Puritan’s Work

The Puritan work ethic, also known as the Protestant work ethic, is deeply embedded in the American psyche. The ethic basically codifies a relationship between hard work, control of emotion and frugality, and heavenly salvation. It tells us that if you keep your nose to the grindstone on Earth you are guaranteed a blessed spot in Heaven.

Today, the religious aspect of this ethic has faded but the core principle of hard work yielding tangible benefit survives. Modern-day achievement ideology, made manifest through the meritocracy, is an outgrowth of Puritan philosophy and lives on as a constant in American history; hard work and education are the keys to worldly success, a success within reach of anyone who puts in the effort and wants it bad enough. Yet the time has come to question how realistic, and healthy, this ideal is. We are no longer a young nation with literal wide-open expanses to conquer. Nor are we the country of 70 years ago, left relatively intact while our Western brethren lay in ruins after devastating war. Wide-open fields look narrow in today’s globalized world and the standard formula of hard work and education is proving incomplete. Is the Puritan concept of hard work, frugality and control, revised in the last century toward worldly gain, becoming dated and, in some ways, dangerous? The developing answer is “yes” and it is coming from the children of those for whom the work ethic rang true.

The December 2015 issue of The Atlantic features a cover story entitled “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” Written by Hanna Rosin, the article delves into a troubling pattern among high school students at the affluent Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California. Children of highly educated, hard working parents are killing themselves because of academic stress and the belief that their primary life purpose is to work hard and do well, however that is defined. Nearly three quarters of Gunn’s students have at least one parent with a graduate degree, many of them working in the tech industry, one of the most successful and forward thinking industries of our era. These are the last kids one would expect to be suffering from depression. On paper, they have it all: freedom from want, access to high quality education, a life unburdened from having to contribute to family economic survival and the ability to devote themselves entirely to their own futures. Looking at them from afar, it seems that life’s harshest burdens have been removed from their paths. So why do they feel so stressed?

This story of adolescent stress is sadly common. In 2014, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a survey of 1,950 adults and 1,018 teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 taken in August, 2013. The survey’s teens reported a notably higher level of stress during the school year compared to the adults (5.8 for teens vs. 5.1 for adults on a 10-point scale). Teen stress levels dropped during the summer months to 4.6 but still sat well above the level APA considers healthy, 3.9. A number of the teens said they felt overwhelmed (31%) and depressed (30%) because of stress. And the stress caused some to feel consistently tired and uninterested in even the most basic of human activities – eating three meals a day.

What is going on? As the parent of two adolescents, this topic is very dear to me. We live in what is considered to be one of the best school districts in the nation, based on a 2015 Newsweek ranking placing Ridge High School at #37 in the top 500. Equally telling in Newsweek’s survey are our town’s 100% graduation and 96% college-bound rates. The parents in our town are rightfully proud of our schools and our children benefit from access to an excellent education. I find it intriguing, though, that nearly all of our students go on to college. Is that their only option?

There is a well-worn path for students from good schools, a path that Rosin alludes to in The Atlantic and one that teens follow with little question. In many ways, we successful professionals and the society we function in have perverted the Puritan work ethic from hard work as the means to survive and thrive, both on Earth and in the afterlife, to hard work as the means to protect against unseen economic terrors and ensure ever increasing levels of success. We are not asking our children to be part of the Greater Good, we are asking them to do well for the sake of the Greater Affluence.

Rosin’s painful article comes to no specific conclusion. She confesses as much, knowing that all the data in the world cannot uncover the heart of the problem. In truth, the problem is one with many causes, showing up in many ways across our young. These children of affluence, who will one day make up the cadre of future professional, political and social leaders, are telling us clearly that something is wrong. Perhaps they sense that life’s runway is shorter than we adults assume it to be. Perhaps they know that worldly success, defined by economic and social advancement, is harder to come by as our society matures and the dream of the little guy owning the future from his/her garage less possible. Maybe they are simply too polite to rebel against parental expectations, as the current generation of parents did ages ago to their own social and psychological benefit.

These thoughts turn me back to the Puritans, who were a group of rebels seeking to purify the Church of England from its ecclesiastic ties to Catholicism. These men and women wanted to pray to God in their own way and be free from what they felt was stifling oversight into their religious life. In other words, they wanted to live on their own terms not for the sake of causing disruption to others, but because they wanted the freedom to seek their own definition of worldly joy. This truth could be exactly what the next generation of leaders – our children – are telling us.

If we listen closely, we might discover a new work ethic, one that brings us to the next wide-open field of joyful success.

8 Comments

  1. Maybe it’s immaterial for the point you’re making, but the protestant/puritan work ethic holds that hard work is a *result* of salvation, not a means to it. With Paul the Apostle, the Puritans strongly held that salvation was by grace, through faith, “not a result of works.” That belief was pretty fundamental to the Puritans.

  2. Author

    Mark – Thank you for your clarification. You are right in terms of the broader point I am making; somehow the link between Godliness and material works has been redefined to exclude the spiritual component. Such exclusion of the “whole” person leaves many to question the value behind our success driven ethic (read “material success”), most notably our young who wonder, a la Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?”

  3. John McLaughlin December 4, 2015 Reply

    The parents’ work ethic — I’ll leave aside the religious element — is clear. The parents are clearly in stress-filled, competitive situations, struggling to be winners when they see losers-by-definition (either/or thinking) all around them at work. How could the children possibly escape stress in that situation? I don’t see any evidence of adults playing with children in this study. Is that a clue?

  4. Author

    John – Absolutely. These kids are picking up clues in their environment that reflect their parents’ circumstances and thinking. I would bet that the majority of these parents are not even fully cognizant of how their own stresses and pressures are “leaking out” into the home environment.

  5. James Drummond December 8, 2015 Reply

    The puritans worked hard 6 days of the week and rested on the seventh. Our modern work life is 24/7. No wonder we are stressed, and the kids suffer because of it. The old blue laws actually had some nice benefits

  6. Author

    James – Exactly. Being “forced” to have a weekly day of rest not only freed up time for people to enjoy leisure pursuits it also culturally signaled that rest is a natural component of life.

  7. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Virtual server December 8, 2016 Reply

    The Puritans’ sense of priorities in life was one of their greatest strengths. Putting God first and valuing everything else in relation to God was a recurrent Puritan theme.

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