According to Employers, It Seems Like No One Ever Wanted to Work in Cincinnati

”No one wants to work anymore” is a popular meme these days, and it’s a sentiment that has echoed through Cincinnati history for nearly 200 years.
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You hear it all the time these days, “No one wants to work anymore.” You may notice that this complaint is usually voiced by employers who do not want to increase wages, offer better benefits or improve working conditions.

The overloaded caddy might disagree, but two apparently well-fed golfers spouted a sentiment that was already a century old, and already demonstrably untrue.

From Cincinnati Post, September 1, 1920 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Cincinnati employers have been complaining about an allegedly lazy workforce for a long, long time. To take one example, a correspondent identified only as “Taxpayer” wrote to The Cincinnati Gazette on January 2, 1832—more than 190 years ago—grumbling that local workmen engaged in building canals and railroads were earning way too much and that this luxuriance ($1.50 to $2.50 per day at that time) would engender a disinclination to work altogether:

“I am therefore opposed to making any more Internal Improvements leading to this city. I predict, if they are made, that money will be too plenty; the laboring class will become too lazy to work, and the construction of the Roads and Canals will require more than 10,000 additional laborers, who must all be fed and clothed.”

And here is The Cincinnati Enquirer from February 6, 1868 opining that the unemployed residents of the city are suffering from their own aversion to gainful employment:

“While there is no question that poverty, want and destitution exist to an alarming degree, it is at the same time certain that the city is burdened with the partial support of scores, yes, hundreds of paupers, who, too lazy to work, are the most noisy claimants for public charity.”

Later that year, on November 25, 1868, The Cincinnati Presbyter called upon men to settle for minimal wages and enjoy being poor:

“Men who are not too lazy to work, nor too proud to be poor. Men who are willing to eat what they have earned, and wear what they have paid for.”

The 1873-79 financial panic was long-lasting and brutal to the working class. The Cincinnati Gazette [June 25, 1878] suggested that many men who had lost their jobs just weren’t trying hard enough:

“Then as to the scarcity of employment. There is a scarcity, no doubt about that, but it is not near so great as it seems; nor are all of those out of employment people who know how to work, or really desire to work.”

A national publication, the anti-union Open Shop Review, in 1913 blamed new laws prohibiting child labor with fostering laziness in the current generation:

“The young men and women legislated out of employment until 16 years of age are a serious proposition to their parents who are working every day for a respectable living. The law does not say that these youngsters shall not eat, nor does it provide food for them, yet thousands of well-developed, husky boys and girls are forced to idleness during the period they are developing the strongest, and the result is a growing generation, adverse to work in any form, made so by laws that forbid them to work until a given age is reached.”

The same publication even ran the lyrics to a “Song of the Little People,” by the possibly pseudonymous Lelia B.N. Weston, chastising people who, regardless of whether they can afford boots, don’t endeavor to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps:

They grovel and grumble in sore discontent.
They struggle and ache with internal dissent;
They shudder and shiver and wrangle and hate,
And cry as they shirk:
“We want to be great, we want to be great —
But we don’t want to work!”
A farmer named Ira V. Randall told The Cincinnati Post [February 4, 1920] that food prices were going up because people were just too darn lazy:
“Thousands of acres of land are going to brush and briers here because there is no one to work on the land. There is plenty of money, but no one wants to work for what a farmer can pay, altho farm labor has advanced from 100 to 200 per cent in 20 years.”

The Post reported dire forecasts by business theorist Roger W. Babson, who claimed that automobiles were sapping the initiative of American workers. According to Babson [May 9, 1924]:

“Today American and Canadian business is running on its momentum. Everyone wants to ride in autos and no one wants to work. Some aggressive steps must be taken at once or business will gradually but surely decline.”

In 1977, Cincinnati’s hired economist reported that many companies blamed organized labor for the tri-state region’s decline in manufacturing capacity. At a city council hearing on October 18, Saul Pleeter quoted the corporate line, according to The Post:

“In talking to prospective manufacturers, Pleeter said, ‘you hear comments like the unions won’t let you fire anyone anymore … no one wants to work hard anymore.’ Whether the comments are true or not, Pleeter said, the fact that they are believed by a manufacturer could influence his decision on plant location.”

More than 25 years ago, Enquirer columnist Andrea Kay [March 22, 1996] was still beating the same old drum:

“Company owners, on the other hand, tell me how they can’t find good workers. One employer hired two people last week – neither showed up for their first day of work. Another person worked two days and never bothered to tell the owner she quit.”

As you can see, the pattern for the past 190 years has been to blame the laborer instead of asking what sort of work environment, including amenities and benefits as well as salary, might actually entice enthusiastic workers. Over the course of almost two centuries, there were undoubtedly a variety of factors creating the impression that “no one wants to work anymore”—but the consistent reappearance of this attitude suggests that maybe, just maybe, someone might be misinterpreting the situation.

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