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.