Update from Italy: Cultural Musings on the American Work Ethic

Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Twice this month, Europeans have ribbed me about Americans hating to take vacations and accepting work conditions that no one else would do in a developed economy. Once in English, and once in Italian, I tried to explain on the spot that in fact Americans would love to take a vacation if they only knew what one was. Well, because you people just love working so much, they replied. Both times, this was said to me; and both times, I felt like I might pass out from frustration, either atop that Alp or in the Tuscan countryside at an outdoor dinner. There were so many layers to this onion that were impossible to peel back before the end of the pétanque round or the primo piatto. It’s been bothering me since and I’ve finally found the time to collect my response into something rather more coherent, and for this I must thank a friend who sent me an essay published on Medium that added fuel to this fire, in which the writer states his rhetorical premise:

Carl Jung, one of the most prolific psychotherapists of the 20th century, remarked that about a third of his cases were suffering from “no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. This can be defined as the general neurosis of our times.” What happened in modern society to make this state of affairs so widespread?

Okay, first of all, Mr. Writer, Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of Carl Jung in Vain, but He appreciates your freshman-level qualifier. Maybe, as the writer answers for us, it’s because we sit around and wait for the universe, or God, to provide us with the life we desire instead of taking the hard road of Work and Will to go after it. The entire article needs a caveat for American culture. Much of the rest of the world does NOT think this way. This piece lays so much blame at the feet of the individual, which is inaccurate and unhelpful. America works Too Hard. There are historic reasons for this. But we’ve painted ourselves now into a pretty corner.

Distance brings perspective, and perspective brings wisdom. But perspective is elusive to many people, be they tied to a place, a career, a life that seems immutable, or some other anchoring object. I think often about the nature of Home and Belonging, and with each passing year in Italy, the struggles and frustrations that I experienced in America somehow arrange themselves into a pattern that reveals clarity and answers. I know that I am lucky to have this gift of distance and time to help me see more clearly my past life, and hopefully offer these observations to those who may continue to find themselves in circumstances now similar to what mine once were, struggling for answers, a way to make this life all work somehow smoothly.

When I lived in America, from 1974 to 2016, minus about a decade for shorter sojourns abroad, my life was ruled by the twin demons of Success and Failure. One I yearned for, the other I dreaded. It started early and often, from kindergarten on. There was little Being, and a lot of Doing and Achieving, preparing me for the Great Machine of the American Career. Why did I need to work so hard, all the time? Make the best grades, do the best projects, come out on top, wreathed with awards and scholarships? Why did my stomach clench for weeks over a low grade, a rejected application? Applying for college and getting through those years were their own sort of values-based purgatory. The more I received, the more hollow I felt. I only knew the How. I did not know the Why. Work or drown. Achieve or die. And for my understanding and compliance, I was rewarded with an oddly gas-lighting label: I was, unfortunately, an Overachiever. I somehow achieved Too Much, and worried too much about achieving Too Little. This, ironically, placed me at risk for being an Underachiever – someone who did not want to achieve at all, and so who achieved, insanely, Nothing!

The only exception to this rule was found in my time abroad, when all the rules changed, the base shifted, the common denominator titled. I understood how a person transplanted to another culture could find herself in possession of past awards and future goals that felt less and less meaningful, seeing as they weren’t shared by 40 or 60 million new neighbors, my temporary compatriots. Many of them, at my ages and various other ages, did express worry about some things, but not the same things I did, and not in the same ways. Scholarships, grades, awards, career, what? In Spain and in France I saw for the first time how these goal posts were nothing more than cultural constructs. They were in no way universally acknowledged. My new, if temporary, cohorts, saw their families on weekends, and whenever possible. They never missed a meal. They partied in moderation. They truly loved their friends. They lived with a sense of place, in a place that loved them back. Of course there were some disadvantages to be found in a life firmly rooted in a town where your family had lived for half a millennium. But the relative advantages included a calmness and a sense of identity that I did not have. Monica, the free radical. Spanish and French people, safe in their cluster at the center, the nuclear family.

