The following might be of interest to readers of this board.
It's an essay I had published in the book: Point
Taken: A Brief Thematic Reader, ed Elizabeth Penfield
(other contributors included Barbara Ehrenreich, Maya Angelou
and Jeremy Rifkin). I wrote it over a decade ago (before the Internet
took off), and some of my opinions have since changed.
The Puritan Work Ethic
Phil Laut, the author of Money Is My Friend, has defined
hard work as “doing what you don’t want to do”, and suggests
that to operate with integrity, you should forget work and do
what you want. This revolutionary viewpoint directly opposes
certain beliefs which have become codified into our work ethic
courtesy of the Puritans. Puritan sects were greatly over-represented
among the early major industrialists (quoted in Ashton’s History
of the Industrial Revolution), and their belief that suffering
is required to redeem our ‘original sin’ as human beings became
part of their work ethic. This is a notion which continues to
underlie our attitude towards work even today.
This is why, in our society, work is closely related to, and
often motivated by, guilt. To sweeten their view of work and
provide positive motivation, the Puritans believed that honest
toil, if persevered with, led to mundane and spiritual rewards.
The modern equivalents of these archaic religious beliefs are:
i) Hard work is the main factor in producing
ii) Hard work is character building and morally good.
The available statistics don’t support the belief
that hard work leads to wealth for example, US government
figures from the eighties showed the average savings of a person
reaching retirement age in North America to be less than $500.
This is the typical level of financial reward a person can expect
for forty years of full-time hard work based on government
data for an entire generation of working Americans.
Whatever its correlation with material wealth,
hard work is undoubtedly seen as virtuous the greatest
tribute paid to the deceased seems to be “worked hard all his/her
life”, although this epitaph sounds more appropriate for an
item of machinery than a human being. There is, in fact, a lot
of evidence to suggest that our work ethic is extreme and pathological
in its effects. For example, a major UK survey (quoted recently
by The Guardian) showed that 6 out of 10 British workers
dislike their jobs, suffer insecurity and stress, fret over
inadequate income, feel that their work isn’t of use to society,
and find themselves exhausted by the time they get home. A 1995
National Opinion Poll (NOP) revealed that 50% of British workers
say work makes them depressed, and 43% have problems sleeping
because of work. So unless you regard stress-related illness
as character building, these findings don’t really support the
idea of work being morally uplifting.
The hard work ethic has also conditioned us to see happiness
as something that must be earned through toil. In effect, this
is saying you have to suffer in order to get happiness, or to
put it another way, you must be unhappy to be happy. The underlying
idea behind this insanity is that you are infinitely undeserving
that reward, ie happiness, will always be contingent
upon the endurance of some unpleasant activity. The problem
with this way of thinking is that it endlessly perpetuates itself
you can never totally relax because nobody ever comes
along to say, once and for all, that you’ve worked enough (the
religious beliefs which originally gave rise to this mindset
don’t permit you to relax until after you’ve died).
A popular cliché says “nothing worthwhile
is easy”. Another version of the same idea has been used as
a political slogan: “if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working”.
Beliefs like these don’t only describe viewpoints, they also
program our expectations. You are effectively programming yourself
to experience hurt and hardship if you accept this idea of “no
pain, no gain”. How can you despise ease and laziness then not
feel guilty when you take a rest? Try an alternative slogan:
“anything worthwhile is best done without effort”, or “if you
can’t enjoy it, don’t do it”.
According to classical economic theory, wealth
is created from land, labour and capital. Increasingly though,
information is becoming the primary source of wealth. If you
drill for oil, you need precise information about where to drill.
As knowledge-intensive markets grow in proportion to labour-intensive
industry, information is overtaking labour (ie hard work) as
an important wealth-creating factor. Employees in busy offices
rush so much to get things done, that they never stop to consider
if there is any point to it. Quality thinking and innovation
don’t usually result from hard work and stress. The human brain
processes complex information better when the person is relaxed
and happy (adrenaline addiction notwithstanding).
One futurist dream is that technology will eventually
free people from the necessity of hard work. This doesn’t mean
that all-day leisure and enjoyment would be imposed those
who like being miserable could construct their own simulations
of busy offices or noxious factories to work in. But for everybody
else, drudgery and toil would be pointless and obsolete. The
fact that we are nowhere near manifesting such a dream has more
to do with our attitudes and beliefs than with the current state
Currently there are alternatives to the 9-5 work culture (job-sharing,
teleworking etc) which are forward-looking and advantageous
to everybody (the Institute of Manpower Studies has found
that employees who work ‘non-standard’ hours tend to be more
efficient, enthusiastic and committed), but which are still
very rare. The Information Age is here, but in terms of work
patterns we cling to the attitudes of an mechanical-industrial
culture steeped in the Puritan ethic.
A strange effect of the ‘dark ages’ view of work as atonement,
is the idea that we should enjoy it, or at least try to look
as if we’re enjoying it. By happily accepting our punishment
(ie daily hard work) we demonstrate our moral fibre. This also
explains why (according to the US figures quoted above) the
average person is prepared to work forty hours per week for
no great financial reward most people believe they don’t
deserve to be paid for enjoying themselves (even when the ‘enjoyment’
is for appearances only).
In order to more deeply understand current attitudes to work,
there is an interesting exercise you can try:- spend a whole
day in bed for no particular reason (ie don’t wait until you
are ill or exhausted). Don’t do anything, just lie in bed and
doze all day, without feeling ashamed of your laziness. This
could be the greatest challenge you have ever faced. The acceptance
of laziness breaks the link between guilt and work which chains
us to primitive patterns from the past.