‘So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it’: Perspectives on the Value of Work in American Slacker Films

In: The Value of Work in Contemporary Society

Hard work and the need to succeed have always been core elements of American culture. Puritan settlers laboured ‘in the sweat of their faces’ not to disappoint God and the rest of the world; Benjamin Franklin became a world-famous epitome of the self-made man whose proverbs prescribing how to find ‘the way to wealth’ are still frequently quoted; and the Industrial Revolution effectively perpetuated these two work-oriented outlooks on life, resulting in what German sociologist Max Weber later defined as the Protestant work ethic, which manifests itself in the tenets of modern capitalism. Yet, soon after the Puritans and the Founding Fathers established the American tradition of hard work, other gifted individuals discovered in their success-driven culture prolific material for producing paradigms of an alternative lifestyle, one that promoted not only leisure, but also sheer sloth. Thus, for instance, in the early 1800s, Washington Irving created the character of Rip Van Winkle whose ‘insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor’ set the bar for idlers to come very high. In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden where he famously proclaimed, ‘We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us!’ In the 20th century, the Beats and the hippies continued to oppose a lifestyle limited by steady jobs and materialism. This analysis looks at several anti-toil attitudes in select American slacker films. Characters such as Randal from Clerks, Peter from Office Space, and the Dude from The Big Lebowski proudly cultivate the tradition of Rip Van Winkle by resisting the Puritan work ethic and redefining the American spirit of individuality.

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