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In the United States (my former home), the work ethic is sacrosanct. This dovetails nicely with the traditional Chinese values I grew up with, which marked sloth and leisure as a grave sin. Unfortunately for me, I was predisposed to laziness (I prefer to call it efficiency for ego stroking purposes). My father once said, veins throbbing, that I was by far the laziest of his 8 children. He jokingly remarked that my recent move to the south of France confirmed his assessment.

To clarify, I respect the value of work. I have worked hard sporadically in the past for goals and values I believed in, and took pride in its accomplishment. That said, I never valued work for the sake of work. After all, whatever work was being done had to mean something, otherwise it was just busy work. One also had to ask who benefited from the hard work–most hard work these days have been hijacked to benefit the economic elites, so exhorting people to work hard is simply a means of legitimizing exploitation. Work in it of itself is not an intrinsic good, which is something I believe not enough people understand.

What is work, exactly? Does it have to be paid? Is it anything you do that you exert effort in? Does it have to do with continuing something you hate out of duty? If you enjoy it, is it still work? Is some measure of suffering necessary to legitimize the activity as work?

In the U.S., people on welfare are demonized as lazy and shiftless, who are completely deserving of their circumstance. The lack of employment is considered a character defect, which should be eradicated by social spending cuts and punitive government measures. Perhaps the threat of homelessness and starvation would extinguish the alleged slothful tendencies of the underclass.

Alas, the problem with work is that it is not always available to those who want it, no matter how low they aim. Nor is it something everyone can do–if one becomes incapacitated or ill for any reason, work is an impossibility. It goes without saying that working hard without being able to pay for basic subsistence is no better than unemployment (it’s actually worse, by many measures).

Perhaps the real issue is that American culture fetishizes the idea of work. This is not unsubstantiated snark–according to CNN, record numbers of Americans are forfeiting paid time off in an effort to prove their dedication to their work:

Productivity and stress management trainer and coach Joe Robinson says the issue is driven by a number of factors.

“One, workers are afraid to take their vacations in the layoff era,” Robinson said. “It might mark them as less ‘committed’ than coworkers.

“It’s called defensive overworking. They work long hours and skip vacations to insulate themselves from cutbacks.”

According to Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, 28% of workers surveyed said they’ve declined to take earned days off in order to illustrate their dedication to the job.

“They say, ‘I don’t want to be seen as a slacker,’ ” Dow said. ” ‘I want to be seen as someone who is really dedicated.’

“But it does them no good whatsoever. People who take more time off tend to get more raises and promotions.”

“It’s futile,” Robinson agreed. “People who don’t take their vacations get laid off just like everyone else.”                         Chuck Thompson, CNN

Another consideration is the prospect of an increased workload after coming back from vacation. It’s common for the remaining staff to do the work of several laid off employees:

Work force cutbacks and “device addiction” are other factors.

“Lean staffing, with more and more people doing the jobs of several people, makes it hard to escape,” Robinson said. “They’re not taking vacations because they have too much work.”

“About 40% (of workers surveyed) say they’re afraid of all the work they’re going to get to when they get back from vacation,” Dow said. “Work pileup scares the hell out of them.”

“Another big reason people aren’t taking their time is that they are caught up in ‘busyness’ and device addiction,” Robinson said. “Finally, many people are so caught up in the performance identity, worth based on what they get done, they feel guilty when they step back.”   Chuck Thompson, CNN

It’s worth noting that the CNN report is describing people who work themselves to the bone for someone else, and not people who are working for themselves. Apparently, employees must treat their employment status as a privilege that can be taken away at a moment’s notice, and must be willing to show their gratefulness by working more for less pay. Which begs the question, isn’t work supposed to be about earning your keep? How did work become a privilege of the “fortunate”, and how did we let this happen?