Revisiting the Work Ethic in America

By McCortney, Amy L.; Engels, Dennis W. | Career Development Quarterly, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Revisiting the Work Ethic in America


McCortney, Amy L., Engels, Dennis W., Career Development Quarterly


Starting with a reflection on the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and the corporate fraud and bankruptcies of 2002, the authors provide an overview of the professional literature concerning the origins, evolution, practice, and future implications of the work ethic in the United States. Discussion focuses on the American work ethic from both a historical and a modern-day perspective, highlighting the formation of what is now considered a major paradigm of work; views on the changing nature of the work ethic, especially for women and members of minority groups; and implications for career counselors.

What is the American work ethic and how does it matter to people, especially career counselors and the people they serve? Tragically, new stimuli and recent events add weight to the discussion on the ongoing, seriatim, and incremental changes related to this complex topic and question. In the shock and numbing aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in September 2001 came months of countless accounts of heroic responses and initiatives during and following the collapse of the World Trade Center. Firefighters, police officers, counselors, and other workers from all walks of life were celebrated collectively and individually for their diligence, courage, and selfless attention to duty. In a national and international search for healing and recovery came repeated instances of human concern and outreach and of human dignity and reverential appreciation of and respect for others. In narratives and pictures in all the media, workers were celebrated and remembered in a manner unknown to current generations. Terkel's (1972) accounts of quiet, individual searches for meaning in life and work were writ large and loudly celebrated in numerous reports of human capacity, dedication, inspiration, and generosity in what had been previously taken for granted as mere quotidian, workaday tasks. In many respects, these noble, heroic, and unselfish acts were manifestations of ideal aspects of the American work ethic.

Before the ink dried in the depictions of this collective national grief and resurgence, before mourning ceased, monumental economic tragedies in the summer of 2002 shook the globe as revelations of corporate greed, dishonesty, fraud, and other corruption brought back the reality of the human potential for evil and moral frailty. Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and other corporate entities became major, glaring examples of reprehensible and irresponsible corporate mismanagement; public deception; and worker disenfranchisement. Unanticipated bankruptcies of these and other major corporations destroyed worker pensions and shook the foundations of trust in the capitalist system as the public saw executives pleading the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination while retaining fortunes that resulted from the fraud and mismanagement by corporate officials and while Wall Street brokers and investors looked for an end to this economic debacle.

Ironically, at the same time the United States commemorated the dignity of work and workers involved in surviving and rebounding from the devastation of the World Trade Center, Americans saw pillars of industry and commerce acknowledge (or plead the Fifth Amendment about) the betrayal of public trust and the abdication of personal and professional responsibility in fraudulent corporate misbehavior, with, in our view, devastating effect on human beings and the public's trust in investment markets and investment safeguards. We believe that human dignity, worth, and potential and a work ethic focused on doing one's best were at risk in the moral decay that toppled these corporations. In light of these very different tragic occurrences and the numerous changes in how work is viewed and how careers develop, it seems wise to revisit the American work ethic in search of personal empowerment and resilience, while remaining mindful of the ramifications of the work ethic on business, society, and individuals. …

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