Hippies at Work

When shiploads of immigrants first set sail for America, their holds were loaded with bolts of cloth, barrels of salt, sacks of seed--all the necessities for starting a new life.   But the most important thing the immigrants carried to the New World was something intangible. It was their character--honesty, courage, the willingness to work hard. The early settlers were Puritans and Quakers who held a biblical view of work: that work is pleasing to God because it is a reflection of His own character. They worked hard and eventually America was to become the greatest economic power in the world. But in the 1960s all that changed. And in just three decades America has lost its economic lead. Why? Well, Jack Eckerd and I offer an explanation in our new book Why America Doesn't Work. You see, the revolution of the 1960s was more than tie-dye shirts and free love. The hippie generation transformed America's view of work, of life, of reality itself. It started on the college campuses with a philosophy called existentialism. Among college students, the existentialist philosophers Camus and Sartre were all the rage. They taught that God is dead; in His place there is a great nothingness, and life has no meaning. If life has no intrinsic meaning, then it's up to each one of us to find our own meaning through vivid personal experiences. The young people of the 60s became gluttons for experience--that's what was behind the mad pursuit of personal pleasure: drugs, free sex, rock music. There are no limits, the slogan was: Do your own thing; that's all that matters. But the revolution of the '60s spread beyond the ivy-covered walls of the college campuses. Its ideas moved out into popular culture and were picked up by the mass media. In short order, the 60s had led to a wholesale assault on all established authority and values. Including the value of work. Many people assumed the 60s were a passing fad--that after Woodstock and Watergate, the hippies went home, put away their tie-dyes and granny skirts and returned to the mainstream. Well, in a sense they did. But what they brought with them into the mainstream were the views and values of the counter-culture, including its view of work. That view was well expressed by Studs Terkel, a well-known chronicler of American culture, in his 1970 book Working. He says work, by its very nature, is a form of violence--to the spirit as well as to the body. The hippies of the 60s have become the factory line managers, the corporate Vice Presidents, and the Wall Street traders of the 90s. They've given up beads for BMWs and marijuana for Madison Avenue. But they still live by the 60s creed of vivid personal experience. The only difference is that they've acquired more expensive tastes. They work not because of the intrinsic value of work but to buy expensive toys. Is it any surprise America is no longer the economic wonder of the world? We can appoint all the study commissions and pass all the new laws we want to make us more competitive. But it won't affect the real heart of the problem. Work is a reflection of our underlying values. The cultural revolution of the 60s eroded the values of the work ethic, and cut the ground right out from under our industries and institutions. The only hope for restoring America's economic greatness is to reverse that revolution in values.


Chuck Colson



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