THE AMERICAN WORK ETHIC IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
From 1900 to 1970, American work was propelled by a society that generated dramatic increases in goods through mass production and mechanization of the labor process. In manufacturing, the work process was characterized by the factory system, nonhuman forms of energy, automatic and high-speed machinery, standardization of parts, repetitive and precise work tasks, and the intensive subdivision of labor. In agriculture, expansion of productivity resulted from the use of machinery, irrigation, fertilizers, and scientific knowledge applied to soils, plants, and animals. The growth in the American economy during this seventy-year period averaged 3.5 percent per year and the growth in productivity averaged 2 percent per worker, per year. Since the 1970s, the United States has become an information and communication society, with armies of computer operators storing and transmitting information required by national and international enterprises. Computers and microprocessors in manufacturing work have become tools used to design, plan, manage, and carry out work tasks. The consequence of the change to a computer- and information-dominated society is that work and the work ethic is being redefined as the twentieth century comes to a close. Workers desiring good jobs require better education and need to be more flexible and prepared to change jobs as rapidly as changing markets for goods and labor change. In industries using new technologies the work environment is in constant change due to new products. Companies with fast technological changes tend to employ workers with higher levels of education, the kind of workers who have more flexibility and the capacity for further learning.
During the twenty years from 1970 to 1990, the rate of growth of the economy slowed to an average of 2.5 percent per year, and the rate of productivity fell off to only 1 percent or less. The result has been a crisis in the economy and society and increasing fear in the workplace for jobs and security. What has happened is that the vast, efficient American marketplace is no longer the province of Americans alone. Since the 1970s, American businesses and their workers have faced intense