March 10, 2011

The Work Ethic, RIP

As the work ethic goes, so goes our sense of meaning and purpose in the workplace.
Editor’s note: This essay will appear in a forthcoming Hoover Press volume about endangered virtues. The book will be a collaborative effort of the members of Hoover's Boyd and Jill Smith Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society.

Americans are often contrasted with Europeans by the way we take work seriously. We identify with our jobs, not our inheritances or our noble ancestry. Often the first question we are asked when we meet somebody is, "what do you do," which is a short-hand for, "who are you?" We connect the working life to human dignity. We have to do this because we are democrats, and we want to do this because we are not snobs. Others may envy the aristocrat’s leisure. Not us: we admire those who have something to do. For us, as Tocqueville noted long ago, jobs may be easy or hard, well paid or poorly paid, but every kind of honest work is honorable. As much as anything, this is what we are: a country that honors work.

But it was not always so. And perhaps—this, in our view, is the danger—it might not always be so.

Work Ethic: An endangered virtue
Illustration by Barbara Kelley

The first century of our existence was marked by slavery, which cast a dark shadow over many things, including the dignity of labor. Among its many wrongs, slavery made work dishonorable, something for respectable people of advantage to avoid.

To the defenders of slavery, it seemed obvious that society was inevitably oppressive and work essentially degrading. As South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond told the Senate on the eve of the Civil War, all societies require "a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life … Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement." To Hammond, it did not matter much whether laborers were bought as slaves or hired as wage earners, as long as they created more value than they consumed. No oppression, no progress.

Hammond, more honest and more cutting than most defenders of slavery, freely admitted that slavery was oppressive. But he challenged slavery’s opponents to find any social system that was not. The mill-workers of Lowell, Massachusetts awakened by the factory whistle at the dawn of every 15 hour day and living at the mercy of the foreman on one hand and faceless mill-owners on the other, could at any moment be deprived of their homes, their beds, their meals, and their jobs. Was this freedom, Senator Hammond might have asked?

The American Civil War soaked the ground in blood, and like all fights, it was a war not only of strategy and physical strength, but of ideas. The ideal of union, though powerful, was not enough. It was also necessary to say what the union was for, which in the fullness of time required rejecting slavery. The rejection of slavery, in turn, required another idea: the affirmation of work.

There are two essential ingredients to the work ethic: devotion to a practice and contribution to society.

The most obvious point in favor of free labor is that it is free—it is chosen. But this argument would not satisfy the likes of Senator Hammond. Hammond thought that wage-work was oppressive very much like slavery was oppressive because it was assented to against a background of poverty and desperation. A real choice requires real options, and options are exactly what most workers lack.

In the years just preceding his ascent to the presidency and the country’s descent into civil war, Abraham Lincoln tried to work out an answer to this problem. Against Hammond’s image of the American economy—one filled with impoverished wage laborers sweating to make a subsistence living in the North, and oppressed slaves in the South—Lincoln emphasized that it is wrong to think all workers are either hired laborers or slaves and either way are oppressed. Most are neither hired laborers nor slaves: they rather work for themselves. Nor is where you start where you end. Many, starting out as "penniless beginner[s]," labor for others for awhile. But eventually they come to buy their own tools, own their own land, and work for themselves.

This opportunity to advance to a condition of independence, where you rely only on your own arms to prosper, is what could fund, in Lincoln’s view, a true work ethic. Opportunity makes work compelling. For the independent farmer, "every blade of grass is a study," Lincoln said. In other words, the farmer who works for himself is stimulated to think—about what makes things grow best and most bountifully, what might save time or sweat, and what, in general, works. When you work for yourself, no work can be simply physical or thoughtless.

Work, at least the right kind of work, activates a vast collection of human powers. It concentrates the mind, engages the heart, and directs the body. The ‘self-made’ man or woman makes himself or herself, and like that person, only if we work can we make a name for ourselves. In this way, work is worthy of people who see themselves as dignified, free, and equal.


In Lincoln’s day, it might have made sense to imagine an economy of farmers and artisans filled with the hope of becoming their own bosses. The Homestead Act, passed after the Civil War, was meant to give hope and opportunity a realistic footing.

A century and a half later, this image remains compelling yet less realistic. In the modern economy, most depend on employers, not only for their livelihoods, but also their health insurance and pensions. Where the farmer of the 19th century worked the earth, where the artisan of old worked materials into more useful forms, today we are more likely to work each other, managing our reputation in elaborate hierarchies that stack managers upon managers, where no single person can point to something at the end of the day and say, "I did that." We curry the favor of our superiors, flatter our customers, and badger our suppliers.

