Large numbers of younger American workers, especially Gen Z’ers, those born between 1997 and 2012, are demonstrating some dangerous attitudes about work and employment. The problem isn’t a lack of jobs. Nearly half of small businesses recently reported having unfilled job openings, nearly twice the half-century historical average. And 41% say they have raised compensation. Overall, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 10 million unfilled jobs at the end of April, followed by 399,000 new jobs in May.
A more likely explanation is changes in mores and attitudes towards work. “Funemployment,” for example, according to Investopedia describes “those who lost their jobs and choose to use their newfound freedom to pursue leisure activities such as traveling, going to the beach, and being physically active until they find a new job.”
Taking one’s time to find a new job while drawing unemployment benefits is nothing new, but usually those who do so are working for cash to increase their income. The “funemployed” are spending money on “leisure activities,” and many live with their parents.
Then there are those who still work but practice “quiet quitting,” basically goldbricking on the job by doing only the bare minimum. Gallup estimates that half of the workforce practices “quiet quitting,” especially Gen Z’ers and younger Millennials. This attitude was facilitated during the Covid years, when the trillions of dollars in federal and state money sloshing through the economy made it affordable to blow off employment or risk one’s job. And don’t forget, during the lockdowns many employees got hooked on working from home, where supervision is lax and goofing off on the company’s dime is easy.
But again, changing attitudes toward work are more pertinent than money when it comes to a lack of respect for honest labor. According to 74% of managers in a Resume Builder survey, Gen Z’ers are “difficult to work with. . . . About half (49%) of [managers] find it difficult to work with Gen Z’ers all (11%) or most of the time (39%). Additionally, 16% say they find it difficult a lot of the time, while 20% say some of the time and 10% say not much of the time. Only 4% said they almost never find it to be difficult.
The reasons managers find Gen Z’ers to be challenging employees are a “lack of technological skills (39%), effort (37%), motivation (37%),” among other behaviors and traits such as “easily distracted,” “easily offended,” and “dishonest.” Moreover, they lack communication skills: “While they are proficient in using digital communication tools,” one manager said, “they may lack some of the interpersonal skills required for face-to-face interactions. Gen Z’ers could benefit from developing their communication skills to build stronger relationships with colleagues and clients.” It’s no surprise that one in eight managers have fired a Gen Z’er within a week of their start date.
What we have produced, then, is a generation disaffected with work, and demanding that their feelings, beliefs, and comfort take priority over the needs of the business that pays them. As the Wall Street Journal’s Andy Kessler points out, Gen Z’ers have unrealistic expectations for their jobs: ‘“I want a career with a purpose,’ which usually means an activist. Or ‘I need a good work-life balance,’ which suggests someone doesn’t want to work very hard.” He quotes a CEO who “recently spent an entire afternoon discussing his company’s pet-bereavement policy.”
In short, Kessler writes, “Work has become a dirty word. Cyber bohemians just want to dream and stream.” Nor does it help that a prestigious media authority like the New York Times runs headlines like “How to Fight Back Against the Inhumanity of Modern Work,” for a story about employees whining over the company’s digital monitoring to measure productivity.
Only a society as rich and comfortable as ours can afford such inflated self-esteem and sense of entitlement to psychic comfort and satisfaction without having to spend their time working rather than gratifying their transient juvenile whims.
But this abandonment of regular work creates a big moral hazard that we will dangerously diminish our once-strong work-ethic and the boons of self-respect, dignity, good character, and virtue that all work provides––a risk no nation can afford if it wants to stay strong and prosperous.
More important, respect for work and its contribution to building people’s characters has a larger political dimension. The rise of constitutional governments that empowered non-elites challenged the traditional aristocratic disdain for physical labor or work directed to making a profit. In both ancient Greece and Rome, non-elite, working citizens, especially small farmers, were foundational to political freedom and equality.
The Greek poet Hesiod, for example, wrote around 700 B.C., when the constitutional city-states, including democracies that empowered middling non-elites who were neither serfs nor nobles, were forming. “The immortals decreed,” Hesiod writes in his Works and Days, “that man must sweat/to obtain virtue,” since “for mortals order is best, disorder is worst.” The unforgiving harshness of the natural world, and the destructive passions and impulses of humans require virtue, particularly the power of self-control over our passions and impulses in order to do what we must for the future, rather than what we desire at the moment. “Do not postpone for tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,” Hesiod advises, nor “waste time in aimlessness.”
The Roman poet Vergil, who wrote during first-century B.C. when the Roman Republic was degenerating into an autocratic empire, explicitly linked farming and work to the greatness of the Roman Republican, and the decay of both to its demise. The citizen-farmer and citizen-soldier, both functions requiring virtues like self-control, duty, courage, reliability, and hard work, were disappearing. Elite Senators and other plutocrats had amassed vast estates worked by slaves, displacing the small citizen-farmers and sending them to join the urban masses sustained by “bread and circuses,” as Juvenal later would call the subsidies of grain and oil, and the gladiatorial spectacles that distracted the dispossessed.
This link between farming and civic virtue is central to Vergil’s Georgics (38-32 B.C.), forgotten today but once one of the most-read and admired of ancient works. In it he links the declined of farming and what we would call the “work ethic” to the Roman Republic’s corruption and decline: “So many wars, so many shapes of crime/Confront us; no due honor attend the plough,/The fields, bereft of tillers, are all unkempt,/ and in the forge the curving prunin-hook/Is made a straight hard sword.”
In Vergil’s poem, the hard-working small farmer is the exemplar of the virtues and principles necessary for a consensual government whose citizens participate in running the state. For farming––even today when machines and technology have lessened the grueling labor agriculture demands––embodies the principles and virtues also necessary for being a good citizen: frugality, duty to family, the gods, and the political community, a strong work-ethic, self-control over selfish desires and passions, and self-sufficiency and independence.
Most of our Founding Fathers were familiar with this georgic tradition that joined representative government to the work ethic and virtues most obvious found in farming. Thomas Jefferson is the most famous of the champions of agrarianism, the political expression of the codependence of farming and civic virtue. In 1785 he wrote to John Jay, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests, by the most lasting bonds.”
Of course, today there is no possibility of renewing the culture of small farmers. Even Jefferson accepted that manufacturing, commerce, sea-borne trade, and urbanization were inevitable. In another letter from 1785, he said agrarianism was “theory only,” for “our people have a decided taste for navigation & commerce.” He was also familiar with the failed attempts by those like the Gracchi brothers in the late 2nd century B.C. to resettle Roman citizens on the “public lands” taken from Rome’s enemies, where they could restore the dying traditions of the citizen-farmer.
But the virtues, ethics, and character fostered by honest work can also be found in a modern economy’s jobs. And those virtues and ethics are similarly vital to the functioning of our Constitutional order. That’s why the decay of the work ethic among our youngest generation is dangerous.
A weak work ethic also reinforces other troubling signs, such as the unpopularity of marriage and bearing children; an indifference to service in the armed forces; and the disdain for the free-market economy, and the preference for socialism, “wokeism,” and the progressive Leviathan state ruled by regulatory agencies staffed by unaccountable bureaucrats who fancy themselves “experts” smarter than everybody else, when in fact they execute policies and rules that an illiterate farmer in 1776 would have known are preposterous and dangerous.
America’s greatness was in great part a product of the American work ethic. The contempt for that virtue by a significant number of our younger generations is a troubling sign that our greatness may not endure.