Historical Context of
the Work Ethic
Roger B. Hill, Ph.D. (Fonte
a historical perspective, the cultural norm placing a positive
moral value on doing a good job because work has intrinsic
value for its own sake was a relatively recent development
(Lipset, 1990). Work, for much of the ancient history of
the human race, has been hard and degrading. Working hard--in
the absence of compulsion--was not the norm for Hebrew,
classical, or medieval cultures (Rose, 1985). It was not
until the Protestant Reformation that physical labor became
culturally acceptable for all persons, even the wealthy.
Toward Work During the Classical Period
of the significant influences on the culture of the western
world has been the Judeo-Christian belief system. Growing
awareness of the multicultural dimensions of contemporary
society has moved educators to consider alternative viewpoints
and perspectives, but an understanding of western thought
is an important element in the understanding of the history
of the United States.
Judeo-Christian beliefs state that sometime after the dawn
of creation, man was placed in the Garden of Eden "to work
it and take care of it" (NIV, 1973, Genesis 2:15). What
was likely an ideal work situation was disrupted when sin
entered the world and humans were ejected from the Garden.
Genesis 3:19 described the human plight from that time on.
"By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until
you return to the ground, since from it you were taken;
for dust you are and to dust you will return" (NIV, 1973).
Rose stated that the Hebrew belief system viewed work as
a "curse devised by God explicitly to punish the disobedience
and ingratitude of Adam and Eve" (1985, p. 28). Numerous
scriptures from the Old Testament in fact supported work,
not from the stance that there was any joy in it, but from
the premise that it was necessary to prevent poverty and
destitution (NIV; 1973; Proverbs 10:14, Proverbs 13:4, Proverbs
14:23, Proverbs 20:13, Ecclesiastes 9:10).
Greeks, like the Hebrews, also regarded work as a curse
(Maywood, 1982). According to Tilgher (1930), the Greek
word for work was ponos, taken from the Latin poena,
which meant sorrow. Manual labor was for slaves. The cultural
norms allowed free men to pursue warfare, large-scale commerce,
and the arts, especially architecture or sculpture (Rose,
labor was also considered to be work and was denounced by
the Greeks. The mechanical arts were deplored because they
required a person to use practical thinking, "brutalizing
the mind till it was unfit for thinking of truth" (Tilgher,
1930, p. 4). Skilled crafts were accepted and recognized
as having some social value, but were not regarded as much
better than work appropriate for slaves. Hard work, whether
due to economic need or under the orders of a master, was
recognized that work was necessary for the satisfaction
of material needs, but philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle
made it clear that the purpose for which the majority of
men labored was "in order that the minority, the élite,
might engage in pure exercises of the mind--art, philosophy,
and politics" (Tilgher, 1930, p. 5). Plato recognized the
notion of a division of labor, separating them first into
categories of rich and poor, and then into categories by
different kinds of work, and he argued that such an arrangement
could only be avoided by abolition of private property (Anthony,
1977). Aristotle supported the ownership of private property
and wealth. He viewed work as a corrupt waste of time that
would make a citizen's pursuit of virtue more difficult
(1975) described the Greek belief that a person's prudence,
morality, and wisdom was directly proportional to the amount
of leisure time that person had. A person who worked, when
there was no need to do so, would run the risk of obliterating
the distinction between slave and master. Leadership, in
the Greek state and culture, was based on the work a person
didn't have to do, and any person who broke this
cultural norm was acting to subvert the state itself.
Romans adopted much of their belief system from the culture
of the Greeks and they also held manual labor in low regard
(Lipset, 1990). The Romans were industrious, however, and
demonstrated competence in organization, administration,
building, and warfare. Through the empire that they established,
the Roman culture was spread through much of the civilized
world during the period from c500 BC until c117 AD (Webster
Encyclopedia, 1985). The Roman empire spanned most of
Europe, the Middle East, Egypt, and North Africa and greatly
influenced the Western culture in which the theoretical
constructs underlying this study were developed.
had been an integral part of the ancient world prior to
the Roman empire, but the employment of slaves was much
more widely utilized by the Romans than by the Greeks before
them (Anthony, 1977). Early on in the Roman system, moderate
numbers of slaves were held and they were treated relatively
well. As the size of landholdings grew, however, thousands
of slaves were required for large-scale grain production
on some estates, and their treatment grew worse. Slaves
came to be viewed as cattle, with no rights as human beings
and with little hope of ever being freed. In fact, in some
instances cattle received greater care than slaves, since
cattle were not as capable of caring for themselves as were
slaves (Anthony, 1977).
