“Hard-working” is one of the positive stereotypes firmly attached to the Amish. We see barn-raisings, 4 AM milkings, and tending broods of half-a-dozen children or more, and it’s hard to suggest otherwise.

But do the Amish actually work harder than the rest of us? Do they just work differently?

Jim Cates explores these questions today with a look at how an Amish friend’s work differs from his own.

Workin’ for a Livin’

It is tempting to wonder how The Adventures of Tom Sawyer might unfold if Mark Twain had made Tom Amish. Oh, the plot still works to have him trick his friends into the boring labor of whitewashing the fence.

However, as an Amish lad, rather than lollygagging while his friends worked, Tom would have been busy building a sawmill, obtaining the board feet of lumber necessary to make pickets, and assembling sections for his workforce to paint, to be sold as prefabbed fencing throughout St. Petersburg, Missouri.

Perhaps the Amish are not quite that industrious, but fiction has to be granted a certain amount of license! Suffice to say, the image of a thrifty, hardworking people is a stereotype rooted in truth. Still, the question arises: how does their work ethic differ from ours?

mule-team-plowing-amish-labor

The Center for American Progress reports that 70% of American children are living in homes where all adults are employed. On average, about 89% of males and 67% of females work over 40 hours per week. We continue to push back the average retirement age. And productivity for the average American worker has increased 400% from 1950. Still, we see the Amish as hardworking in a way that we are not. What gives?

Compare my work ethic with the work ethic of an Amish friend for just a moment. We are both about the same age (no, I’m not telling), and both own and run our own businesses. He has a well-established construction firm, while I have an established private practice in psychology. Over the years we have talked enough that, despite the differences in our professions, I recognize very similar underlying business problems.

There is the chronic (and unpredictable) cycle of “feast or famine,” decisions about staying small or choosing to expand, the effort to contain overhead costs, the occasional periods of fatigue and even burnout, and the challenge of meeting ever-changing governmental regulations. As small business owners, we are both “on call” for any and all crises that arise. We also both average about 60 hours a week with “the business.”

Cats and cows

And yet the way our “work ethic” manifests is very different. My only child is long grown and living independently. My friend’s seventh, eighth, and ninth children still live at home, and require of him a parental role. My care of “the animals” consists of one crotchety and demanding elderly cat. (I know – “crotchety” and “demanding” when referring to a cat is redundant.) His care of “the animals” includes numerous horses and cows. My responsibility for food involves a trip to the grocery store. His responsibility for food involves plowing, planting, and harvesting in the garden as his assistance is needed.

And all this before he ever reaches his actual job!

My friend is frequently up to complete chores and has breakfast in the wee hours of the morning, often by 3 a.m. In contrast I am a “night owl.” Many of my clients prefer late afternoon and evening hours, after school and work, and a late schedule suits me well. I find the quiet of the late night a good time to do paperwork and reports. Often then, I am going to bed about the time he awakens. By the time I am ready to “stand up” (an Amish term for waking up) and face my day, somewhere around 9 a.m., his is half gone.

busy-pa-dutch-market

And yet our work ethic is alike in another way. One of his adult sons tells me, in an exasperated aside, that it is almost impossible to get his father to sit still and prepare proposals to bid on jobs. He would much rather be on the job site, acting as a foreman or working with the crew. He never seems quite as happy as he is perched on the apex of a roof, tools in hand, working to finish the framing of a house, barn, or any structure.

Sitting behind the desk, saddled with the tedium of tallying figures? He delays it until the last possible moment. I understand all too well. The demands of filing billing, the need to review contracts, the renewal of licenses and certifications – all these are tedious enterprises that take me away from talking with clients and discussing their cases in reports. I delay them until the last possible moment.

Nostalgia and realities

So the question remains: how is the Amish work ethic different?

In one respect, the nostalgia we experience when viewing the Amish has an element of reality. The resistance to technology and the emphasis on maintaining as much of a farm setting as possible hearkens back to a rural America that no longer exists. That time period required a much more labor-intensive work ethic in the home than we experience in our postmodern world, one that the Amish still employ.

A collective society further provides a watchful eye on work behaviors that our individualized society cannot. While I am reasonably certain that my relatives are proud of my profession, most live hundreds of miles away. They neither work with me, nor are they in a position to scrutinize my work ethic. In contrast, the Amish emphasis on family, church, and community creates an oversight and sense of discipline that naturally flows into work as an outgrowth of the cultural expectations.

And lest we diminish the importance of our role, the Amish attempt to remain humble, but they are not unaware of the perceptions of others. The ongoing belief from the larger culture that Amish workers are superior no doubt adds to the strength of their work ethic and their efforts. They wish to continue to be seen as hard workers, a people standing apart in their abilities from the “slacker” world.

A different work ethic? Absolutely. A stronger work ethic? In some ways yes, in some ways no. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a story to write about an Amish boy whitewashing a fence…


Jim Cates is the author of Serving the Amish: A Cultural Guide for Professionals. He can be contacted through this blog or his website at servingtheamish.net.

Image credits: mule team plowing- travelationship/flickr; busy market- 14964382@N08/flickr