Work – the four-letter word we love to hate

In the 1940 movie “His Girl Friday” — Howard Hawks’ uproarious, gender-bending remake of the play “The Front Page” — reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) longs to escape from the tabloid rat race and settle down with her nice but dull fiancé, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), in Albany. Only her editor, Walter Burns (Cary Grant) — who also happens to be her ex-hubby — will have none of it, what with a convicted killer on the loose, one whose real story could blow the lid off City Hall.

Every time Hildy and Bruce look to make their escape, Walter reels her back in, so much so that Hildy barely notices when Bruce leaves without her.

Should it surprise anyone that Hildy winds up with Walter — he being Cary Grant and all? Editor and reporter decide to remarry and take a long-delayed honeymoon to Niagara Falls, but first there’s the little matter of a strike in Albany, which needs coverage and is on the way….

The United States is a nation of Walter Burnses and Hildy Johnsons.

“Americans live to work — it’s culturally ingrained,” Chantal Panozzo wrote in the Oct. 11 edition of The New York Times. “If we’re not busy, we’re not worthy.”

Panozzo is an ad copywriter who experienced culture shock when she returned from working in Switzerland — a place of four-week vacations, banker’s hours, national health care and paid family and medical leave. (On the other hand, Switzerland is also the land of cuckoo clocks while America sent a space probe to Pluto this past summer — grand ambition knowing no punch clock.)

Part of the American love affair with work is, as Panozzo noted, our particular heritage. Whether you were born here to the indigenous peoples, forced here on slave ships or came here of your own accord seeking religious, political and economic freedom in wave after wave of immigration, you quickly learned that the only way to survive was to put your back into it. It’s an attitude that’s prevalent in an age of financial and geopolitical volatility. Indeed, it’s not unusual to see the sign “Will work for food” or hear of immigrants taking on two and three jobs to put bread on the table for their families. (Part of our fear of immigrants is not merely that of the stranger in our midst whose real work may be to threaten American freedom but the fear of their job hunger and thus job loss for the rest of us.)

We Americans, however, don’t merely want to survive. We want to thrive. Here the love of work may be tied to personal pride, individual goals and, of course, money, which may not buy happiness, but can sure make misery comfortable. Take a look at the answers on our WAGwit page this month. While many of the respondents are passionate about what they do, just as many others are passionate about being paid to do it. Which begs so many questions, not the least of which is: Is it possible to be great at something you don’t love first and foremost? (Three of America’s finest tennis players — Serena Williams, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi — have said they never loved tennis, at least not the way Jimmy Connors, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have professed to love it.) Is it rather that some are unaware of how much they love their work, else they couldn’t do it so well for so long? Or is it a romantic misunderstanding of what a job/career is? (There’s a reason it’s called “work.” Not every aspect of it is play, especially when you have to do it day in, day out.)

Complicating the purity of America’s love of work is the technology that permeates the entire globe and makes work 24/7. As someone once said to me, it’s always breakfast time somewhere, meaning time to start the day and grab the iPhone, iPad, iSomething. It’s enough to make you yearn for the days when someone was blissfully out of reach. Something’s gotta give.

Workers — particularly women who are now expected to climb the corporate ladder while remaining in charge of children and households — are pushing back.

In Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial new book “Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family” (Random House, $28), an expansion of The Atlantic article she wrote three years ago about career advancement while raising children, she takes on the corporate world’s limited support for workers with families while telling her own story of how she relinquished a “dream job” at the U.S. State Department to return to Princeton academia and spend more time with her children.

Somewhere, Ralph Bellamy is smiling.

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