the Romans, work was to be done by slaves, and only two
occupations were suitable for a free man--agriculture and
big business (Maywood, 1982). A goal of these endeavors,
as defined by the Roman culture, was to achieve an "honorable
retirement into rural peace as a country gentleman" (Tilgher,
1930, p. 8). Any pursuit of handicrafts or the hiring out
of a person's arms was considered to be vulgar, dishonoring,
and beneath the dignity of a Roman citizen.
both the Greeks and the Romans viewed the work that slaves
performed and the wealth that free men possessed as a means
to achieve the supreme ideal of life--man's independence
of external things, self-sufficiency, and satisfaction with
one's self (Tilgher, 1930). Although work was something
that would degrade virtue, wealth was not directly related
to virtue except in the matter of how it was used. The view
of Antisthenes that wealth and virtue were incompatible
and the view of the Stoics that wealth should be pursued
for the purpose of generosity and social good represented
extremes of philosophical thought. The most accepted view
was that pursuit of gain to meet normal needs was appropriate.
the perspective of a contemporary culture, respect for workers
upon whom the economic structure of a nation and a society
rested would have been logical for the Greeks and the Romans,
but no such respect was evident. Even free men, who were
not privileged to be wealthy and were obliged to work along
side slaves, were not treated with any sense of gratitude,
but were held in contempt. The cultural norms of the classical
era regarding work were in stark contrast to the work ethic
of the latter day.
Toward Work During the Medieval Period
fall of the Roman empire marked the beginning of a period
generally known as the Middle Ages. During this time, from
c400 AD until c1400 AD, Christian thought dominated the
culture of Europe (Braude, 1975). Woven into the Christian
conceptions about work, however, were Hebrew, Greek, and
Roman themes. Work was still perceived as punishment by
God for man's original sin, but to this purely negative
view was added the positive aspect of earnings which prevented
one from being reliant on the charity of others for the
physical needs of life (Tilgher, 1930). Wealth was recognized
as an opportunity to share with those who might be less
fortunate and work which produced wealth therefore became
Christian thought placed an emphasis on the shortness of
time until the second coming of Christ and the end of the
world. Any attachment to physical things of the world or
striving to accumulate excessive wealth was frowned upon.
As time passed and the world did not end, the Christian
church began to turn its attention to social structure and
the organization of the believers on earth. Monasteries
were formed where monks performed the religious and intellectual
work of the church (reading, copying manuscripts, etc.),
but lay people tended to the manual labor needed to supply
the needs of the community. People who were wealthy were
expected to meet their own needs, but to give the excess
of their riches to charity. Handicraft, farming, and small
scale commerce were acceptable for people of moderate means,
but receiving interest for money loaned, charging more than
a "just" price, and big business were not acceptable (Tilgher,
the case for the Greeks and the Romans, social status within
the medieval culture was related to the work a person did.
Aristotelianism was also evident in the system of divine
law taught by the Catholic church during this time (Anthony,
1977). A hierarchy of professions and trades was developed
by St. Thomas Aquinas as part of his encyclopedic consideration
of all things human and divine (Tilgher, 1930). Agriculture
was ranked first, followed by the handicrafts and then commerce.
These were considered to be the work of the world, however,
and the work of the church was in a higher category (Rose,
1985). The ideal occupation was the monastic life of prayer
and contemplation of God (Braude, 1975; Tilgher, 1930).
Whether as a cleric or in some worldly occupation, each
person embarked on a particular work course as a result
of the calling of God, and it was the duty of a worker to
remain in his class, passing on his family work from father
culture of the medieval period, work still held no intrinsic
value. The function of work was to meet the physical needs
of one's family and community, and to avoid idleness which
would lead to sin (Tilgher, 1930). Work was a part of the
economic structure of human society which, like all other
things, was ordered by God.
and the Protestant Ethic
the Reformation, a period of religious and political upheaval
in western Europe during the sixteenth century, came a new
perspective on work. Two key religious leaders who influenced
the development of western culture during this period were
Martin Luther and John Calvin. Luther was an Augustinian
friar who became discontent with the Catholic church and
was a leader within the Protestant movement. He believed
that people could serve God through their work, that the
professions were useful, that work was the universal base
of society and the cause of differing social classes, and
that a person should work diligently in their own occupation
and should not try to change from the profession to which
he was born. To do so would be to go against God's laws
since God assigned each person to his own place in the social
hierarchy (Lipset, 1990; Tilgher, 1930).
