Wednesday, March 24, 2010

feature story

For our British culture class here, I had to write something called a "Feature Story" that discusses some aspect of culture that I have observed and note the similarities and differences to American culture. It's something that I have been thinking about for a while, so I figured I would just post my paper. Enjoy!

Now that I have been in England for seven and a half weeks, I have started to notice several things about the British work ethic. From what I have observed, the work ethic in England is drastically different from the American work ethic. In my American Literature seminar, we were discussing Death of a Salesman and the American Dream. Most of the students did not understand what the American Dream was, or why on earth anyone would work so hard to earn a living and advance in a career. The professor asked me about the American workweek, and how much vacation time the average employee receives. When I replied that most employees receive two or three weeks of vacation time a year, the class went completely silent. A few students had open mouths. Even the professor was not sure what to say in response to it. One of the students asked me if I actually expected to work in the States for the rest of my life and only get two weeks off out of the entire year. I replied that I was willing to do that, and that to me, it did not seem strange at all. That student was shocked that I did not feel entitled to more time off. At the end of the hour, the conclusion of the class was that the American Dream was unattainable and that it is ridiculous to work so hard and so much. I was disappointed after that seminar, because I think many of the students and quite possibly the professor, missed out on fully understanding Death of a Salesman by not understanding the American Dream. It is an idealistic dream, but it is what has shaped the nation and brought so many immigrants to the country. There is something in American culture that is not in British culture. It is that no matter who you are, or where you are in life, as long as you work hard and focus your mind, you can advance in society.

It does not seem strange to me to work that much, and I think that is because of how I was raised. My parents are some of the hardest workers I know, and they trained me to never expect something to be handed to me. If I want to provide for myself, I have to work hard and earn it. Beyond that, I was raised to never expect handouts from the government and to provide for myself when I am older without social security, in case it is not around (and I am fairly certain that it will not be). I understand that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that there is a cost for everything. Even if I am not paying for something, someone else is. British citizens come from an entirely different perspective. While hiking in the Lake District, several of us met a British man who talked to us as we climbed down the mountain. He had some strong political views, and especially despised the American healthcare system. From what he said, he did not seem to know much about it outside of Michael Moore’s film, Sicko, which is substantially biased. He kept on saying repeatedly that the British system was so much better, because healthcare was free. I didn’t say anything in reply, because I did not want to be rude and contradict him. My perspective on it is that the National Health Service may appear to be free because there are not any bills. However, the whole system is paid for through taxes and is anything other than free. But because it seems to be free, British citizens do not see how they are paying into it and what they get out of it. Thus, they do not have the kind of drive that I see in many Americans to work hard to get something, because here, even if they do not work hard, they will be taken care of anyway.

On campus, the students are not motivated to work hard in order to get a good job to pay off their loans and live on their own. At Calvin, I routinely have conversations with friends about the future and how we plan on providing for ourselves, including paying off our debt. While I wish I didn’t have student loans, they do keep me aware of how much I am paying for my education and make me appreciate it more. Because the students at York St. John do not pay as much for their education, they do not seem to take it as seriously. Several of them have commented on how hard the Calvin students work on their studies. I have had at least two students here say to me, “Oh, I wish I had your American work ethic. I can’t believe how hard you try in school. I wish I could do that, but I just don’t have your drive.” I want to tell them that they can have that same drive, but it is almost pointless, because none of the students need that kind of drive to succeed at a school with such incredibly low standards. The first-year students here are graded only by pass or fail, which does nothing to motivate them to get good grades. There is something in British culture that does not push its young people to work hard in order to ensure that they have a good future ahead. In some ways, the people seem less materialistic and do not seem as absorbed with the mentality that buying that one thing will bring happiness. The people here seem content with less, especially in terms of objects and space. They do not work for the nice car and nicer house, at least not with the same kind of zeal I see in a typical American. From what I can tell, pub culture is prevalent here because the British are less inclined to entertain guests in their own homes. So, unlike Americans, they are not as preoccupied with showing off their wealth and status, tending to spend their money on socializing in pubs over material goods.

After reflecting on different aspects of the British work ethic, I can see both good and bad sides to it. While citizens seem less concerned with consumerism, the people of Britain, particularly in the younger generation, are not motivated to provide a future for themselves, or for their country. I am curious to learn if this is a continuing theme or just an anomaly of the current generation.