No matter. I returned to the US and, anxiety barely in hand, hopped into that hamster wheel, ready to run, to put that education to Good Use. I wanted to work, not just hard, but really hard. I quickly learned that working long days, evenings and weekends for $21,000 a year was little fun, regardless the philanthropic satisfaction and the fact that I was employing my acquired and, back then excellent, Spanish every day, verbal and written with a clientele that did not speak English and was largely illiterate. I could not pace myself. I was there To Achieve. I made some hopeful but terribly rash decisions. Then I burned out and hard. I stopped and started again, heavy on the brake, the gas, the clutch.

What never once occurred to me once, during all that time, was that it wasn’t my fault. I’d been so well trained to swim in the cultural waters that I could not see how implicit expectations were shaping me. My brief insights abroad were now buried in the sands of time. But a few years into post-collegiate Work, I saw very well why I was trained to achieve: in America, if you are not achieving, you are not surviving. If you are super-achieving AND very lucky, maybe you have the life you want. If you are like many, you are failing, and “underachieving,” with only yourself to blame. I fell off the professional ladder a few times between 1996 and 2001, and each time, I blamed myself and hard. For not working hard enough or smart enough, for not being patient enough, for not reading the tea leaves, for not coping well with my office circumstances. I had an expensive healthcare bill that went terrifyingly into collections. The ice was thin beneath my feet, and failed to conceal the still, cold water.

The structural safety that is built in to many countries does not exist in America. There is no guaranteed education, parental leave, childcare. No protected holidays or retirement. Most importantly, for my many rash professional choices, no health insurance. I shake my head now to think that in 2000 I was hired at Microsoft as a professional contractor and there was no healthcare insurance offered. I bought a new health insurance policy from a local organization for $48 dollars a month, in hopes it would stitch me back together if I got in a car wreck on the 520 bridge on the way into Redmond. In America, people move for jobs in decisions that are deemed career choices, but are closer bottom-line decisions based on needs around education, childcare, healthcare, and retirement. We are trained to lean in, to blame ourselves, to shop the self-help section to learn how to deal with depression, anxiety, and more, rather than address the structural issues that directly contribute to American anxiety. Where will I live? What will happen if I or someone in my family become ill or injured? How will I navigate new parenthood with work? Who will look after my kids while I work? Where and how will my kids attend school? Will I ever be able to stop working? What is this thing called a vacation? Will I ever know a moment’s peace? How can I ever afford any of this?

How can I ever afford any of this. Here’s what I want to put a pin in. Even a bright, motivated, hardworking person, with a string of degrees and professional savvy, cannot predict how much life will cost in America in any given year. What is the real cost? We never know. It’s not that we’re all bad at math, or terrible at saving money, or hate vacations: it’s that you cannot predict or budget for life in America. With healthcare alone, bombarded by co-pays, co-insurance, minimum and maximum deductibles, retail pharmacy, and out-of-pocket costs, the only and shocking option left is to try as hard as you can to make as much money as possible in hopes that it’s enough to take care of your needs. Taking jobs further and further away from family, from community, into schools and neighborhoods where you don’t know anyone and no one knows you. I haven’t even mentioned entrenched economic inequality or the invisible aquifer of racism that lies beneath the bedrock of American culture. I have not even gone here into my theories about collective cultural inclinations or the great self-sorting of mass migration to America, whereby in certain moments in time specific types of people found themselves , by force or choice, traveling to America to make new homes.

So, America. My fellow Americans. I am here to tell you that it’s not your fault. You are smart, and just fine as people. Americans have yoked ourselves to work over the years, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are structural choices we can make as a society to make life more manageable and more livable, a life in which we build meaningful community and regularly see our parents and children over dinner, in which our children are educated at no (or even reasonable) cost, in which children are looked after and the sick and injured are not blamed for having gotten themselves into this mess, in which older workers are offered a graceful and supported retirement, in which a couple annual holidays a year to genuinely unplug and be with your family are not just possible, but collectively valued. Don’t let anyone tell you that it costs too much and that we could never afford it, in America, still – arguably – for better or worse, the wealthiest country in the world. It just takes some decisions, over time, to build a more just and equitable society.