major point at which Luther differed from the medieval concept
of work was regarding the superiority of one form of work
over another. Luther regarded the monastic and contemplative
life, held up as the ideal during the middle ages, as an
egotistic and unaffectionate exercise on the part of the
monks, and he accused them of evading their duty to their
neighbors (Tilgher, 1930). For Luther, a person's vocation
was equated as his calling, but all calling's were of equal
spiritual dignity. This tenant was significant because it
affirmed manual labor.
still did not pave the way for a profit-oriented economic
system because he disapproved of commerce as an occupation
(Lipset, 1990; Tilgher, 1930). From his perspective, commerce
did not involve any real work. Luther also believed that
each person should earn an income which would meet his basic
needs, but to accumulate or horde wealth was sinful.
to Weber (1904, 1905), it was John Calvin who introduced
the theological doctrines which combined with those of Martin
Luther to form a significant new attitude toward work. Calvin
was a French theologian whose concept of predestination
was revolutionary. Central to Calvinist belief was the Elect,
those persons chosen by God to inherit eternal life. All
other people were damned and nothing could change that since
God was unchanging. While it was impossible to know for
certain whether a person was one of the Elect, one could
have a sense of it based on his own personal encounters
with God. Outwardly the only evidence was in the person's
daily life and deeds, and success in one's worldly endeavors
was a sign of possible inclusion as one of the Elect. A
person who was indifferent and displayed idleness was most
certainly one of the damned, but a person who was active,
austere, and hard-working gave evidence to himself and to
others that he was one of God's chosen ones (Tilgher, 1930).
taught that all men must work, even the rich, because to
work was the will of God. It was the duty of men to serve
as God's instruments here on earth, to reshape the world
in the fashion of the Kingdom of God, and to become a part
of the continuing process of His creation (Braude, 1975).
Men were not to lust after wealth, possessions, or easy
living, but were to reinvest the profits of their labor
into financing further ventures. Earnings were thus to be
reinvested over and over again, ad infinitum, or
to the end of time (Lipset, 1990). Using profits to help
others rise from a lessor level of subsistence violated
God's will since persons could only demonstrate that they
were among the Elect through their own labor (Lipset, 1990).
of an occupation and pursuing it to achieve the greatest
profit possible was considered by Calvinists to be a religious
duty. Not only condoning, but encouraging the pursuit of
unlimited profit was a radical departure from the Christian
beliefs of the middle ages. In addition, unlike Luther,
Calvin considered it appropriate to seek an occupation which
would provide the greatest earnings possible. If that meant
abandoning the family trade or profession, the change was
not only allowed, but it was considered to be one's religious
duty (Tilgher, 1930).
norms regarding work which developed out of the Protestant
Reformation, based on the combined theological teachings
of Luther and Calvin, encouraged work in a chosen occupation
with an attitude of service to God, viewed work as a calling
and avoided placing greater spiritual dignity on one job
than another, approved of working diligently to achieve
maximum profits, required reinvestment of profits back into
one's business, allowed a person to change from the craft
or profession of his father, and associated success in one's
work with the likelihood of being one of God's Elect.
Perspectives of the Protestant Ethic
attitudes toward work which became a part of the culture
during the sixteenth century, and the economic value system
which they nurtured, represented a significant change from
medieval and classical ways of thinking about work (Anthony,
1977). Max Weber, the German economic sociologist, coined
a term for the new beliefs about work calling it the "Protestant
ethic." The key elements of the Protestant ethic were diligence,
punctuality, deferment of gratification, and primacy of
the work domain (Rose, 1985). Two distinct perspectives
were evident in the literature with regard to the development
of the Protestant ethic.
perspective was the materialist viewpoint which stated that
the belief system, called the Protestant ethic, grew out
of changes in the economic structure and the need for values
to support new ways of behavior. Anthony (1977) attributes
this view to Karl Marx. The other perspective, delineated
by Max Weber (1904, 1905), viewed changes in the economic
structure as an outgrowth of shifts in theological beliefs.
Regardless of the viewpoint, it is evident that a rapid
expansion in commerce and the rise of industrialism coincided
with the Protestant Reformation (Rose, 1985).
(1988), in an argument supporting the materialist viewpoint,
enumerated three sixteenth century trends which probably
contributed to the support by Luther and Calvin of diligence:
(1) a rapid population increase of Germany and Western Europe,
(2) inflation, and (3) a high unemployment rate. Probably
the most serious of these was the rapid expansion in population.
