Does anyone still believe in hard work? New research reveals whether the Work Ethic exists.
Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
Working hard is intrinsically a good and moral thing to do – the so-called ‘Work Ethic’ – does this really exist? Is the work ethic even regarded as a good thing any more? ‘Work-life balance’ is all the vogue, so perhaps the ‘work ethic’ destroys family life and over all contentment?
Some doubt whether the so called ‘work ethic’ ever really existed. Bosses who complained their employees lacked a work ethic, boasted suspiciously good golf handicaps.
Confusion over what a ‘work ethic’ actually is, may explain why Conservative MPs recently criticised the benefits system for encouraging unemployment. A work ethic is about the idea that you value the benefits of hard work, over and above whether you need to labour for purely financial reasons.
Theoretically then, those with a strong ‘work ethic’ will seek to toil, even if they don’t need to, even if the benefits system will cushion them. In a community with a strong work ethic, the benefits system discouraging effort would, supposedly, be less of an issue.
Some big money lottery winners turn up for work the following morning after a huge win – indicating that they continue in their jobs for reasons of intrinsic benefit, other than needing to financially. Yet the very newspapers who come down hard on the unemployed for drawing benefits, are incredulous that anyone should continue to toil, after scooping a lottery mega win.
Given all this confusion over what an ‘work ethic’ is – where did the idea come from?
Max Weber (1864-1920) – a philosopher and founder of the German Democratic Party is credited with coining the concept of the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’.
Protestants were successful, Weber suggested, because they believed that work was good, as it was for God’s glory; that wealth was a sign of grace, and that it was our duty not to spend it on pleasures, but invest and become even more successful.
Driven by a strong work ethic, leisure was confused with idleness, which was literally sinful. It was Protestant piety, rationality and hard work for its own sake, that explained their competitive advantage.
Max Weber contended that Protestantism involved work and economic activity as God-given duty. Such worldly activity proved one’s faith. This eventually evolved through history, into what Weber called the “spirit of capitalism” – which was the idea that working for the purpose of proﬁt, is a moral good in itself.
Because Weber claimed Protestantism emphasised a link between religious ethics and rejoicing in economic prosperity, this accounted for the origin of modern industrial capitalism in Northwest Europe and North America.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and other senior religious members of in the UK might need to be reminded of the religious roots of our current economic system, given the current Christian vogue for criticising capitalism.
According to the theory of the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’, Protestants in particular, or Protestant societies, should value work more than other people, or other countries.
But does the work ethic still exist? Indeed, did it ever exist?
Economists André van Hoorn and Robbert Maseland from the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, have just published an enormous study analyzing a sample of almost 150,000 individuals from 82 societies, which appears to resolve this question.
Entitled ‘Does a Protestant work ethic exist? Evidence from the well-being effect of unemployment’, the study contended that if unemployment had a stronger negative effect on happiness, or well-being, for Protestants, or Protestant societies, this would be an indication that work matters more to Protestants.
To investigate whether unemployment hurts emotionally more in Protestant societies, the researchers first had to classify countries as either Protestant or not. They identified Finland, Great Britain, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, and the United States as societies in which Protestantism is currently the dominant religion. They classified a larger group of countries as having historically been Protestant and these included Australia, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.
They indeed found that Protestants and Protestant societies appear to value work much more than the rest of the world. The research confirmed that the effect of living in a Protestant society dominates the individual effect of being Protestant. In other words, you don’t have to be actually Protestant to be infected by the Protestant Work Ethic, if you live in a community dominated by this sentiment.
Whereas unemployment reduces well-being regardless of religious denomination, it has an additional negative effect for Protestants of about 40% of the size of the original impact of unemployment. At the individual level, unemployment hurts Protestants much more than it does non-Protestants. The study took into account the economic impact of unemployment and found, even allowing for this, unemployment causes Protestants, and those who live in Protestant countries, more distress.
Van Hoorn and Maseland conclude that their study, published in the ‘Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization’, finds that a Protestant ‘work ethic’ has been proven to exist.
They point out that a strong ‘work ethic’ has profound implications. People for whom the psychic or emotional costs of unemployment are lower, may make less effort to ﬁnd or keep jobs. Previous research confirms that those experiencing greater falls in well-being due to unemployment, indeed engage in job search with more intensity. This supports the idea that lower psychic or emotional costs of unemployment, indicate a weaker work ethic.
A ‘work ethic’ is about the idea that working hard is intrinsically a good thing to do – this means that the unemployed will suffer more psychologically, if they hold a strong ‘work ethic’. If paid work just isn’t available, maybe volunteering should be more advocated. Such jobs are so psychologically valuable, that there is not always a lot of difference between paid and unpaid work, in terms of emotional benefits.
Van Hoorn and Maseland conclude that their results could also reﬂect a process of self-selection, in which people with a stronger work ethic have disproportionately converted to Protestantism, because it offered a religious justiﬁcation for their ethical predispositions.
But there is also previous research which finds that smaller religious groups, like Jews and Zoroastrians, hold the principles of the work ethic even more strongly than practicing Protestants.
As a result, some have suggested it’s time to give up the ‘Protestant’ in the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ and simply call it the work ethic.