Getting back to work

Remember when the word most commonly associated with future was "leisure"? It seems like only yesterday -- and it was. Robots, we were promised, would do the dull, dirty chores at the office and in the home. While the automatons were minding the store and keeping the production line rolling -- not to mention, sorting out the wash and cooking gourmet meals -- we humans would go back to college, travel, and master chess or the ukelele, according to our taste in hobbies.

Now suddenly a 180-degree turn has been negotiated, and the fashionable talk has to do with the revival of the "work ethic" -- not for the robots, but for you and me.

Exit, the grasshoppers, Reenter, the ants.

Much is made by the latterday Aesops of the superior work ethic of the Japanese worker, particularly on the automobile assembly line. The hope of our economy, it is said, depends upon the American worker doing likewise -- rolling up the old sleeves and applying a little elbow grease, as we used to put it in the days before we began dreaming of all those robots.

Keen observers of the general exhorting have noted that it takes leisure to think about the work ethic. And so a lot of the cheer-leading gets done by upper-echelon executives, discussing the matter over a two-hour lunch. John Kenneth Galbraith, an extremely hard-working economist himself, was amused to hear a passionate endorsement of the work ethic coming from a well-relaxed source. When Mr. Galbraith reminded his friend "that he had done no work himself, at least since the early Truman administration, he responded with indignation: 'My father worked hard for every cent I've got.'"

As a sprinter given to fairly elaborate interims, we share the virtues -- and the vices -- of both the ant and the grasshopper. But, on th e whole, we favor work -- at least in theory -- and we were shocked to learn from the polls of Daniel Yankelovich how few fellow Americans do. In an excerpt printed in Psychology Today from his forthcoming book, "New Rules," Mr. Yankelovich reports that, in the mid-'60s, 72 percent of American college students believed that "hard work" always pays off." By the mid-'70s, the band of believers had shrunk to 43 percent -- may Horatio Alger forgive them! In 1970, 34 percent of the students could say "work is at the center of my life." By 1978, that figure had shriveled to a mere 12 percent.

Statistics like these inevitably drive interpreters to tut-tutting over the Age of Me and the alleged preference of young people for "self-fulfillment" rather than "service." We're not entirely convinced by the soft data and its sketchy analysis, and we certainly have more than a few doubts about the particularly ingenious explanation of Bibb Latane of Ohio State. Professor Latane suspects that the work ethic -- rather than being strengthened by membership in a work force --is actually weakened, each worker assuming he or she has less hustling to do because of all those other shoulders being put to the wheel. Professor Latane calls the phenomenon "social loafing." And so we have one more label for Our Times.

"I name a trend, therefore it exists" -- this is the law of sociologists and journalists. But does society reverse its attitude toward work -- or anything else -- in the short period of six or eight or 10 years?

We believe Mr. Galbraith is closer to the mark when he suggests that work is a recklessly elastic word, even as words go. Work can mean "drudgery" or it can mean "vocation." It can be nearly identical with "slavery" or it can be nearly identical with "play."

Work is what a prisoner chained to the oar of a galley does.

Work is what Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel does.

At the present, the word "work" is ringing its lower changes. People are less than enthusiastic about some other words like "corporate," "organization," and "authority," and "work" is associated with them.

Work is -- and always has been -- a mix for everybody. Homer nodded, and the ditchdigger can have his inspired moments. But the mix may be just a little better than the Yankelovich voters think. And consider the alternative: To be truly unemployed. To have Nothing to Do. Under the circumstances even Sisyphus might ask for his rock b ack.

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