Between 1500 and 1600, the population of Germany increased
by 25% and the British population increased by 40% (Bernstein,
1988). In the cities, the increases were even greater as
people from rural areas were displaced by enclosure of large
tracts of land for sheep farming. In addition, the import
of large quantities of silver and gold from Mexico and Peru
contributed to inflation in general price levels of between
300% and 400%, and even higher inflation in food prices
(Bernstein, 1988). Along with the growth in population and
the inflation problems, unemployment was estimated at 20%
in some cities (Bernstein, 1988). People without jobs became
commonplace on the streets of cities, begging and struggling
cities acted to alleviate the problems of unemployment and
begging on the streets by passing laws which prohibited
begging. The general perception of the time was that work
was available for those who wanted to work, and that beggars
and vagrants were just lazy. The reality was that the movement
of people into the cities far exceeded the capacity of the
urban areas to provide jobs. The theological premise that
work was a necessary penance for original sin caused increased
prejudice toward those without work. Bernstein (1988) suggested
that a fundamental misunderstanding of the economic realities
facing the poor contributed to the theological development
of the Protestant ethic.
a marxist view, what actually occurred was the development
of a religious base of support for a new industrial system
which required workers who would accept long hours and poor
working conditions (Anthony, 1977; Berenstein, 1988). Berenstein
did not accuse the theological leaders of the Protestant
Reformation of deliberately constructing a belief system
which would support the new economic order, but proposed
that they did misconstrue the realities of the poor and
the unemployed of their day.
the perspective of Max Weber (1904, 1905), the theological
beliefs came first and change in the economic system resulted.
Motivation of persons to work hard and to reinvest profits
in new business ventures was perceived as an outcome primarily
of Calvinism. Weber further concluded that countries with
belief systems which were predominantly Protestant prospered
more under capitalism than did those which were predominantly
Catholic (Rose, 1985).
Work Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism
the medieval period, the feudal system became the dominant
economic structure in Europe. This was a social, economic,
and political system under which landowners provided governance
and protection to those who lived and worked on their property.
Centralization of government, the growth of trade, and the
establishment of economically powerful towns, during the
fifteenth century, provided alternative choices for subsistence,
and the feudal system died out (Webster Encyclopedia,
1985). One of the factors that made the feudal system work
was the predominant religious belief that it was sinful
for people to seek work other than within the God ordained
occupations fathers passed on to their sons. With the Protestant
Reformation, and the spread of a theology which ordained
the divine dignity of all occupations as well as
the right of choosing one's work, the underpinnings
of an emerging capitalist economic system were established.
(1977) described the significance of an ideology advocating
regular systematic work as essential to the transformation
from the feudal system to the modern society. In the emerging
capitalist system, work was good. It satisfied the economic
interests of an increasing number of small businessmen and
it became a social duty--a norm. Hard work brought respect
and contributed to the social order and well being of the
community. The dignity with which society viewed work brought
dignity for workers as well, and contempt for those who
were idle or lazy.
Protestant ethic, which gave "moral sanction to profit making
through hard work, organization, and rational calculation"
(Yankelovich, 1981, p. 247), spread throughout Europe and
to America through the Protestant sects. In particular,
the English Puritans, the French Huguenots, and the Swiss
and Dutch Reformed subscribed to Calvinist theology that
was especially conducive to productivity and capital growth
(Lipset, 1990). As time passed, attitudes and beliefs which
supported hard work became secularized, and were woven into
the norms of Western culture (Lipset, 1990; Rodgers, 1978;
Rose, 1985; Super, 1982). Weber (1904, 1905) especially
emphasized the popular writings of Benjamin Franklin as
an example of how, by the eighteenth century, diligence
in work, scrupulous use of time, and deferment of pleasure
had become a part of the popular philosophy of work in the
Work Ethic in America
the Protestant ethic became a significant factor in shaping
the culture and society of Europe after the sixteenth century,
its impact did not eliminate the social hierarchy which
gave status to those whose wealth allowed exemption from
toil and made gentility synonymous with leisure (Rodgers,
1978). The early adventurers who first found America were
searching, not for a place to work and build a new land,
but for a new Eden where abundance and riches would allow
them to follow Aristotle's instruction that leisure was
the only life fitting for a free man. The New England Puritans,
the Pennsylvania Quakers, and others of the Protestant sects,
who eventually settled in America, however, came with no
hopes or illusions of a life of ease.
early settlers referred to America as a wilderness, in part
because they sought the spiritual growth associated with
coming through the wilderness in the Bible (Rodgers, 1978).
