The work ethic is a debased, vulgarized version of a moral vision that the German sociologist Max Weber conceptualized a century ago as the Protestant ethic. In the Reformed Protestantism of the sixteenth-century Geneva theologian John Calvin, an inscrutable God predestined men and women to salvation or damnation yet withheld from them the ability to read his design or discover their eternal fate. They could only hope to have intimations of an answer to that most urgent of all questions. The capacity for steady work seemed such an intimation, because Calvin's God wished to be worshipped in the world, not in monasteries and other such retreats from it. Work was, for Reformed Protestants, a way of worshipping their God and easing their anxiety.
In Weber's ingenious formulation, Protestants who dedicated themselves to unremitting labor were decisive in the creation of capitalism because they believed God disallowed pleasure as much as he demanded industry among his faithful. Their ascetic reluctance to enjoy the fruits of their labor left them nothing to do with the mounting wealth that came of their diligence but to put it back into their businesses. Thus they inadvertently—and systematically—amassed capital.
Weber took Benjamin Franklin and his Poor Richard maxims as the epitome of the Protestant ethic. And observers before and since have seen America as a culture singularly wedded to work and peculiarly convinced that work was the core of the moral life.
But Weber probably misread Poor Richard and certainly misread Franklin. Franklin was no Puritan. He pursued the pleasures of the flesh from his youth to his dying days. He gave up work itself at an early age, quitting the printing business for what he unabashedly called leisure and philosophical amusements.
Franklin was hardly alone in his aversion to the laborious and his enjoyment of the carnal. Few of the richest men in early America embraced an ethic that made moral significance of work. Few, indeed, did much work. Southern planters had squadrons of slaves to clear the land and till the soil; they spent most of their time exchanging social visits with one another. Northern merchants enjoyed an equivalent leisure; their ledgers reveal that they rarely made more than three or four sales a day, their letter books show that they rarely wrote more than three or four letters a day, and their diaries indicate that they spent the better part of their time dining and chatting with fellow merchants. Common people in all the colonies similarly sought relief from the biblical curse on labor that attended the expulsion from Eden. Promotional pamphlets routinely promised those contemplating migration to the New World that they would find there a life of Edenic ease. Hogs and cattle multiplied marvelously, without human effort. Crops flourished in fertile soils. Fish ran so abundantly in the rivers that a single netting would feed a man for a week. Birds flew so thickly in the air that a single shot fired into the flock would bag half a dozen. Men and women went to colonial America for the prospect of wealth and leisure that it offered more than for the work that it required.
After the Revolution the emphasis shifted. In the staple-producing South, work remained a slave's affliction and exemption from physical labor remained a mark of gentility. But beyond the regions where tobacco, rice, and cotton absorbed men's ambitions, the pace of business quickened. North of the Mason-Dixon Line, a veritable revolution in transportation—scheduled transatlantic shipping, turnpikes, canals, steamboats, and, at the end of the era, railroads—opened a vast new access to the market. Farmers responded to the incentive to produce more for it. An emergent middle class set standards of respectability that increasingly centered on a new gospel of work.
The norms themselves were not new. The Puritans had brought them to New England, the Quakers to Pennsylvania. But they had been confined to Puritan and Quaker precincts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the young Republic they overspread much more of the North.
Everyone noticed. European visitors commented in tones at once acerbic and astonished on Americans' obsession with what the novelist Charles Dickens would later call the "almighty dollar." Almost without exception, such observers complained of meals frantically wolfed down so as to lose no time that might be spent making money. They remarked on the meager fare of amusements and the absence of a substantial class of men and women devoted to them. As Alexis de Tocqueville, the great nineteenth-century French observer of American life, noted, even the wealthy considered themselves obligated to persist in "some kind of industrial or commercial pursuit." A rich man "would think himself in bad repute if he employed his life solely in living."
