Monday, February 4, 2013

The Ageless Protestant Work Ethic

Eric Schultz

In March of 1895, a reporter for The New York Times visited with “Aunt Betsey Saunders” on the occasion of her 105th birthday.  Her husband and sisters long dead, Saunders had sought refuge at the Norwalk Almshouse many years before.  (The more or less appropriate description for the resident of an almshouse was “inmate.”) The planned birthday celebration included a “generous dinner” and peppermint drops which, the reporter assured his readers, would satisfy old Betsey as much as if she had received a diamond-studded coronet.

Born in Saugatuck (part of modern Westport), Connecticut, in 1790, Betsey was still mentally sharp, had good hearing and carried on a lively conversation with the reporter.  In a year when Babe Ruth, Buckminster Fuller, and J. Edgar Hoover were born, she remembered the death of George Washington and announced optimistically that she expected to live to be at least 106.

On the other hand, Betsy had trouble walking and was completely blind.  In an age before recorded music or the radio, one wonders how a blind, immobile, indigent, 105-year-old inmate in a poorhouse might occupy her time or, indeed, find the energy to face each day.

Notwithstanding those apparently minor inconveniences, when the reporter called upon the almshouse at 10 a.m., he was distressed to find Aunt Betsey still in bed.  Aunt Betsey appeared embarrassed by the episode as well.  “She excused her apparent indolence,” he reported, “by stating that she had been up late the night before, and as there was nothing urgent requiring her attention, she had decided to get her accustomed rest.”

Still in bed at 10 a.m.?  Nothing urgent?  While not coined by Max Weber for another decade, the “Protestant Work Ethic” was itself apparently hard at work that morning in 1895. Reporter and reader alike knew the lazy achieved nothing in life, much less salvation, and it was clear--perhaps even to Aunt Betsey herself--that she best mend her slothful ways before it was too late.


hcr said...

Funny this should appear today. I talked yesterday with a young man about popular culture, comparing Bruce Wayne and the Kardashians and discussing the idea that one of the things that made Batman attractive when he first appeared was that he worked-- hard-- at being a crime fighter. In contrast, I have no idea what the Kardashians do at all. Hard to imagine they wouldn't have been the villains, rather than the heroines, in early Batman comics.

That whole work ethic thing seems to me to have changed dramatically since my childhood in rural New England, when you really did take your knitting to town meeting because you should not be seen in public idle. Since about 1980, success seems to be tied to how one manipulates media rather than what one contributes to society. No accident, I think, that those years mark the rise of television and its use to package politicians, stories, and stars.

Lots to think about. Thanks to Aunt Betsey (and Eric)!

Eric B. Schultz said...

WHAM! I haven't thought of POW! Bruce Wayne in a long time! He was one hard-working crime fighter, wasn't he!?! You know, I wonder if the nature of our economy--from farm to manufacturing to knowledge--hasn't muddled the connection between hard work and success as well? Success on the farm was determined by physical labor and being in tune with the sun, which got up early. Manufacturing was also physical labor in tune with a clocked assembly line, or at least someone else's schedule. The knowledge economy features young software programmers who are in such high demand that they can set their own working conditions, which includes laboring from home in pjs and hoodies and getting up when they want. Facebook, Instagram, reality TV, well-known bloggers--success in an information economy still requires focus and drive, but the "work" is quite often cerebral and done on your own clock and often in your own space. It all seems very confusing where, say, in 1840, success began and ended each day with milking the cows. . . .

Unknown said...

NOW I think you're onto something, Eric! I think farmers and "mechanics" in the nineteenth century (and probably factory workers, too) had much more contact with a work ethic that connected time with money.

But I resist calling it Protestant. WASPs weren't the only people who worked hard in this past you're imagining -- some would argue they worked the least hard. There were plenty of people whose work ethic sprang from the need to feed a growing family in a new land...or even sometimes from a philosophy of life that embraced work, self-sufficiency, and contributing to society, while leaving the trappings of religion behind.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Whether Weberian or not, there is something about staying busy and getting out of bed for jobs/tasks that seems (anecdotally) to contribute to longevity. Seeming to be busy and actually being busy may be two different things, but certainly staying active appears to be its own self-fulfilling prophesy when it comes to old age.

Unknown said...

Like the old joke:

Man asks: "Doctor, if I stop [insert your favorite vice here], will I live longer?"

Doctor answers: "No, but it will SEEM longer."