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Marketplace Morning Report

Where did the American work ethic come from?

Jeremy Hobson Jul 27, 2012
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OK, so we work hard, but where did that work ethic come from? Did Thomas Jefferson refuse to take lunch breaks? Was Julius Caesar the last guy to leave the Senate on a Friday night? For a history lesson we talked with Roger Hill, a professor at the University of Georgia, Athens’ school of Workforce Education, Leadership, and Social Foundations.

If Professor Hill were to rank America’s current work ethic based on a 1-10 scale (with 10 representing moments in our history where we work hardest and 1 where we work laziest), he says he’d give Americans an 8 or a 9  overall.

“The difference is the nature of the work,” said Hill. “Usually when we think about work in the Western part of the world, which includes the United States, we go back actually to the time of the Hebrews and at that period of time work was primarily regarded as a curse. The Greeks also had poor attitudes about work. Work was not something someone would espouse to do.”

Negative attitudes about work continued into the medieval period, says Hill. But in the 1500s a significant shift occurred in attitude as a result of the Protestant Reformation.

For more on the history of America’s work ethic — and to hear Hill’s thoughts on whether a society’s work ethic dictates its success and what we can do to make sure we work the perfect amount today — click the play button on the audio player above.

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