Americans themselves testified to the same effect, in their words and in their actions. The mill girl turned poet Lucy Larcom recalled New England childhoods "penetrated through every fibre of thought with the idea that idleness is a disgrace." Merchants withdrew from the politics they once dominated because commerce demanded all their time in the nineteenth century as it never had in the eighteenth. Artificers in the 1820s petitioned for ten times the number of patents they had thirty years before. The very beverages that Americans drank made manifest the changes: coffee, a stimulant, displaced whiskey, a depressant.
Needless to say, there were those who did not embrace the new ethos or give themselves enthusiastically to incessant labor. Urban artisans still celebrated "Saint Monday" and punctuated the rest of the work week with booze breaks and other premodern rituals of conviviality. Farmers sometimes disdained the opportunities that new markets offered. A Pennsylvanian remarked that he had thought to move to Kentucky till he heard that there was no winter there so people had to work all the time; "that was not his fancy." But such common folk did not occupy, or even have access to, the command-posts of middle-class opinion.
The work ethic of the new nation was not the Protestant ethic that Weber delineated. It was far more broadly diffused: a secular faith rather than a sectarian one. It was essentially disconnected from anxiety over salvation: the notion that work was a "calling" in which the worker glorified God virtually vanished from common parlance.
This work ethic justified work by its usefulness to the early Republic and, more, by its advantage to the worker himself. Work built character. Work kept a person from the debilities of idleness. And work was the way to a new American dream of success. As the idea of the "calling" disappeared, the idea of "the self-made man" came to the fore. By diligent application, men of modest origins could become rich. By industry alone—"plain, rugged, brown-faced, homely clad, old-fashioned industry," as the mid-nineteenth-century minister Henry Ward Beecher would later put it.
There was an irony in all that. The crux of the work ethic was that labor in a social context made economic life more than mere drudgery by the sweat of the brow. Such labor conferred moral meaning on toil. But the more that men worked harder for private gain—for success and self-advancement—the more they dissolved the social context that could make their labor meaningful. It was a conundrum that would only be exacerbated with the advent of the factory system in the years ahead.
See alsoAmerican Character and Identity; Bible; Character; Class: Development of the Working Class; Class: Rise of the Middle Class; Farm Making; Franklin, Benjamin; Plantation, The; Professions: Clergy; Professions: Lawyers; Professions: Physicians; Quakers; Wealth; Wealth Distribution .
Cole, Arthur. "The Tempo of Mercantile Life in Colonial America." Business History Review 33 (1959): 277–299.
Rodgers, Daniel T. The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850–1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
The term work ethic refers to efforts to apply oneself diligently to the task at hand. The application of the work ethic became important during the industrial revolution when a majority of people gradually began to work for wages. The work ethic contained a strong moral dimension by promoting the spiritual idea of "living to work" rather than "working to live." According to historian Daniel T. Rodgers, the work ethic placed work at the center of moral life—work made people useful in a world of economic scarcity. In fact, the work ethic, while still an icon of lip service, had already been substantially under- mined before the Depression began. The needs of the mass production economy that came into its own in the 1920s required an emphasis on consumption that severely weakened the work ethic.
Nonetheless, during the Great Depression, many politicians and business leaders feared that the traditional work ethic was being undermined by the economic situation that many people found themselves in, and it was threatened even more by many of the proposed solutions to that situation. For this reason, most of the New Deal programs that aimed to assist individuals economically, including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), required that recipients work for the assistance that they received. Even Social Security, a pay-as-yougo program, was sold to the American public as a program for which people "earned" credit, even though the money that an individual paid into the system was immediately dispersed to someone else.
Although the United States was an advanced industrial nation at the onset of the Great Depression, it had one of the most rudimentary social welfare systems. The unemployed and underprivileged had to rely on private charity or local (city or county) welfare systems. The severity of the economic malaise during the early years of the Great Depression quickly taxed this system beyond its capacity to respond; many industrial cities found that they had to reduce essential services, like fire and police departments, in order to simply feed their citizens. President Herbert Hoover's insistence on a program of "voluntarism" meant that he discouraged any legislation that would provide additional funds to supplement these programs. When Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed office in 1933, one of the earliest agencies established was the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), headed by Harry Hopkins. FERA's purpose was to provide funds to states so that they could supplement the funds being dispersed locally. Much of the money was to be augmented by state and local governments, particularly those in the north, since southern states provided little or no support or social welfare.
