Selling the Work Ethic

Sharon Beder


Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Selling the Work Ethic', Australian Rationalist 55, Spring 2001, pp. 8-13.

This is a final version submitted for publication.
Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications


This is the edited text of a talk given by Sharon Beder at the launch of her latest book Selling the Work Ethic: from puritan pulpit to corporate PR(Scribe, 2000) at the Comedy Club, Melbourne, on November 27, 2000. The arguments she advances here and the research supporting them are elaborated in this book.
On my way down to Melbourne this afternoon, there was a news program on the plane; the leading item was the failure of participating countries at the talks in the Hague to decide anything about how to reduce global warming. This is just one more example of where corporations have managed to thwart environmental action. It's the sort of thing that led me to write Global Spin.

Why do corporations have so much power? Why do we allow them to have so much power? Why are we in the situation where these corporations have stopped the world from deciding to do something that will protect it from future warming? It seems to me that we need to go beyond just campaigning for environmental protection, or even exposing corporate PR, to actually looking at the very part of our culture which gives corporations this power. I believe that the work ethic is absolutely central to their power.

It's not just because corporations are employers and they provide the jobs and the goods that we want; it's something that is much more fundamental in the way that the work ethic has shaped our values. The work ethic legitimates certain qualities in societies, and presents the whole social structure as being fair and normal and the best of all possible worlds. We're so caught up in this culture that something like the work ethic is never questioned. And when you do start to question it people say "Well, isn't this the way it's always been? What else could there possibly be?" When I went to NZ to do the media promotion for this book, every single interviewer wanted to know: how it could it be different? And how can we get there?

We'll get to that later, and I'm not sure that I have the answer. But I think that in order to be able to change, we need to understand what needs changing. We need to recognise that these aspects of our culture are not inevitable or innate–part of being human–but something that's developed historically, that's shaped socially, and in particular that's shaped by the people who have most to gain from them. And that means employers and corporations and the politicians who service them.

To understand the work ethic, we really need to go back in history quite a long way to a time when societies had a different sort of ethic that wasn't completely based around work. Prior to the Reformation, people would work for a sufficient time to be able to meet their basic needs and then they would take the rest of the week off. So in years when food was cheap, people would work only two or three days a week, because that's all they needed to do in order to buy their food and to live. That sort of attitude needed to be overcome in order for capitalism to flourish. During the Reformation, early Protestant leaders such as Luther and Calvin made work a calling, a way of serving God, and the follow-on from that was that making a profit became a virtue.

There have always been people who have made money - traders and merchants - but the idea of people making more and more money being seen as virtuous is something quite unique throughout history and to our society. This was something that followed on from seeing work as a calling: once work was a calling and a way of serving God then people who made lots of money from their work were seen as receiving a blessing from God. The rise of modern capitalism owes a great debt to this outlook. It not only provided a hard-working work force, but also ensured that the new capitalists didn't spend the money they made but put it back into their businesses. This enabled them to build up powerful businesses and to become the new elite in society.

Those religious origins have subsided somewhat - we don't see ourselves as a particularly religious society - but the work ethic remains. Nowadays, rather than work being a way of serving God, it has became a sign of 'good character' and a way to 'success'. This idea was and is deliberately fostered by business people, employers, politicians, teachers, and preachers: the idea that if you want to 'succeed' in life, then you have to work hard. And the social values that accompany that are that the people who do succeed - the wealthy people - must have succeeded because they worked hard, because they have this character trait ; and the people who are poor, the people who aren't making it, who are unemployed, must be that way because they lack good 'character': this ability to work hard and take advantage of opportunities.

So very early on we see the legitimation of a whole status system emerging from the work ethic and from seeing society as being based on individual effort rather than social structure and class. This was particularly so in the United States. As the United States was becoming a nation there was the idea that, unlike class-bound Britain, anyone could go to the United States, start off poor and eventually 'make it'; they could become wealthy and successful. So the myth of the 'self-made man' arose.

A similar situation exists in Australia, where we see ourselves as a totally egalitarian culture that is not class-ridden. The problem is that this whole idea that there is a level playing field, that it's just a matter of getting the right schooling and working hard - anyone can 'make it' - is a myth. The truth is that most poor people don't make it. Increasingly, the new generations aren't improving their lifestyle and position in society in comparison to the previous ones. These days the gap between the very wealthy and the poor is widening; when you look at the lower classes of society, they're not making headway. It's becoming harder and harder to own a house, which is an Australian dream. Real wages are going down, because of the amount of work that's being done. The whole basis on which society is supposed to be structured - that it's fair - is a complete myth. People can work hard all their lives and still be poor at the end, and their children aren't any better off than they themselves were.

