged," says Ofer Sharone, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of "Flawed System, Flawed Self."
Americans, by contrast, tend to blame themselves.
"I feel like I'm flawed in some way" is a common refrain among the American job seekers Sharone has talked to, he says. Because, per this meritocratic thinking, "if it's all in my control and I'm not getting a job," he says, "then something must be wrong with me."
The U.S. is also a "society built on the impact, the importance of the dollar," says organizational psychologist Gena Cox. And "money is representative of" status.
There is no shortage of examples of the reverence for money in American pop culture, tongue-in-cheek as many are. In the iconic 1977 musical "Annie," for example, Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks proclaims that, "I love money, I love power, I love Capitalism." In the 1987 hit film "Wall Street," Gordon Gekko infamously says, "Greed — for lack of a better word — is good. Greed is right. Greed works." Director and co-writer Oliver Stone intended the film to be a cautionary tale. Nevertheless, for many people, especially on Wall Street, "greed is good" became a mantra.
Perhaps Randy Newman said it best in his 1988 song "It's Money That Matters":
Sonny, it's money that matters
Hear what I say
It's money that matters
In the U.S.A
It's money that matters
Now you know that it's true
It's money that matters
Whatever you do
For those not born into wealth or connections, work is the way to get money — and, with it, status.
In human societies, status is "how we organize," says Cecilia Ridgeway, professor emerita of sociology at Stanford University. Individuals within societies have a certain knowledge base, for example, that the group needs to survive, and others then defer to them and their expertise in an effort to ensure their own survival.
Human societies are complex, so how status plays out within them is complex as well: It's tied not just to getting by, day to day, but to social survival as well. Status is "about how people respect you," says Ridgeway, "and whether or not you feel in yourself that you are a valued and respected member of the community."
When the U.S. fought for independence from Britain and its monarchy, "we were leaving the old aristocracy," Ridgeway says. "The U.S. was founded with the idea that everybody would be self-made."
In the absence of a traditional caste system, Ridgeway says, what you could do for yourself and your family singled you out: "In the United States, [status has] all crystallized in work."
But even if you have that work, "how do you and others know you have, in fact, done well, made an exceptionally valuable work contribution?" asks Ridgeway. "By those status symbols it earns you: titles, money, valuable possessions."
So proof of status doesn't just have to come from money or possessions, as Ridgeway says. Sometimes it's the title a job gives you, like doctor, lawyer, actor, or journalist. And sometimes, as in the case with Sherman's Northern California loggers, it's simply about being able to say that, "I'm a worker."
During the coronavirus pandemic, many people have had that support and comfort taken from them.
There's nothing inherently wrong with working hard, being self-reliant, or striving to achieve status. Indeed, some Americans appear to thrive in this model.
And the intensity with which Americans can be attached to work is not just about cultural messaging that says work is what makes you respectable and worthy. The States are unusual in that so many people get their health insurance from their employers, as well as their retirement plan and many other crucial benefits.
Data shows, though, that a different societal orientation around employment can improve people's well-being and protect it even in times of mass financial instability like a recession.
The top 5 happiest countries, according to the 2020 World Happiness Report, are Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway, which have strong social safety nets, trustworthy institutions, well functioning governments, high quality of life, and an emphasis on work-life balance, rather than simply work. The U.S. comes in at 18, below Canada and the U.K.
And people in countries that value leisure over work show "greater life satisfaction" overall, according to a 2019 Journal of Positive Psychology paper exploring the well-being of 220,000 citizens of 79 countries.
Moreover, "people who live in countries that have more focus on leisure and less focus on work actually showed lower decreases in subjective well-being during the 2008 economic recession," says Ashley Whillans, professor at the Harvard Business School and co-author of the paper. Those people were likely "better able to maintain their happiness in the face of economic shock because their identity wasn't wrapped up in their work."
"The beliefs that we hold on to can fundamentally shape our subjective well-being," she says. Ultimately, "we would all be in a little bit of a better place mentally in the current crisis if we started to focus our self-identity and identification as a person on pursuits outside of work."
"Here, in the United States," says New Mexico-based therapist Angela Romero, "it's almost impossible not to be bombarded with" this notion that paid work is necessary to succeed as a person, whether it's coming from political messaging, popular culture, or your community.
That makes it hard to separate yourself from this thinking, let alone to change the attitude itself.
If you happen to be unemployed, perhaps as a result of the pandemic, and any of the above resonates, Romero suggests asking yourself the following 3 questions:
What do you like about yourself? What do you value in this life? And what truly makes you feel joy and fulfillment outside of your work and career?
It would take an effort on all fronts of American life to change these deep-seeded beliefs. Policy changes that mandate paid time off, for example, could help, suggests Whillans. Perhaps a more nuanced conversation about work-life balance in entertainment could as well. But knowing you have the tools to challenge this thinking for yourself, at least, can be a good start.
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