Charles Murray’s recent book “Coming Apart: The State of White America,” documents the growing separation between professional and working classes during the past 50 years.
But he doesn’t look just at the income gap; instead he examines cultural differences through the lens of four “virtues” that shaped American identity during the 18th century: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity.
Of those four virtues, industriousness is key. “If just one American virtue may be said to be defining,” Murray observes, “industriousness is probably it.”
In 1960, 81 percent of working-class households in Murray’s study group had someone working at least 40 hours per week, but by 2008 the number had fallen to 60 percent. During that time period, the percentages for professional class households hasn’t changed significantly.
An even more revealing statistic is that the percentage of working class men, age 30 to 49, who reported themselves as “out of the labor force” in 1963 was 3 percent; in 2008 the figure had quadrupled to 12 percent. This is despite advances in health care and improved workplace accommodations for disabilities, which should have increased the percentage Americans able to work.
Murray attributes the change not to economic conditions but to a shift in attitude. Americans as a whole, he says, but especially working-class white males, don’t value hard work as much as they did 50 years ago. In other words, the working class is getting lazier.
In the end I find Murray’s analysis of his statistics less than convincing, because he doesn’t measure ways in which a change in attitudes may manifest differently among the different classes. Could it be that members of the professional class are spending more time at work but actually working less? Consider, for example, that fantasy football is estimated to have cost American companies $9 billion in lost work time during the past football season and that the average participant earns $80,000 per year.
But even if Murray’s answers aren’t entirely convincing, the questions he raises are fascinating.
In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin included “industry” among his key virtues. (You might recall that Franklin is the author of popular sayings like “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”)
Whereas Murray measures industriousness by employment statistics, Franklin thought of it more broadly. He characterized it this way: “lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
Franklin was a businessman, a politician, and a scholar, and the virtue of industry applied to all three areas of his life. In the 18th century, politics and education were considered leisure activities, something one did when one was not working. But they required effort and attention, so industry applied to them as well.
The opposite of industry is considered one of the seven deadly sins. Sloth, or what the Greeks called “acedia,” was not simple laziness but indifference, a lack of concern. Industry, by contrast, comes from the conviction that what one is doing is important, that it is worthy of one’s full attention.
It seems to me that what has happened during my lifetime reflects a corruption both of the idea of work and of leisure. When work is reduced to money-making and leisure to entertainment, the notion of both of them contributing something essential to the common good is lost.
Is it a coincidence that since 1960, when Murray’s study begins, 42 states have created lotteries to help fund education? Lotteries, in fact, have done nothing to improve education, but they do encourage reliance upon luck, the very opposite of the virtue of industriousness.
In the Midwest we take pride in our work ethic. We tell our children that hard work and delayed gratification are the foundations of success; at the same time we fund their education with a lottery, a practice that rewards blind chance and the thrill of getting something for nothing. What’s wrong with this picture?
A society that doesn’t pay attention to what it is doing — or thinks what it is doing doesn’t matter, especially when it comes to educating its children — is a society that doesn’t care. That, by the way, is the definition of sloth, and it isn’t confined to the working class.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.