The parking lot at my office is half-empty. The government is out of town. The experts I call to chat about the productivity problem are all on vacation. Even nervous breakdowns are on hold until next week, when the psychiatrists are back from the shore.
From where I sit, the entire country can be seen sliding down summer. At the very end of it, the peak of it, the sag of it, comes the long and luxurious weekend we name, ironically, after labor.
Labor Day, Labor Day Weekend. We have one national day dedicated to the glorification of work, and every year we honor it by taking a day off. We celebrate labor by committing leisure. Leisure Day Weekend.
Well, I suppose there is something traditional about this. Even the Creator, who presumably liked his work, took a day off to relax.
As for humans, our work history is largely a tale of trying to escape from hard work. The ax, the yoke, the computer, were inventions by those who wanted to work easier, not harder. The history of labor, for its part, was a chronicle of people trying to earn more and labor less.
In classical Greek a word for work also meant pain and sorrow. In that and other ancient cultures, work was a terrible necessity and the worker little more than a slave. Freedom was, literally, for the leisure class.
It was not until Protestantism dovetailed with capitalism that work became a virtue and sloth became a sin. The work ethic has come down to us in a typically secular American form, as the desire to do good work for its own sake.
But on this Labor Day, the air is likely to be full of glib eulogies for the death of that brief heyday of the work ethic. There is a general assumption by executives and analysts, all in their August idylls, that the only real workers today are made in Japan.
Our values, we read, have turned limp and our economy has turned soft. We work for paychecks and long weekends, instead of pride. Indeed, there is a streak of Reaganomics that believes the only way to motivate American workers is to scare them straight with unemployment charts.
But in fact the work ethic is as healthy as it ever was. It appears that Americans have a greater desire to find satisfaction in their work than the Greeks could have imagined. Two years ago, a Gallup poll showed that 88 percent of us believe in the work ethic. Now, a Public Agenda study says that 80 percent of us endorse the same ethic while only 17 percent see work as an unpleasant necessity.
While our belief in the value of work is high, our productivity is low. What's going on? John Immerwahr, who is working with Dan Yankelovich on the Public Agenda Foundation project on this issue, says that our system actually thwarts the desire to find gratification in work.
"Norms like the work ethic are very fragile," says Immerwahr, "and if society doesn't reinforce them they'll shatter."
Today the work ethic often goes unrewarded, even penalized. An overwhelming majority of workers, for example, want to help make industry more productive, but only 9 percent of them think that they would personally benefit if they did. Indeed, Bob Schrank, a work analyst, says pointedly: "It's hard to get people to be productive when all they see around them is layoffs. They figure the more we produce, the less they'll need us." In one decade, the number of people who believe "hard work always pays off" fell from 58 percent to 42 percent.
At the same time our institutions are operating under an old contract, from a time when managers told people what to do and supervised them while they did it. Today there's a greater need for employees who motivate and direct themselves, but management is slow to adjust.
The system of fear and rewards, the stick and the carrot that harnessed past generations, doesn't deal with today's problems of motivation. The terror of unemployment is real, as is the desperation of the unemployed. But as Schrank notes, "The theory that if enough people are out of work, then the rest will knuckle down, just doesn't work. There's a morale problem. Fear doesn't necessarily create any efficiency."
As for payoffs, Immerwahr says that "the old rewards system that offers shorter hours and greater pay is a mismatch." It doesn't match the worker's desires. Even in this economy, when he asked workers the most important things to have on a job, they listed the desire for respect, recognition, and the chance to develop skills and creativity . . . the opportunity to play out their work ethic.
No one is suggesting that we're a nation of closet workaholics, eager to turn in the grill and the hot dogs and the vacation perks for the job. But we are not a people who equate work with sorrow. We are a people who equate work with solid accomplishment and, at best, personal pride.
Emerson once said, "The reward of a thing well done is to have done it." That's still a decent motto especially for a leisurely Labor Day weekend in America.