Nevertheless the ideology, the values and the culture of the work ethic continue in the face of these realities which anyone can see. And it doesn't continue by accident or through its own momentum. It has to be actively promoted.

For example, there's been a lot of publicity in recent times about the incomes of CEOs compared to that of workers. The disparities are so enormous that no-one in their right mind could possibly justify them in terms of how productive each is in their particular job. So therefore it's necessary, because of these anomalies that seem to undermine the work ethic, to keep promoting this ethic and to keep coming out with the appropriate propaganda.

One of the main places where this happens is in schools. It's been shown that children at a very young age think it's unfair that some people get more than others in society, but by the time they get to early teens they take on the message that: no, it's fair enough that some people deserve more than others because they work harder. So this is a message that's promoted in schools in a whole variety of ways: Firstly, through instilling work values: teaching children to work hard, to arrive on time, to do what their teachers tell them. Studies have also shown that school grades are much more influenced by how hard-working and diligent children are than by qualities such as talent and creativity which schools are supposed to nurture.

Secondly, schools parallel the workplace, they are a place where there are bosses (teachers) and workers, where time is highly structured, activities disciplined, and the children are expected to work hard. There's been quite a bit of publicity lately about the amount of homework children are getting, and this homework, this getting them to work even when they are away from school and at home is part of pushing the work ethic.

Thirdly, there are increasing ways of getting children at school to experience real workplaces in different ways: by business people coming and talking to them at schools, by taking children on visits to companies, factories, sites, by getting them to do work experience and so on.

Fourthly, there is the push for vocational education in schools. Schools are a major place where the work ethic is promoted.

Another means of promoting the work ethic is through our biased attitude to people on welfare. And this is something in which the media, especially the Australian media, has played a large role. The media love to denigrate the unemployed. Newspapers and television programs, especially current affairs programs, love to have stories about 'dole bludgers' who don't want to work and who are just enjoying themselves at the taxpayers' expense. This is all part of the strategy of blaming unemployed people for their own situation, by saying 'Well it's because they don't want to work', rather than acknowledging that there isn't enough work for everyone.

It suits employers to have a certain amount of unemployment because then there's competition for jobs and they can keep wages down to a certain extent. On the other hand there is the fear that the people who are unemployed might find alternative lifestyles, manage to live on a very meagre income, not be desperate for work, and not provide an army of reserve labour competing for the jobs. Ever since welfare was introduced after the Second World War there has been a policy of making welfare an unattractive option: by not paying people very much, by always searching for the 'bludgers', by having work tests, by stigmatising the unemployed through the media, so that they don't have any self esteem and feel worthless - because the work ethic says that your worth is totally based on the work you do and your income.

But even with decades of this sort of treatment there was still concern in the US and the UK about the formation of underclasses: where poor people congregate in the same neighbourhoods and live a lifestyle that is not based around paid-work. The fear was that they would pass this lifestyle down the generations. So there's been a push in recent years towards working for welfare benefits. In the US it's Workfare, in the UK it's Work for Benefits and in Australia it's Work for the Dole. Working for benefits is of course justified in terms of being for the good of the unemployed people, to help their self esteem, give them skills, keep them occupied, etc. But in actual fact its purpose is to deter people from being on welfare. In other words, it's often about punishment. These schemes are really about ensuring that young unemployed people in particular don't lose work skills: that they're still are able to get up in the morning and go to work and do what the boss says and making sure that the dole is less attractive than working for a living. It ensures that people are still competing for jobs because there is no desirable alternative to work.

This has a depressing effect on the labour market because if people are competing for low-paid undesirable jobs, wages are kept down. In actual fact, a lot of unemployment has arisen because of the massive downsizing that employers and corporations have been doing over the 1980s and 90s and we now have a situation where full-time secure jobs are becoming increasingly scarce and the sorts of jobs that are on offer are temporary, insecure, casual, and don't have the usual benefits. As far as employers are concerned there's even more pressure to ensure that people are going to take these second rate jobs.

And just before I finish I think I ought to emphasise the role of consumerism in getting people to work. I think you all remember that in the 60s and 70s people were saying that all this new technology and increasing productivity is going to give us all so much more leisure. What has actually happened is that people who have full-time jobs are working longer and longer hours rather than less hours. Part of the reason for this is insecurity but another part is the debt that people accumulate in their eagerness to buy the consumer goods that they're told every day - every hour - that they need in order to be happy. But they're not happy.