The dream of escaping the web of interdependence and becoming your own boss survives, but mostly in fantasy form: it is mapped onto things like the lottery, which invites us to take a chance on a pay-out so large that we would never have to work again. This is freedom.

Work is always a virtue for the citizens of a free society. To remain free, we need to do what we can to avoid making ourselves a burden on our fellow citizens.

So we work, but perhaps without a work ethic. To be sure, many people—indeed, about 80 percent, according to polls—feel their own work is meaningful, and identify with it. At the same time, recent evidence suggests that job satisfaction is declining, especially among young workers in their 20s and 30s. What marks these young people is not that they reject the conventional values affirmed by their parents (in favor of something they find better), but that they have trouble locating any compelling purposes. They do not reject the work ethic as unhappy or pointless, as did the romantic rebels of the 1960s. Instead, they neither affirm nor reject. They drift. Purposeless drift is not inconsistent with attaining the marks of high achievement, like admission to college or landing a good job. But it makes experiencing work as meaningful or purposeful elusive.


The inability to locate purposes in the world of work may seem strange to some who see the point of work so clearly that it would seem to require no interpretation, no argument. The point of work is quite simple, in this view: to make us safe in an unsafe world.

Human beings are full of needs, and work answers these needs. This is why the habit of work—"industry," as Ben Franklin called it, constitutes almost the whole of prudence. Someone who has a skill or a trade that answers the needs of others and who possesses the disposition to practice this trade with regularity and honesty, will never be entirely without. For those who lack trust funds, connections, safety nets—who, like Franklin, step into life alone in the "wide world"—the habit of work is the most practical virtue they can possess. This is why the disposition to work is always a virtue for the citizens of a free society. To remain free, we need to do what we can to avoid making ourselves a burden on our fellow citizens.

As work promises to keep us safe, so it also points beyond need to something finer: luxury. Elemental needs may be satisfied, but wants never end. As soon as one is satisfied, a new (and more expensive one) grows up to take its place. Even Ben Franklin, that archetype of the work ethic, had a taste for luxury. After he experienced some success as a printer, Ben Franklin traded in his earthenware bowls for China dishes.

Luxury is attractive because it satisfies discriminating tastes. Driving a Porsche is enjoyable even when no one can see you. And for those whose tastes cannot discriminate, luxury is attractive because it distinguishes those who possess it from those who cannot. Luxury creates a visible order of rank. That it is a false order of rank only makes it better, since it is more open. Few can hope to ever sing at the Met, but many can hope to own a designer dress. Unlike natural excellence, luxury is open to anyone who works, earns, and saves—and finds a little luck. But luck comes most to those who work.

Because we might make our own luck, the work ethic possesses a hopeful and optimistic cast. Free labor, as Lincoln said, "opens the way for all--gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all."


Work gets its reason from wants and desires almost no one can escape. Seen this way, work is natural: it is what we do because we are what we are. Does work really need an ethic? Should we really need fancy purposes to experience work as meaningful?

The traditional purposes of work—security, comfort, and luxury—anyone can appreciate. Yet solid though they are, standing alone they threaten to undercut the dignity of work. The traditional purposes of work ultimately suggest that the good life is an escape from work.

They don’t so much reveal the value of work itself, but of what work brings; they direct our attention not to the importance of work, but wealth. Since work is, even in the best cases, a painful discipline, it would be better on the traditional view to skip work and go directly to the wealth. Win the lottery. Or scheme to have someone else do your work for you. Against those whose riches come easy, workers look like chumps—doing what they need to do but would be smarter to avoid.

A true work ethic does not merely ratify the traditional approach of work, but transforms it. The Protestant ethic overturned the traditional approach to work by connecting work not with worldly goods like security and wealth, but with salvation. In the Protestant ethic, work is commanded by God, and—this was the radical part—God’s command touches all socially useful and honest labors, regardless of their social status. The farmer and the statesman each have their work to do, and each kind of work is equally important. Leveling distinctions, the Protestant ethic issues in a democracy of work: all work has dignity. And all work has a point, which is to create a community that exemplifies God’s teachings. Skills are not tools one gets to gain advantage over others—to get ahead—but are gifts, meant to be deployed for purposes larger than our own.

This—connecting work to purposes larger than ourselves—is what equipped the Protestant ethic to invest all useful and honest work with meaning. And this is what the work ethic in its contemporary form still requires. To work from an ethic (rather than simply from need or vainglorious desire) is to work with a view to excellence. It means cultivating our own gifts, activating our full powers, and giving them focus. This focus comes from seeing ourselves as part of something larger, or identifying purposes that are not merely our own.

