America’s Work Ethic Is Under Assault

SEO Content Writing Service

Comment on this storyCommentThe work ethic is the most important engine of capitalist civilization. It keeps workers working long after they have satisfied their basic needs, drives entrepreneurs to found new companies and inventors to invent new things, and, in general, generates the surplus that pays for productive investment and social welfare.Yet the belief that work is a moral duty rather than an inconvenient necessity is hardly a natural one. In most civilizations, social status has been determined by your distance from productive labor — aristocrats in Naples even lost their patents of nobility if they were caught doing anything useful — while workers abandoned the grindstone for the alehouse at the slightest opportunity.Ever since Max Weber published his landmark The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), historians have debated his claim that Protestantism, particularly in its Calvinist form, was responsible for the rise of capitalism because it treated hard work and wealth accumulation as proof of salvation. But they have largely agreed with the basic idea that the rise of capitalism required a revolution in attitudes to work.Which raises a troubling proposition: If the work ethic is the product of cultural change, it can be destroyed by cultural change. America is the world’s leading example of the power of the work ethic. The North was settled by work-obsessed Puritans fleeing persecution in England (the South was settled by Cavaliers who despised work and relied for their leisure on slave labor). Benjamin Franklin coined aphorisms about time being money and early to bed, early to rise being the secret of wealth as well as wisdom. Horatio Alger insisted that anybody could make it if they worked hard. Immigrants came to the United States in their millions in the hope that hard work and self-reliance would finally be rewarded.  In some ways this culture still survives. Americans in the labor force work longer hours than Europeans and take significantly shorter vacations. The month-long summer holiday that the French regard as a right strikes many Americans as a form of decadence. High-earning Americans in law, banking and the executive suite routinely work more than 50 hours a week and some of them work more than 100.Yet this commitment to work is eroding at the edges and increasingly at the center. The US labor force participation rate — the proportion of working-age citizens either working or actively looking for work — has declined from a high of 67.5% at the turn of the century to 62.3%. “The US work ethic is really strong and healthy,” Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute quipped to me in an interview, “except where it isn’t.”The post-work revolution was led by men without college degrees. In Men Without Work, which was first published in 2016 and revised in 2022, Eberstadt produces some astonishing statistics on the number of prime-age men (25 to 64) who have fallen out of the labor market. More than 11% of these men — some seven million souls — are neither working nor looking for a job. Barely half of native-born prime-age men with no high school degree are in the job market. The “not in labor force” number has gone up by a percentage point every seven years since 1965 regardless of the state of the economy or the number of job vacancies.The Covid pandemic spread the post-work revolution to new groups — hence all the talk of “the great resignation” and “quiet quitting.” Many older Americans decided to fast forward their retirement by cashing in their 401k plans and/or selling their over-priced properties and moving to cheaper Valhallas: 1.75 million baby boomers retired in 2021 as compared with a million in the average year. Some prime-age workers (particularly women) decided during the furlough that going out to work wasn’t worth the hassle if you were spending most of your income on caring for children or aging parents.Most worrying of all is the changing attitude to work among the young. A 2010 Pew Research Center Report sounded the alarm with its discovery that three-fourths of respondents claimed that older people had a better work ethic than younger people do — a belief that was held just as strongly by the young as by their seniors. Since then, evidence of disillusionment has multiplied. Employers report that millennials are more likely to regard work as a means of self-fulfillment rather than just an income stream. Anti-work activists cite appalling corporate practices on Reddit, praise The Right to be Lazy (1883), by Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, debate the relative merits of “rage quitting” versus “quiet quitting,” and advocate the virtues of a universal basic income, which does away with the need to work at all.This anti-work revolt is obviously troubling for economic reasons: It reduces the economy’s overall productivity and leaves urgent jobs undone. It is also demoralizing. On being asked how a person might flourish, Sigmund Freud replied “love and work…work and love, that’s all there is…love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” Time-work studies of men who have dropped out of the labor market show that they spend most of their abundant “socializing, relaxing and leisure” time (as the American Time Use Survey defines it) in front of a screen, whether watching the TV or playing video games. Similar studies of early retirees also show enormous amounts of screen time.So how do we explain the trend? And how do we go about reversing it? Several specific explanations invite specific remedies. The opioid epidemic has wrecked lives across the country. Ill health and obesity make it harder for people to hold down a job. Disability rules discourage retraining. Ex-convicts find it hard to get back into the workforce, yet close to one-in-eight American men have been in prison. Tackling the opioid crisis and addressing the incarceration madness will also