22 May 2024

The work ethic and its decline

I have noticed over the last forty years that it has become more and more difficult to find anyone willing to do useful work in a polite and efficient manner.

Dissident sociologist David Marsland commented on the work ethic in his 1988 book Seeds of Bankruptcy:
Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has been subject to extensive criticism ever since its publication in 1904-5. Some of this criticism is certainly valid. It remains, nevertheless one of the few genuine contributions by sociology to the advance of real knowledge. Its fundamental insight into the requisite institutional and psychological underpinnings of capitalism remains to this day incontestable.

What Weber enunciated — indeed celebrated — was the indispensable role in the development of capitalism of active and positive attitudes to work, and of values justifying such attitudes. Surely he was right. Among the prerequisites of the survival of liberal democratic capitalism, none is more essential than systematic, enthusiastic commitment to effortful work on the part of at least a large proportion of the population.

Commitment to the work ethic presupposes in its turn a number of other characteristics in any society which intends to become or remain capitalist, and to avoid entrapment in feudalistic, authoritarian, socialist, or other forms of serfdom. [Each of those characteristics] has been increasingly subject to attack in recent decades. Sociologists, as evidenced by the teaching material I have examined, are in the front rank of anti-capitalist critique of work and the work ethic. Undermining work is one of the major effects of the arguments deployed by sociologists in their prejudiced, negative treatment of business, freedom, and capitalism.*

A recent Daily Telegraph article was entitled ‘How the UK lost its work ethic’. The following is an extract.
‘Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.’

So said a now notorious passage in the 2012 book Britannia Unchained, co-authored by Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and Chris Skidmore. Naturally, headlines were made by such an accusation, not least because the British have traditionally prided themselves on their ability to graft, assisted by a temperate climate and an ingrained national culture of invention and ingenuity.

But it seems all that may be on the slide. Last week, Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s former chief economist, stated that a ‘sandwich generation’ aged between 35 and 50 were footing the bill for younger and older generations who had dropped out of the workforce. An ever-diminishing number of earners is alarming enough, but then the Wall Street Journal reported that many corporate leaders advocate that employees should never give more than 85 per cent, as complete dedication is unsustainable and leads to burnout.
* David Marsland, Seeds of Bankruptcy, Claridge Press, 1988, p.54.
Chart taken from B. Duffy et al, ‘What the world thinks about work’, Kings College London, 2023.