Looking for a work ethic in new economy

I've spent the last few days looking around and wondering: "When did the American worker get so whiny?"

A lot of people seem to resent having to work for a living and feel entitled to a smoother ride.

Some politicians help make the whine. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts beats the drum of income inequality, and talks about how the rich are getting richer at the expense of the working class, you catch a whiff of presidential ambitions. Warren seems to be calculating that more people despise the wealthy than identify with them.

In California, Democratic elected officials are making their bones on the debate to raise the minimum wage in a state where it is now $9 an hour and will jump to $10 in 2016. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is proposing a bump in the city's minimum wage to an eye-popping $13.25 in 2017.

With politicians competing with one another to pump up the minimum wage, how will we know what a job is really worth - as opposed to what ambitious elected officials tell us we should pay someone to do it?

Both major political parties are more than eager to exploit any discontentment among workers when it serves their interests. When George W. Bush was president, Democratic activists complained that he didn't create enough jobs and said that, as a result, workers were "unhappy with the economy." Under President Obama, House Republicans now use similar language.

Supposedly, there is all this unhappiness in this country. And no one has stopped to think that maybe it's not because we have too few jobs but because there is too much politics.

Long gone seem the days when people were glad to have a job, and grateful to their employer for providing one. Admittedly, some of this is the fault of companies that have shortchanged their workers. Yet much of it has to do with how we react to the changing job environment. It's not just our work ethic that's the problem. It's our work attitude. We want maximum pay with minimum effort, and plenty of time off because we've come to think that vacation days - i.e., time away from work - produce happiness and ensure quality of life.

The media often act as enablers. Newspapers and television networks run heart-wrenching stories around Labor Day about the beleaguered and bruised American worker. Hear enough of these reports and you might come away thinking that there is something wrong with you if you like your job and don't hate your boss. The new normal for American workers, we're led to believe, is for them to feel - in the words of the researchers from Rutgers University, who recently put out a depressing new study on the U.S. workforce - "insecure, underpaid, highly stressed, and generally unhappy at work."

The study, which bears the downer title "Unhappy, Worried, and Pessimistic: Americans in the Aftermath of the Great Recession," examined the views and attitudes of 1,153 people over a two-week period in July and August.

Seventy-one percent said they believed that the recent recession caused permanent change. More than a third reported that their finances were permanently injured by the recession, with 16 percent saying that they were wiped out financially and expect the damage to be permanent. Seventy percent described typical American workers as "not secure in their jobs" and 68 percent said workers were "highly stressed." Only 14 percent said they thought that workers were "happy at work."

What a bleak picture. I understand stress; most of us do. I know what it's like to lose your job and attempt to regain your footing. It has happened to me at least three times since I took my first job at 13 bussing tables at a restaurant owned by a family friend.

But look at the country we live in. Americans always have - whether they realize it or not - the final word in what happens with regard to their employment prospects. Hate your job? Get another one. There are "Help Wanted" signs everywhere. Be prepared to move if necessary for the right opportunity. Or start your own business.

But don't wallow in the self-defeating juices of envy, resentment and despair. That's when you know the game is over, and you've lost.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is

© 2014, The Washington Post Writers Group

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