Malia Obama attends a state dinner at the White House on Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Washington. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

America’s unhealthy work ethic

Why do people care so much that Malia Obama is taking a gap year before she attends Harvard next year? The biggest reason – America has an unhealthy obsession with work.

Malia has every right to take a gap year before she starts the biggest move of her career to date. Her father is still in office, she is going through major transitions with her family, and she has the time to take a gap year.

But we shouldn’t have to defend Malia’s choice. She should be able to make these decisions (which hurt no one) without the nation’s censure.

American media outlets pounced on her decision as national news, speculating over her reasons while the comment sections were riddled with censure slinging racist remarks at her and calling her lazy.

The truth is that Malia’s decision is not lazy. But the nation has such an unhealthy view of “work” and productivity, that it has leached into our social ideals.

Americans expect other Americans to constantly move forward in a socially acceptable productive way. It was expected that Malia go right to work on her career goals, and the fact that she is taking a year off is bothering people because Americans don’t understand the concept of leisure – unlike in Europe.

The American work week is 40 hours. That is just an average. Many Americans work much longer than that and take their work home with them at the end of the day as we enter the realm of technology and email. We never really escape work. It is not like that in other places in the world.

Germany has an average work week of 26 hours, and Sweden’s average work day is only 6 hours.

Our society has put a high premium on our time, and time is obviously best spent working toward something.

This is not a healthy view whatsoever. Americans work themselves into graves. In a study conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2010 cited that most Americans recognize that they are stressed from trying to balance work and home life. Often health falls to the wayside when we are stressed, so we are suffering from this work ethic on multiple levels.

We should not be judging those who take the time to care for themselves. We should all be trying to take care of ourselves. So stop holding it against Malia.

People take gap years so that they can gain work experience, research and define the field they want to go into, or just to give themselves a break from the pressures of academia.

There is nothing wrong with this. We shouldn’t be expecting every senior in high school to invest themselves immediately into school when they may not be prepared either financially or mentally for the huge commitment that college is.

Leave Malia alone. Let people decide when they are ready to go to college. Taking care of yourself is not lazy.


  • Person223

    You are making a number of logical errors in this opinion piece. First of all, people aren’t really spending much time thinking about Malia Obama. I wasn’t until I read your article. It’s like you’ve dealt with two entirely separate topics in one article. That time spent working toward something isn’t a healthy view whatsoever is a big assumption that you didn’t really back up. Another big assumption is that Americans don’t understand the concept of leisure. Are you sure? Perhaps you don’t understand the concept of leisure. You are in college, after all, when some people your age are taking more leisure time than you have because of your studies. Aren’t you spending your time working toward something because you put a high value on your time? I’d argue that you are putting this time into your college studies because you are aiming for contentment in life rather than the fleeting fun that some of your peers are experiencing. Contentment in a job you enjoy is deeper and lasting, whereas those just out to have fun just jump from one novelty to the next. You attribute the stress Americans are under to work ethic. You attribute failing health to stress (which could be true in some cases) to, in turn, work ethic (which probably isn’t true). Work ethic is nothing new, and isn’t intrinsically stressful. Some of the hardest working people in our nation are farmers, and one frequently sees them living into their 80s or 90s. Their job is exercise, so they aren’t plagued by so many of the health problems that people have who hold more sedentary jobs.
    It’s common to say things are different in Europe. The problem is that we aren’t part of Europe. To my mind, this is suspiciously close to an appeal to authority rather than logic. As an example, there is a couple who attends the same church I grew up in. They often say, and have since I was a little tyke, that Europe has higher gasoline prices. The implication with this couple is that it is somehow unfair that we pay less for gasoline than they. The European nations buy oil on the same global market as the rest of us. Their prices are higher because their taxes are higher. I’m getting off topic here, but back to your point about work. What you are saying is basically the same as what that couple from my church is saying. It should be like Europe here. Why should it be like Europe here? Do we want or need to be like Europe. Honest question: If we should be like Europe, why don’t we abolish the US Congress and just let the decisions made in the EU Parliament apply to America? Then we will be like Europe.
    We built this nation into what it was because we didn’t decide to only work 26 hours per week or 6 hours per day. Europe is a poor model to follow for very many reasons. We fought a revolution in this country so that we wouldn’t be beholden to Europe, with the corruption of feudalism and mercantilism. The ghosts (or vestiges, if you prefer) of that affect Europe to this day.
    Sweden, in particular, is a poor example. People often hold up Sweden as a shining example to emulate. It’s often used as proof that socialism works. The truth is that socialism only appears to work for a time, eventually its effects can no longer be swept under the rug. The fact that Sweden has been hiding behind the skirts of NATO since the end of WW2 is a telling one. They don’t have to fund their own defense. The greatest share of funding for NATO comes from the USA and the UK. We are funding propaganda against ourselves by making it appear that Swedish socialism works. If Sweden had to fund her own military, it would be an entirely different story.
    I said that socialism only appears to work for a time. A prime example of this is the UK. People thought socialism worked there, but eventually the bills came due. It could no longer be swept under the rug. Decades of government ownership of virtually all industry and transportation caused such severe market distortions that it all collapsed in 1979. The entire nation ground to a halt. The shortage of electricity was so severe that only a three day work week was possible, which didn’t help the unemployment situation a bit. Presently, we see the same problem in Venezuela. Venezuela is one of the most energy rich nations in the world, yet they have a shortage of electricity. They also have a shortage of food. The cause is the same as in the UK: Government distortion of markets. We are edging toward this even in California as we decommission our hydroelectric plants and nuclear plants. This certainly won’t make electricity more affordable in California, and the economy runs on electricity. This could seriously affect your future job prospects.