This is the point: With people living lives that are so work-dominated they don't have time to do the things that do make people happy; to spend time on relationships, with friends and family. Many people don't even have time to sleep properly. We've now got increasing levels of stress, suicide, escalating levels of depression, and we're trying to produce more and more in order to keep people in jobs, when all the extra production is in fact only degrading the environment.

But we can't get off that treadmill because if we don't have the jobs then people are going to be unemployed and nobody wants to be unemployed, because the unemployed are denigrated and the income so low. So, while the work ethic has been useful in raising living standards and getting us to this point, at the start of the 21st century the benefits of the work ethic have run their course. It's more detrimental than beneficial to continue with it. We need to look for some other organising principle for our society, particularly in affluent societies like Australia.

If we're going to protect the planet, if we're going to be able to control corporations and if we're going to ensure that people can get back to being happier and have more equilibrium in their lives, we need to start developing other human qualities. Because we do have qualities other than the qualities that are needed to work and make products. And those qualities have been neglected till now.


Answers to Questions

Question about whether there are signs of change:

Ever since I started talking to people about this over the last few months, and on the one or two radio talk-back shows that I've been involved in, it's clear that there's quite a lot of dissatisfaction at the moment. People are starting to say, at the grass roots community level: "Why am I doing all this work, and is this a good situation?" At the moment it's mostly on an individual level: so it's not that people are organising at all. But a few of those people who can - and they're the more affluent people - are changing their lifestyle or giving up their jobs.

When I went to NZ to do my talk, the publicity person who met me at the airport told me that she had just resigned from her job that week so that she could do just a bit of part-time work and have more leisure. Then I went down to Wellington and saw two friends from school and university days and one of them has already changed her lifestyle. She just does a bit of writing, and some part time work. And the other one whom I always thought had the biggest work ethic I've ever seen -the last time I went to NZ she didn't have time to see me because she had so much work - said "I'm going to give up my job in February and just see what happens."

So it seems to me that there is a bit of a change happening - for those who can do it. Most people can't do that sort of thing because they've got mortgages and this is where the debt comes in to keep people working.

And on the subject of debts, I think its no accident that the government is making sure that students have debt, especially in New Zealand where the debt increases with inflation. That debt is a very big part of ensuring that people keep working.

So I think we are starting to see signs of change at an individual level but we need to have more organisation, and more things happening at a political level.

Question about the situation in America:

In the US the minimum wage is so low that people can work a full-time week and still be below the poverty line. That's a disgraceful situation. They can't even support a family working a full-time week. And the only reason employers can get workers in that situation is because people are being thrown off welfare.

Question about Sharon's own work:

I've been asked this question in NZ: isn't it hard work writing these books! But to me, this is my hobby. I don't see this as work. When I retire I will still write the books, even though no-one's paying me to do it. This is my self expression, my way of changing society, and I don't treat it like work. I don't get up in the morning and say: 'Well I've got to write three thousand words this morning and when I've done that I can take a break.". If I feel like doing something on the book I do it, if I feel like having a nap after lunch I have a nap after lunch. It's not something that I have to apply a work ethic to. I do it when I feel like it and when I do it, I enjoy it.

Question about radio 'shock jocks' such as Laws and Jones being wealthy men, but having a largely working class audience:

It is depressing and it's particularly depressing when they're exposed for just saying what their sponsors are paying them to say and yet people still keep listening to them. Its hard to understand why that happens. But we can't dwell on that too much. I don't know what the answer is!

Question on the distinction between work on the one hand and the work ethic on the other.

The work ethic means that instead of working towards an end, work becomes the end in itself. People have always worked in order to provide themselves with food and shelter etc and then once they've got those things, they've stopped working. But in a work-dominated society with a work ethic what happens is that work becomes an end in itself and people are judged by the work not the ends. The other thing about the work ethic is the morality associated with it — it makes work a virtue, working hard a sign of good character and ensures everybody's judged according to their work and their income.

Question about work to protect the environment.

I'm not proposing that nobody works any more. There's a certain of amount of work required to achieve desirable goals in society. As I see it, what's lacking in protecting and cleaning up the environment is a bit of innovation and plenty of qualities like wisdom and creativity. What we need are solutions and the ability to put those solutions in place without being opposed by corporations. So that whilst there will be some work involved in that, what we have at the moment is people working very hard to produce the things that degrade the environment rather than just doing the work that's necessary to protect it. That's what I mean about work being the means to an end rather than an end in itself. At the moment we've got a situation where we produce all these 'things' because they provide work and profits, but they don't necessarily make anybody any happier. What we need to do is to sit down and decide what we want as a community and as a society and then to work towards those things. Do you see the difference?

