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Hail the American Work Ethic

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Whenever I visit Italy, France or elsewhere in dolce vita Europe, I go: "Oooh! Aren't these cheeses wonderful? Ahh! Look how fit and well dressed everyone is. Oh! If only America would protect its downtowns the way these Europeans preserve their ancient village centers."

But on the return, something interesting happens when the jet wheels touch down in the land of strip malls and drive-through junk food. I'm really happy to be back home. The reason is the people.

Americans work. They value work. They respect it.

When Italians refer to a lucky guy, they say (my translation) "he has a big rear end." In other words, he's not out laying bricks or waiting on tables. He gets to lounge all day in the loggia.

An Italian friend (a leftist, actually) once asked me, "Why do the Rockefellers work?"

Because they want to make their mark in society, I responded, to which he shook his head. The idea of working if one doesn't need the money amazed him. But it's impossible, I think, to support the dignity of the worker and not the dignity of work.

Observe the demonstrations in France over government efforts to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60. To American eyes, age 62 is on the early side of retiring. Americans seem to accept 65 as the normal age for leaving the job. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., goes further, proposing to hike the eligibility age for receiving Medicare to 69 from the current 65.

You can't imagine American workers setting bonfires in the streets or otherwise disrupting commerce in the belief that they are owed three or more decades of retired comfort. Americans are famous for their inadequate vacation time and long work hours -- they do need more time off -- but they generally don't regard 24-7 leisure as an admirable way of life.

A few years ago, The Wall Street Journal had a piece about golfers in their 50s who still have jobs shunning players their age who have retired. They assumed that those who no longer work are not very interesting.

Americans -- with their notoriously stingy pension plans, devastated 401(k)s and skimpy savings -- figure that they will work after retirement. If they are healthy, there's nothing bad with that.

Those with special expertise are being hired as part-time consultants. Some take jobs in retail for as many or as few hours as they want. Companies such as Home Depot value older salespeople; many shoppers prefer them, because they tend to know more about the products. And the wealthier retirees may become "social entrepreneurs," using their money and knowledge to help others.

Thing is, Americans don't feel sorry for 70-year-olds who still work. They admire them.

A mandatory retirement age has been largely banned in the United States. The exceptions are professions requiring stamina or quick reactions. Examples: FBI agents must retire at 57, and air traffic controllers at 56.

A good way to delay retirement is to restructure careers so that one isn't doing the hardest stuff in the last years of employment. For instance, an aging firefighter could move off the strenuous weightlifting tasks and into an administrative or other support function. Nurses could gradually cut down on their hours. Corporate executives might start shedding responsibilities as their career winds down.

When my Italian friend visited this country, I took him to a busy diner where an elderly woman was bustling about with the coffee pot. "I do respect that woman," he said.

I think of her and other hardworking Americans whenever I'm in one of those lands of leisure. They make me glad to come home.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.              

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