Chained by the Work Ethic

David Myton

Campus Review, April 25, 2001

Hi ho, hi ho it’s off to work we go – for longer and longer. DAVID MYTON talks to the author of a new book which questions our obsession with the work ethic

Sharon Beder, Selling The Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR, 2000, Scribe Publications, Australia; Zed Books, London and New York

DO you recognise this person? He or she gets up at 5.30am, perhaps squeezes in a quick run, has a stand-up breakfast, drives to work on traffic-choked roads, works through to 7pm, comes home, quick dinner, fits in “quality time” with children and/or partner, does some paper work, hits off a few faxes and emails, makes some phone calls, flops into bed at 12.30 am, then does the same thing the next day ... and the next day ... and the next day.

Perhaps this is something like your work day, or somebody’s you know. If so, do you ever wonder why you do it? The answer may seem self-evident – because of the money, the status, the material rewards, and then there’s that work ethic thing...

It’s just the way things are, you might say, but has it always been that way, and does it have to continue being so?

These are just some of the questions addressed in a confronting and challenging book by Dr Sharon Beder, associate professor and head of science and technology studies at the University of Wollongong.

In Challenging The Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR (Zed Books/Scribe Publications) Beder argues that work has become the central feature of most people’s lives, the source of their self-identity, income, status, respect: indeed, their entire purpose.

As a corollary to that, she says, the work ethic has legitimised a social structure of inequalities, with government and many employed viewing the poor as deserving of their plight because they lack a work ethic. Punitive measures for the unemployed, such as work-for-the-dole schemes, flow from our worship of work, while there is passive acceptance of the degradation of our personal and spiritual lives as we succumb to a pervasive workaholism, she claims.

“The acceptance of capitalist values by workers has been more effective than force or coercion in ensuring a passive, compliant workforce,” says Beder.

“This has been done by ensuring that the virtue of work and wealth, and the resulting social order, have come to be seen as natural, desirable, morally right, and inevitable.”

Beder, who admits to having a work ethic of her own, trained and worked as a civil engineer before becoming interested in the social, political and philosophical aspects of engineering and environmental politics.

Prior to moving to Wollongong in 1992, she was coordinator of environmental education at the University of Sydney. She has also been president of the Society for Social Responsibility in Engineering and a director of the Earth Foundation Australia.

She has published widely, with previous books including Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing (1989), The Nature of Sustainable Development (1996) and Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism (1997, 2000).

The new book began as a broader look at capitalist culture and corporations, but focused on the work ethic when she began to notice how people had become so busy and how that busy-ness “seemed to be stopping people from reflecting on what’s going on”.

Beder says she believes some people, particularly professionals, do obtain meaning and fulfillment from their work. “On the other hand, I think it has taken over their lives so much that they fail to get meaning and fulfillment from other aspects of their lives as well,” she says.

“Many would agree that they are losing something. They could be doing that work in much less time, using much less of their energy, if social structures and employment structures were different, and still get that meaning and fulfillment, but still have time for other things.”

Beder charts the rise of the work ethic from the Protestant Reformation, through its appropriation by Calvinistic puritans, as most famously investigated by the German sociologist Max Weber in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904, English trans 1930) with his look at English Protestant capitalists in the Industrial Revolution, to its wider diffusion through individualism, the American dream of the “self-made man”, and into the rhetoric of modern neo-liberal economic rationalists.

In the rise of the ethic, she also detects the application of Gramscian “hegemony” – that phenomenon by which the majority of people accept the values and political axioms that ensure their own subordination to the ruling elite.

It is her historical research that allows her to posit alternatives to the ethic, pointing out that it is a relatively recent phenomenon.

“If you look at the broader sweep of history, the work ethic has dominated western societies for 200 years. There have been all sorts of societies organised on other principles and different core values, so there’s no reason to think we can’t have a different kind of society – the question is how to get there,” she says.

Paralleling the growth in the work ethic, argues Beder, has been the rise of constant consumerism – our desire for more and more material goods, which is another way we express our status (a good car and a nice house, etc).

The trouble is, we work so hard and so long we have little time left to enjoy these things. Thus we become more stressed and tired: Beder cites an insurance analysis by WorkCover which found that overwork and stress at work caused claims amounting to $60 million annually against Australian employers for conditions such as depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances. Further, she records the Japanese phenomenon of Karoshi, or “Salaryman Sudden Death Syndrome”, inflicting workers who are stressed and fatigued.

Relationships also suffer, says Beder. “Surveys constantly show that people feel they’re not spending enough time with their children. They would like to be spending more time in relationships, with friends, doing things that make relationships happier – they’re the things that are being sacrificed,” she says

When asked if she isn’t being idealistic in her critique of the work ethic, Beder responds: “You could say that if they weren’t real practical problems to be solved out there.

“The romantics are those who just keep on going without change. I’m trying to be realistic and to pinpoint the problems.

“I think if everyone stopped rushing around and concentrated on the solutions to the problems we might achieve change.

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