The Protestant ethic connected work not with worldly goods like security and wealth, but with salvation. The purpose of work was larger than the worker, and that’s what gave it dignity.

There are two essential ingredients to the work ethic: devotion to a practice and contribution to society. To the extent that people find meaning or satisfaction in their work, these two ingredients are probably present. A practice is an activity with its own internal standards of excellence (independent, for instance, of money-making) that supports the instinct of craftsmanship, or pride in a job well-done. Social contribution means, simply, that we can point to how our work contributes to a decent and prosperous community.

No doubt, for many kinds of work these two ingredients will be hard to locate. Job roles that have been stripped of their skills, their discretion, their variety, and their responsibility offer little scope for developing excellence. Consider how check-out clerks now ask, just as you are placing goods by the register, whether you might like a few choice items with your order: "would you like some chips with that?" Asking this question is not the clerk’s idea or a manifestation of the clerk’s consideration for the customer’s comfort and satisfaction. It is dictated by management in an effort to stimulate one last impulse buy, and it is uttered by compulsion, without verve or genuine intention (like a telemarketer’s script). When managers take control in this way of every word spoken between clerk and customer, whatever small room there might be for individuality and authenticity is foreclosed.

In addition to the deskilling of jobs, bureaucratic structures that fragment jobs into infinitely small pieces can make it difficult to detect how our own work contributes to anything outside the organization in which it is nested. The cartoon Dilbert and the sitcom The Office hardly exaggerate the pointlessness that work comes to possess when it is disconnected from the larger world and takes its bearings only in response to managerial whims.

It is not the case that a work ethic makes sense regardless of what you work at. By their sheer scale, advanced industrial economies threaten to make the work ethic irrelevant in the worst way—by making it quaint



But it is not quite quaint yet, and it would distort our experience to claim that work today is wholly unworthy of a work ethic. The builder, the teacher, the counselor, the banker, the mechanic, the nurse, and the engineer—among countless examples one could find—can all without much effort point to what it means to be good at what they do and how what they do contributes to the world around them.

To improve the quality of work where it is deficient, we have to be capable of recognizing the value of work where it is sufficient to support a work ethic. This means asking the right questions about work, especially our own work. The questions central to the work ethic are, simply, "what kind of excellence of skill does doing this work develop?" and, "how does this work contribute to the larger world?" If we bundle the two questions together, we could simply ask, "why might this work be called good work?" To be able to answer these questions is "to give an account" of one’s work.

Perhaps for many of us, time is too scarce and pressures of everyday life too unremitting to bother with ‘giving an account’. And perhaps it is not necessary. A chemist does not need to be able to explain why it is good to be a chemist in order to do her job. A mechanic has a job to do—figure out what’s killing the car’s battery!—and no one wants to pay his mechanic ninety dollars an hour to read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." Giving an account requires distance and time that few can afford.

Yet if it is right that young people are increasingly finding it difficult to map their own sense of purpose onto the world of work, it is more imperative that the older generation take the time to ‘give an account’, to think through what might make their work good work. Many have learned how to find meaning in their work—by quietly subverting small-minded managerial control, by focusing on what is really important, by consciously mastering skills that are of more general use in life, by learning how to cooperate and work together, and by daring to invest something of their unrepeatable spirit in their daily labors.

Transmitting all this learning to the young will not happen automatically. Market forces, left to their own, will sooner dissolve the work ethic than sustain it. Passing along the work ethic to those who are finding their way in the world of work for the first time will require giving an account of our own work, more explicitly and more honestly than has been the custom. Virtue does not take care of itself: this one, the work ethic, needs care.

The work ethic is not without its critical edge; after all, it makes the traditional purposes of work seem insufficient. Yet on its vitality depend the honor of work, and more fundamentally, the equal respect characteristic of a democratic culture.

Russell Muirhead is the Robert Clements Associate Professor of Democracy and Politics at Dartmouth College. The author of Just Work (Harvard University Press, 2004), he is currently at work on a book on partisanship titled A Defense of Party Spirit. Previously, Muirhead taught political theory at the University of Texas at Austin, Harvard University, and Williams College. He was a Radcliffe Institute Fellow (2005–6) and a winner of the Roselyn Abramson Teacher Award at Harvard College. He holds a PhD and AB from Harvard University and a BA from Balliol College at Oxford University.

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