Languid Day

Michael Metzger

Labor Day is a languid sort of affair. It’s a melancholy weekend – the last summer cookout… pulling in the dock… putting away the boat. Labor Day was originally a tribute to industriousness. What happened to that?

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. It was to be a “workingmen’s holiday,” acknowledging the nation’s indebtedness to workers’ industriousness. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday. On June 28, 1894, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” Congress recognized how industriousness helped sustain the country’s experiment in self-government.

This is an experiment few Americans recognize anymore. The framers expressed it this way: Liberty is sustained by virtue. Virtue is sustained by religion. Religion is sustained by liberty. It’s a never-ending circle – liberty, virtue, religion, liberty, virtue, religion. Religion requires liberty, since a healthy faith is a matter of conscience; not coercion. Liberty requires virtue, since only a virtuous people can govern themselves.

According to Charles Murray, the framers had four virtues in mind. In his book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, he writes, “Two of them are virtues in themselves – industriousness and honesty – and two of them refer to institutions through which right behavior is nurtured – marriage and religion.”1 Murray traces the collapse of all four in White America including the dramatic decline of industriousness, especially over the last 10 years.

Industriousness was one of the original defining characteristics of America. It was a “bone-deep American assumption that life is to be spent getting ahead through hard work, making a better life for oneself and one’s children.” Few were on the public dole. In 1837, Francis Grund wrote that during his decade in the United States, “I have never known a native American to ask for charity. No country in the world has such a small number of persons supported at the public expense.” Contrast this with today, where roughly 55 percent of Americans receive some sort of government assistance. Food stamps, clergy housing allowances, agricultural subsidies – these and many more fill the federal trough, creating a sense of entitlement that saps industriousness. This loss of industriousness is evident in the General Social Survey. Beginning in 1973 researchers asked a large sampling of workers to look at a card “and tell me which one thing on this list you would most prefer in a job?” The card had these choices:

• High income
• No danger of being fired
• Chances for advancement
• Working hours are short; lots of free time
• Work important and gives a feeling of accomplishment

Between 1973 and 1994, the results among prime-age whites remained remarkably consistent. The first choice was always work that “gives a feeling of accomplishment,” with an average of 58 percent of the votes in each decade. The two least-chosen first choices were always short hours (averaging 4 percent) and no danger of being fired (6 percent).2 This consistency is why the GSS dropped the survey for the next 12 years.

In 2006, the survey was resurrected and the results were startling. The 58 percent that always voted first place to work that “gives a feeling of accomplishment” was down to 43 percent. First-place votes for short working hours more than doubled to 9 percent. “No danger of being fired” doubled to 12 percent, with another 13 percent ranking it in second place. Murray writes that “during the last half of the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, whites by their own testimony became less interested in meaningful work and more interested in secure jobs with short working hours.” He says the result is America is looking “downright European.”

This loss of industriousness is reflected in shrinking working hours. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, prime-age white males worked an average of 45 hours a week. In 1960, only 10 percent worked less 45 hours. That figure has climbed to 20 percent. It includes white-collar males who have done well financially. They feel entitled to take numerous breaks – long lunches, frequent vacations, or afternoon rounds of golf. Blue-collar males can’t afford these things, so they spend their extra leisure time sleeping and watching television according to economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst. The bottom line is most American workers simply don’t work as hard as their predecessors did. White female workers fare better than their male counterparts, but African-American female and male workers do far worse than all other populations. It’s a big problem.

There is a solution and it’s found in the scriptures. In I Timothy 4:10, the Apostle Paul writes how he and his colleagues “labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God.” Strive is the Greek agonizomai, to agonize. It refers to especially arduous labor. Paul worked hard in the hope that God would use his labors. When American workers imagine their labors as helping renew the American experiment in self-government, they might once again see industrious as a virtue. The other motivations – big bucks, not being fired, or shorter working hours – will never make that happen. They’ll instead continue to turn Labor Day into a rather languid affair. And that might mean the American experiment in self-government is danger of dying.

1 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 130.
2 Murray, Coming Apart, pp. 168-9.


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  1. There is a completely different way of interpreting data than how Murray does with his comment “whites by their own testimony became less interested in meaningful work and more interested in secure jobs with short working hours.” It might very well be that whites have felt “unjustly” “let-go-of” and “over-worked” by their employers – compared to the generation that went before them – say, their parents – so that is why they now double-down on wanting security and shorter hours. If they’re working incredibly long hours now, with very little security, as compared to their parents, they now want less hours and more security, what’s so lazy or wrong about that? But not less hours as in “less than 40 or 50” but less as in “less than 50 or 60” hours. I don’t know any whites who don’t work long hours and growing numbers have less security. The concern with honesty? Yes, I get that. And the concern with ruining self-government, I get that. But I don’t get the idea that whites have gone lazy. If anything, that prior generation wanted “a feeling of accomplishment” because they had light hours and job security! They were bored! Today, you can’t be bored when your job hangs by a thread no matter how many hours you put in.

  2. It is interesteing the a clergy housing allowance is considered a form of government assistance. Are other self-employed occupations which claim a portion of their home as a legitimate business expense considered a form of government assistance?

  3. John:

    Sure. Any tax break or subsidy – be in Medicare, Medicaid, or taking a mortgage interest deduction – is considered government assistance as the feds are picking up part what what would normally be an individual’s financial responsibility to the state.


    You make a good point and might be entirely right. I would however add that you work in Boston and breathe that rarified air of Harvard Square. Take the subway to the south side of the city and observe worker habits there.

  4. Fellas, good stuff. But I beg to differ once again. I don’t believe a minister’s housing allowance is federal assistance “in the same way” that the feds pick up Medi-X or discounting a mortgage. In fact the minister “double-dips” by getting both the mortgage deduction and not paying tax on the money that pays the mortgage. The reason why/how she/he double-dips is because the minister “contributes to the betterment of society” in two ways: 1.) Being a minister and 2.) Being a homeowner. It is not assistance as if the minister is poor and in need of assistance. Educational institutions are also relieved of tax considerations because education “contributes to the betterment of society”. (That’s my phrase, I’m not sure what the tax code authors officially say.) Yes, the federal government actually recognizes ministers as bettering society, like churches, universities and hospitals. But a teacher or a doctor doesn’t get a housing allowance, only ministers. Happy Labor Day to me and my fellow ministers! Now I wonder, why did we bring up the minister’s housing allowance?

  5. Hmmm. . . if any tax break is considered government assitance, then is there anyone who is not on government assistance?

    Oh, I guess it was my fault that we brought up minister’s housing allowance. I sometimes get side tracked on minutia. I guess it happened again. I admit the larger issue of this blog was more important. Sorry.

  6. “…only a virtuous people can govern themselves.” Scary thought, considering the prevailing American moral climate.

  7. Good post as always. I always thought that Labor Day was a Union holiday, celebrating labor unions. As I grow older, I am less interested in advancement and accomplishment in work and more interested in not being fired or laid off before I retire. Perhaps this is a demographic shift more than a moral decline. When I was young, I was not afraid of downturns in the economy because I figured I had nothing to lose. Now I do…and that worries me.

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