It’s more likely we’ll remain in Italy to raise our kids here and eventually retire (on what….). I don’t know that anyone in America agrees with me, even as the drawbacks to our collective assumptions are evident in a thousand statistics about housing, food scarcity, education, healthcare, childcare, retirement, and more. I feel guilt about not wanting to return to America to work for change (how American is that? agh). But it’s not my job (agh, more American jingo) to convince people that my vision skews more kind and just, and can result in a greater safety and happiness for all.

Plenty more where this came from. Thanks for reading, if you did, to the end. I tried to organize it as coherently as I could, but no kidding, when someone tells me that Americans work too hard and hate vacations, I could just spit.

8 Replies to “Update from Italy: Cultural Musings on the American Work Ethic”

  1. Wow Monica. Wow. We all (Americans) need to read and hear this! I was a “stay at home Mom” mostly because I wanted to but also out of necessity from my husbands job relocating us 6 times in 10 years. As a strong, intelligent woman I felt guilt about not working or having a career to show off. How would I teach my girls to be strong, independent, “they can be anything they want” kind of women if all I did was stay home and take care of kids and a house? Insert Mom guilt and anxiety and pressure and voila! Two well educated, incredible, thoughtful, beautiful and caring women on the hamster wheel of American life. Trying to find themselves and what they want to be or do for the rest of their lives. The American way of thinking runs deep and is being passed down generation to generation. Thank you Monica, for your wise and insightful words. Now I need to go plan my trip to Europe that I’ve been waiting 20 years for but wait! Oh right, Covid… 😩

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    1. Aww, grazie, Jen. I really appreciate your comment and am right there with you, unyoking myself from American Career Expectations here! IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. The system is either broken or rigged, but either way, it ain’t good for well-being. Bookmark this site because I have plenty more to say on topic, haha. And we would love to welcome you to Italy for a visit … I remember your Spanish was fab – you’d have a ball here. Roll that r!

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      1. Have always wanted to visit Italy! Once we can finally make plans I will definitely let you know! 🥰. Btw, you remembered wrong about my Spanish. Barely made it through Se “N” ora Bowermans class! 😆

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      2. While you may not have hammered on the Spanish irregular preterite at 15, I remember your accent as both convincing and natural. Sweet mime, it’s not too late to pick up a new language …. 🙂

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  2. Wonderful essay, Monica. As someone who has also been fortunate enough to have had some distance and perspective (I won’t say wisdom) from American work culture, I wouldn’t use the term “anxiety”. It is fear. Fear that we are so accustomed to that it seems normal. We soften it and call it anxiety because there is little we can do to address it. Tomorrow, I could be fired, or get in a car accident, or learn that one of my children has a chronic illness. All natural occurrences in the course of life. Yet any of those would destroy the stability or prosperity I have achieved. So we work harder to keep from getting fired, we pile up money to ride out any health issues, we don’t take vacations (although personally I have no problem taking them), and we fear. I hope to teach my sons a different perspective on life.

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    1. Adam, so true. Thanks for weighing in with your experience and wisdom (I’ll invoke wisdom on your behalf here). Multiple perspectives are critical, whether they support or contradict our own (I wrote yesterday’s bit about my giant Compare and Contrast this Life Essay). It was our hope also to raise our children a different way here, away from the daily American diet of Fear (point well taken), both real and imagined. When people ask me what I appreciate most about living in Italy, the fact that my children are growing up without kneejerk fear as a default response to everything is always at the top of my list. I think fear has become so normalized in American culture that we can’t even recognize it anymore from the inside. Danke, dass du mir folgst und für den nachdenklichen Kommentar! Ich vermisse auch deinen tiefen Bass.

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