Question about the need to spend money on the environment.

Sometimes environmental protection is a matter of not spending the money rather than spending it. It is not a shortage of money that causes environmental problems. A lot of money that's spent causes more degradation than if it wasn't spent. But I do think there is something wrong with the distribution of capital in society and the way its spent. I think that's the problem - not the fact that money's needed or not needed.

Question about the problem being the capitalist system and how are we going to change it and get through especially to young people?

First of all, socialism has a very strong work ethic, so it's not just capitalism that is work-centred. And part of the problem is that the unions in Australia, the US and other developed countries have in recent decades since the second world war basically always fought for more pay rather than less work. And so the gains in productivity, rather than reducing work, have all gone toward extra pay and thus to extra consumption, so there is escalating production.

Now your question is how do we change the capitalist work and consumer ethic? Well I don't know how we change it except to say that the people who are trying to change society often don't look at the very heart of our culture, so they only change superficial things. Whether they're environmental activists, or unionists or health activists, they often only look at one level of activity and not at the causes below that. What I'm arguing here is that we need to look at the fundamental aspects of our culture and start questioning those, and unless we do that, of course we can't change anything. Unless environmentalists, for example, question the work ethic then they're always going to be barricaded outside the conference at the Hague with their symbolic gestures trying to get media attention and they're always going to be fighting particular battles. When it comes to jobs they're unwilling to say: 'Yes OK, some jobs will be sacrificed to save the environment'. Most mainstream environment groups won't say that, because they're afraid that if they admit that there is a trade-off, that some jobs may be lost, then they'll lose support.

But there's a double standard here because the corporations and the government don't worry about sacrificing jobs when they're rationalising the public service, when they're privatising or when they're downsizing etc. Jobs don't matter then. They only matter when you're trying to protect the environment. Then it's such a terrible thing when you lose a few jobs. It's alright to cut thousands of jobs from Telstra or BHP. Nobody except the Telstra people thinks twice about that. But when it comes to the environment, you can't say that we'll lose a few jobs in order to protect the environment. So unless we start questioning these fundamental things we can't make a strong argument to protect the environment. The same goes for every sphere where you want change.

Question about the aristocracy in England and how the work ethic includes them.

There are elements in some countries that are left over from the previous era before capitalism - the feudal era I guess. It was interesting, when I was doing research on this issue, to find books that actually advise very wealthy people whose children are not going to have to work for a living on how to bring them up and how to ensure that they have a work ethic - despite not needing to work for a living! There's quite a literature there because often the children of wealthy people are lost in society because of their lack of identity without the work ethic.

Question about the nature of work and the language used to describe it:

We're now getting a split in the workforce between the 'core' workers and 'peripheral' workers. The core workers are the ones that have the full-time secure jobs. And then there are the more peripheral people who don't have any security. The job contract, where you worked hard and you were loyal to your employer and you got promoted and you had a secure job has gone for these peripheral workers. And so there is this problem for employers: how do they make sure that these people have a work ethic? There's been a lot written about generation X calling them 'slackers' because they get 'Mickey Mouse' jobs which aren't proper jobs and they don't have a work ethic. It’s not that these young people don’t have a work ethic. It’s just that it would just be stupid to display a work ethic in those circumstances. They do have a work ethic in terms of wanting to have a job where they can express themselves and they can feel that they have an identity. And they would have a work ethic if they had the opportunity.

So the problem for management is: How do they motivate work in these people? And one way is through the use of technology to very tightly monitor workers. Like call centres where they have electronic means of knowing how long employees spend answering the phone, going to the toilet etc. Another way is by described in the new management literature which is basically about motivating people. As you say, it uses this warm fuzzy language: no more hierarchies and "we're a team, we don't have bosses - we have leaders" and all this stuff. But the whole idea is to use team pressure to ensure that those people who don't seem to have a work ethic - those on the periphery - still work hard.

The social contract between the employer and employee has gone so that instead of having a lifetime job you have 'marketable skills'. What you're supposed to do is go and get a job and this gives you certain skills so that you're better off in the marketplace when you go for your next job and your next job and so on, so you go from job to job. The manipulation of language is to disguise the fact that the goal is to get people to continue to work hard in situations where there's just no financial or career reward for working hard.

Discussion in subsequent issue of The Rationalist (pdf)


Professor Sharon Beder is an honorary professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.
Sharon Beder's Publications can be found at http://www.uow.edu.au/~sharonb