From email@example.com Fri Nov 17 10:20:48 2000
Why hard work isn't working any more
By Sharon Beder, The Age, 20 October 2000 23:03:01
It is no accident that the downsizing of the 1980s and '90s has been accompanied by a resurgence in propaganda aimed at reinforcing the work ethic. The wave of retrenchments and sackings in English-speaking countries has been accompanied by growing inequalities in pay between executives and ordinary workers and an increasing substitution of full-time permanent jobs with insecure, temporary and part-time jobs.
Employers have been left with the problem of motivating workers in restructured workplaces, where hard work does not lead to a secure, well-paid job.
Associated with the downsizing and the temporary jobs is a massive increase in the number of people relying on welfare. Welfare has long been characterised as eroding the work ethic. Governments and employers fear that a life on welfare, despite the low level of benefits and constant work tests, might seem to be a more desirable option than working in a mind-numbingly boring, poorly paid job.
Governments in Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States are all implementing welfare reforms aimed at maintaining the work ethic of the unemployed. Long-term welfare entitlements have been abolished, and increasingly sole mothers and disabled people are being expected to work. The requirement to work for benefits has been introduced to ensure the unemployed do not loose their work ethic and to make unemployment a less desirable option than a low-paying job.
The values associated with the work ethic cause people to be judged by what work they do and how hard they work. The work ethic leads to a belief that those who are wealthy have achieved their success through hard work and those who are poor deserve to be, because they have failed to make the most out of the opportunities available. In a work-dominated society, happiness must be earned through hard work. The stress and/or boredom associated with work are the price one has to pay in order to attain happiness.
The work ethic and the respect given to the wealthy, who are supposed icons of hard work, are not inherently natural nor inevitable but have been promoted and reinforced by those who benefit most from them. Since the early Protestant leaders preached the work ethic, work has come to be seen as an essential characteristic of being human and work, no matter how tedious it is, is generally considered to be better than no work. Work provides people with a sense of belonging, a place in the order of things. Work has become central to defining the identity of modern citizens.
Today the work ethic is taught in homes and schools. The desire of employers for well-trained employees with a good work ethic has put pressure on schools to promote a work ethic in their students and to instil work values such as punctuality, discipline and obedience.
Increasingly, schools parallel the workplace in organisational structure and in their expectation that children work hard. Those children that appear to "work hard" get better grades.
But is the work ethic really appropriate for the 21st century? It is based on assumptions fast becoming outdated. Those pushing the work ethic today claim that every person needs to work, and work hard, if productivity is to increase. All progress, it is argued, depends on increasing productivity.
The fallacy of this assumption is becoming clear as fewer people are required in the workforce and more consumer products that we are urged to buy add little to the quality of our lives. The escalating production and consumption that is necessary to provide most people with jobs is degrading the environment at rates that undermine any improvements that can be achieved through technological and legislative change.
Employment has become such a priority that much environmental destruction is justified merely on the grounds that it provides jobs. And people are so concerned to keep their jobs that they are willing to do what their employers require of them even if they believe it is wrong or environmentally destructive.
The social benefit of having most able-bodied people working hard all week goes unquestioned, particularly by those who work hardest. Few people today can imagine a society that does not revolve around work.
We need to find new ways of judging and valuing each other that are not work and income dependent. It would be a sad world indeed if producing goods for consumption was the highest goal to which humans could aspire.
Sharon Beder is the author of Selling The Work Ethic: from puritan pulpit to corporate PR, to be published by Scribe Publications on November 1. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org