A new book examines the work ethic in America.

Something is wrong.

Americans are not working much, and they are not working well. Our rate of production as a country is in trouble because of it. But that’s not all. Pollster Lou Harris found some years ago that 63 percent of American workers believed that people don’t work as hard as they did ten years ago: 78 percent said people are taking less pride in their work; 69 percent thought workmanship is inferior; and 73 percent believed workers are less motivated.

What has happened to the industry and productivity that made this country the marvel of the industrialized world?

Americans have largely forgotten the place of thrift, industry, diligence, and perseverance—ideals summed up by the words work ethic. From the sturdy Scottish Protestants to the Italian Catholics and enterprising Jewish immigrants, from the tiny country churches to the synagogues to the grand cathedrals of the cities, America was built by a religious people. And one of the basic beliefs they brought with them was that, in the words of writer Arthur Burns, “their work mattered to God.”

They understood that work is much more than just a need to keep busy or bring home a paycheck. Meaningful work is a fundamental dimension of human existence. Set within us from the beginning, this purposeful nature drives us to work hard, to be productive, to create, and to accumulate the results of our labor. Work is thus a moral imperative, which is the source of ethic in work ethic—probably one of the most misunderstood terms in the English language.

The work ethic—commonly called the Protestant work ethic—is largely credited by many with industrializing the West and fueling America’s incredible economic growth. For many people, ...

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