The Puritan Work Ethic

by Brian Dean, Anxiety Culture editor

(Originally printed in In Business magazine, Dec 1996; and re-printed in the book Point Taken: A Brief Thematic Reader [ed Elizabeth Penfield], Sept 2003)

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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 material wealth.
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 of technology.

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.

Acknowledgement: we recommend Phil Laut’s book, ‘Money Is My Friend’ – which is the source of many of the ideas in this article.

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