help to tackle the work crisis The problem of premature retirement may also be solving itself as retirees discover that they don’t have as much to live on as they previously expected. But the problem also has deeper cultural roots that require deeper digging if they are to be torn up. Start with two famous paradoxes about the nature of capitalism.In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942), Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism produces its own gravediggers in the form of tenured intellectuals who gorge on capitalism’s fruits while devoting their energies to denouncing its evils. This problem has now reached an extreme that would even have surprised a man who lived through the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s not just that liberal academics and administrators outnumber conservative ones by growing margins in the humanities, and that within the ranks of liberals, a more “progressive” mindset has taken hold. It’s that this progressive mindset is also now in the ascendant among faculty at traditionally vocational institutions such as law schools and business schools. Where once Harvard Business School students learned that their only duty was to maximize shareholder value, now they learn that they must reimagine capitalism in a world on fire.  In the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), Daniel Bell took the argument further by arguing that capitalism was undermining itself by producing so much wealth. If the Puritan work ethic depended on self-denial, which generated the surplus needed for prosperity, the affluent society depended on endless consumption and instant gratification, which destroyed the foundational virtues of thrift and sobriety. In the first decade of the century, banks persuaded so many people to take loans they couldn’t afford that the banking system almost collapsed. Now Big Marijuana is pushing a drug that  reduces motivation on the American people, a particular hazard to those only loosely attached to the labor market. Is that ubiquitous smell in America’s great cities the smell of sensible liberal drug policy? Or is it the smell of America’s work ethic going up in smoke?To these two classic paradoxes I’d add a couple of my own. One is the paradox of opportunity. The neoliberal revolution was justified by the idea that people had a right to rise as high as their talents would allow them without paying an undue amount of money back to the state in the form of income or inheritance taxes. But the resulting explosion in inequality is undermining faith in equality of opportunity. A March 2020 Pew Research Center report found that nearly two-thirds of US adults (65%) believe that the main reason some people are rich is because they have had more advantages in life than other people. Only a third say that it is because they have worked harder than others.The second is the paradox of work. Work is increasingly becoming an all-or-nothing proposition — you either devote your life to the job or give up entirely. Employers not only expect their employees to be available to answer emails or even take calls all hours of the day and night. They link their pay to ever more precisely measured performance. Office workers’ days are crammed with Zoom meetings and performance reviews. Amazon warehouse workers have their visits to the lavatory timed. The faster the hamster wheel revolves, the greater the temptation to jump off.Solving the first three of these paradoxes may be the work of Sisyphus. But a few encouraging signs suggest that these problems are being addressed. The University of North Carolina recently voted to establish a School of Civic Life and Leadership which will give a voice to academics from across the political spectrum, including conservatives. Some Republicans are rethinking the party’s tax-cutting and government-shrinking orthodoxy and emphasizing instead the importance of jobs-based prosperity. Ever more Americans are worried about the size of inherited fortunes. Yet a broad-ranging campaign to restore the work ethic will require an appetite for preaching that is rare and a willingness to work across political lines that has evaporated.The one bright spot is the nature of work. The Covid pandemic has had the unexpected consequence of shaking workers free from ossified practices and unleashing the power of new technologies such as Zoom. Companies are adopting a hybrid work system whereby workers cut their commuting to two or three days a week and workers are using their newfound flexibility to combine working with domestic duties. A solid body of evidence suggests that this is producing higher productivity and higher engagement. Companies need to widen and deepen this revolution rather than using the current spate of layoffs to tighten the organizational harness.Treat workers as responsible adults rather than errant children, intent on skiving off, or giddy adolescents, wowed by free beer and pizza. Use Zoom to reduce the need for work-related travel as well as trips to the office. Cut down on the proliferation of meetings. Stop bombarding employees with unnecessary emails, particularly from HR. Embrace part-time jobs so that older workers don’t have choose between working and retiring.The easiest way to start addressing America’s work ethic problem is to start making work itself more attractive.More From Bloomberg Opinion:• Layoffs Often Leave Companies Worse Off: Sarah Green Carmichael• What Great Resignation? Workers Are Staying Put: Justin Fox• Big Tech Layoffs Deflate Musk and Zuckerberg: Parmy OlsonThis column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the Economist, he is author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”More stories like this are available on

Source link

You May Also Like

About the Author:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Home Privacy Policy Terms Of Use Anti Spam Policy Contact Us Affiliate Disclosure Amazon Affiliate Disclaimer DMCA Earnings Disclaimer