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Bob the workaholic

Publication Date: 2009-10-11

from The Boston Globe
April 16, 2006

Fred Flintstone and George Jetson were work-averse lollygaggers. Bob the Builder, and a host of today's cartoon characters, are work-obsessed drones.

EAGER TO BEGIN THE DAY'S construction project, the workers cheerfully conduct calisthenics drills and beg their supervisor for the most difficult jobs. They then chant in unison, "Can we build it? Yes we can!" When given a day off, the workers spend it practicing their duties.

These might be scenes from a North Korean propaganda film but they're actually from "Bob the Builder," one of the most popular children's cartoons on American television. The characters in "Bob the Builder," many of which are anthropomorphized construction vehicles, exhibit a single-minded devotion to toil-one that is celebrated in several of today's top-rated children's television programs.

Thomas the Tank Engine and the other trains in "Thomas & Friends" want only to show their boss, Sir Topham Hatt, that they are efficient, productive, and "really useful." The New Economy version of this is "Cyberchase," in which a team of young computer geniuses program their way out of danger. "Little Einsteins" offers models of prodigies who "achieve goals through teamwork" for preschoolers to emulate. Even the notorious SpongeBob SquarePants, assailed by many as a corruptor of our youth, loves his job flipping burgers so much that he was named "Employee of the Year" by the fast-food restaurant where he works.

Of course, the worship of work is a longstanding feature of American culture. Unlike in virtually any other national political culture, work is praised across the American ideological spectrum. Even our radicals love it. Eugene Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party in the early 20th century, pledged to "create industry out of idleness" in the working class. "The toiler," Debs said, "is the rough hewn bulk from which the perfect Man is being chiseled by the hand of God." Martin Luther King Jr. called on African Americans to prove they were worthy of American citizenship by upholding the country's greatest value. "No matter what your job is, you must decide to do it well," he told his followers. "If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Raphael painted pictures."

On average, Americans work 205 more hours per year than Italians, 270 more than the French, 371 more than Germans, and an incredible 473 more than Norwegians-whose economy, by the way, is booming. Indeed, since 1970 gross domestic product per capita has risen faster in Europe, where the number of working hours has fallen, than in the United States, where the work day, the work week, and the size of our coffee cups have steadily increased.

. . .

It used to be that American children could find refuge from the culture of work when they turned on their television sets. Early children's TV shows may have had other political problems, but at least they let kids be kids.

The most popular programs of the 1940s and 1950s, such as "The Howdy Doody Show," "The Lone Ranger," "Superman," "The Little Rascals," "The Mickey Mouse Club," and various westerns, made little attempt to condition children to be productive members of society. But they didn't escape criticism for it. When John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he was gravely concerned that American children were not being properly trained to compete with the Soviets and appointed a chairman of the Federal Communications Commission who threatened to cancel the licenses of stations that continued to broadcast ''time-wasters."

Despite the efforts of reformers, kids' programming in the 1960s continued the devotion to fun. Two of the most popular cartoon heroes created during the decade were hardly paragons of hard work. George Jetson put in three hours a day, three days a week, and even though his day at Spacely Sprockets started at 11:00 a.m., he still could never get there on time. Fred Flintstone began every episode of his show bellowing his famous "Yabba Dabba Doo" at quitting time, rushing home, and turning on the TV.

This all began to change in the 1970s, according to Heather Hendershot, a professor of media studies at the City University of New York and the author of "Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation Before the V-Chip." ''The '70s saw a shift," Hendershot writes in an e-mail. "Positive messages about teamwork, friendship, and ethics were incorporated into cartoons." This appears to have led to what she calls the "trend towards promotion of the work ethic in some current cartoons."

And it's not just cartoons that are instilling the American work ethic in kids: To prepare them for future careers, kids are being worked harder than ever. The amount of time spent per week on homework in the US increased by 20 percent between 1981 and 1997 and by a staggering 146 percent for first- through third-graders. In recent years an estimated 40 percent of school districts either have abolished recess or are considering abolishing it. In response to this trend, a group called the American Association for the Child's Right to Play was established to lobby for those precious moments during and after the school day when kids can do what even their television shows are increasingly attacking.

Despite these grim developments, all is not yet lost. Recently, in my home, I saw hope for America. My 4-year-old son has lost interest in "Bob the Builder" and is now enamored of two silly, no-account slackers from a bygone era-Tom and Jerry, who seem to never have worked a day in their lives.

Thaddeus Russell is a professor of history and American studies at Barnard College and the author of "Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class."

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