Concern both inside and outside the administration that this program would undermine the work ethic, and demean those receiving such assistance "for nothing," quickly led to the creation of programs like the CCC. The purpose of the CCC was, in part, to rescue young men from "dangerous" influences in the city, such as criminal gangs and Communists, and relocate them to the countryside, where the work ethic could be instilled in them through projects such as building roads, digging ditches, and planting trees. Similar programs, such as the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the WPA, eventually put millions of men and women to work on a variety of public works projects, ranging from road-building to writing travel guides to the states.
Franklin Roosevelt envisioned Social Security as a "cradle to grave" social welfare system, but the political realities of the time, as well as Roosevelt's need to use his political capital judiciously to coax recalcitrant southern congressmen to support the New Deal, prevented Roosevelt's vision from becoming a reality. The need to retain as many southern votes as possible for Social Security legislation meant that in exchange for those votes Congress excluded farm and domestic workers, a part of the labor force that in the 1930s largely consisted of women and African-American men. The old-age pension system was funded exclusively by contributors through a new tax levied by the federal government, while unemployment and aid to families with dependent children were funded by matching contributions from the federal government to state governments. This led to widely varying levels of aid from state to state, with the greatest disparity being between northern states (supplying greater amounts of aid) and southern states (supplying lesser amounts).
Some critics of these New Deal initiatives have argued that the Roosevelt administration under- took them in a cynical attempt to undermine more radical political possibilities; defenders of the New Deal argue that these limitations were imposed on the administration by the political realities of the time. On the contrary, until this point in the history of the United States, the federal government had largely left individual citizens of the nation to shift for themselves during times of economic distress, and it was the expectation of a large number of people that the poor would have to continue to rely on their work ethic to see them through this latest crisis.
Badger, Anthony J. The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933–1940. 1989.
McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941, rev. edition. 1994.
Piven, Frances Fox, and Richard A. Cloward. Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare. 1971. Updated edition, 1993.
Rodgers, Daniel T. The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850–1920. 1978.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Coming of the New Deal. 1958.
The work ethic is characterized by the desire to work hard and efficiently. Significant aspects of the work ethic include frugality, accumulation of wealth, organized and systematic ways of life, and approval of diligence and disapproval of indulgence.
Early Greeks and Romans believed manual work to be a curse and left it to slaves. Aristocratic disdain for work continued throughout the Middle Ages except in monasteries, where work was of the ways by which a monk was sanctified. In early modern times, with the rise of capitalism and the middle class, the monastic respect for work was spread to the laity. In 1903, the sociologist Max Weber (1869–1920) proposed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. that the modern work ethic developed from grew out of the thought of the Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509–1564). Calvin taught predestination, a belief that a person's eternal destiny (Heaven or Hell) is independent of one's actions on earth. It has been predetermined ahead of time. Yet, one may have a hint of God's plan by observing whether certain signs of election are present in one's life. Calvin's followers suggested that material success was one of these. In other words, success in this world, which is usually attained through hard work, means that you have been chosen to go to heaven. Scholars have long debated whether the Weber thesis is true. Nonetheless, a belief in the moral value of work, whatever its origin, has been an important facet of the West's material progress.
Largely because of a productivity rate decrease in the 1970s, questions arose regarding viability of the work ethic in the United States. The productivity drop off apparently resulted from an increased proportion of young inexperienced workers in the labor force. By 1979 an upward trend resumed. At the end of the twentieth century time spent working, attitudes toward work, and economic indicators point to a continued presence of a strong work ethic. Increasingly, studies showed that workers believed work rather than leisure yields not only material goods but self-fulfillment. With increases in education, technology, life expectancy, and with the need to balance family care with work, the logistics of work continue to evolve but the work ethic remains constant.
. See also ACHIEVEMENT MOTIVATION; ENTREPRENEUR; TASK-ORIENTATION VERSUS TIME-ORIENTATION DISTINCTION; WORK, SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE OF.