From their viewpoint, the moral life was one of hard work
and determination, and they approached the task of building
a new world in the wilderness as an opportunity to prove
their own moral worth. What resulted was a land preoccupied
significant numbers of Europeans began to visit the new
world in the early 1800's, they were amazed with the extent
of the transformation (Rodgers, 1978). Visitors to the northern
states were particularly impressed by the industrious pace.
They often complained about the lack of opportunities for
amusement, and they were perplexed by the lack of a social
strata dedicated to a life of leisure.
in preindustrial America was not incessant, however. The
work of agriculture was seasonal, hectic during planting
and harvesting but more relaxed during the winter months.
Even in workshops and stores, the pace was not constant.
Changing demands due to the seasons, varied availability
of materials, and poor transportation and communication
contributed to interruptions in the steadiness of work.
The work ethic of this era did not demand the ceaseless
regularity which came with the age of machines, but supported
sincere dedication to accomplish those tasks a person might
have before them. The work ethic "was not a certain rate
of business but a way of thinking" (Rodgers, 1978, p. 19).
Work Ethic and the Industrial Revolution
in America was being dramatically affected by the industrial
revolution in the mid-nineteenth century, the work ethic
had become secularized in a number of ways. The idea of
work as a calling had been replaced by the concept
of public usefulness. Economists warned of the poverty and
decay that would befall the country if people failed to
work hard, and moralists stressed the social duty of each
person to be productive (Rodgers, 1978). Schools taught,
along with the alphabet and the spelling book, that idleness
was a disgrace. The work ethic also provided a sociological
as well as an ideological explanation for the origins of
social hierarchy through the corollary that effort expended
in work would be rewarded (Gilbert, 1977).
elements of the work ethic, however, did not bode well with
the industrial age. One of the central themes of the work
ethic was that an individual could be the master of his
own fate through hard work. Within the context of the craft
and agricultural society this was true. A person could advance
his position in life through manual labor and the economic
benefits it would produce. Manual labor, however, began
to be replaced by machine manufacture and intensive division
of labor came with the industrial age. As a result, individual
control over the quantity and methods of personal production
began to be removed (Gilbert, 1977).
impact of industrialization and the speed with which it
spread during the second half of the nineteenth century
was notable. Rodgers (1978) reported that as late as 1850
most American manufacturing was still being done in homes
and workshops. This pattern was not confined to rural areas,
but was found in cities also where all varieties of craftsmen
plied their trades. Some division of labor was utilized,
but most work was performed using time-honored hand methods.
A certain measure of independence and creativity could be
taken for granted in the workplace. No one directly supervised
home workers or farmers, and in the small shops and mills,
supervision was mostly unstructured. The cotton textile
industry of New England was the major exception.
(1978) described the founding, in the early 1820's, of Lowell,
Massachusetts as the real beginning of the industrial age
in America. By the end of the decade, nineteen textile mills
were in operation in the city, and 5,000 workers were employed
in the mills. During the years that followed, factories
were built in other towns as competition in the industry
grew. These cotton mills were distinguished from other factories
of the day by their size, the discipline demanded of their
workers, and the paternalistic regulations imposed on employees
(Rodgers, 1978). Gradually the patterns of employment and
management initiated in the cotton mills spread to other
industries, and during the later half of the nineteenth
century, the home and workshop trades were essentially replaced
by the mass production of factories.
factories, skill and craftsmanship were replaced by discipline
and anonymity. A host of carefully preserved hand trades--tailoring,
barrel making, glass blowing, felt-hat making, pottery making,
and shoe making--disappeared as they were replaced by new
inventions and specialization of labor (Rodgers, 1978).
Although new skills were needed in some factories, the trend
was toward a semiskilled labor force, typically operating
one machine to perform one small piece of a manufacturing
process. The sense of control over one's destiny was missing
in the new workplace, and the emptiness and lack of intellectual
stimulation in work threatened the work ethic (Gilbert,
1977). In the secularized attitudes which comprised the
work ethic up until that time, a central component was the
promise of psychological reward for efforts in one's work,
but the factory system did little to support a sense of
purpose or self-fulfillment for those who were on the assembly
factory system also threatened the promise of economic reward--another
key premise of the work ethic. The output of products manufactured
by factories was so great that by the 1880's industrial
capacity exceeded that which the economy could absorb (Rodgers,
1978). Under the system of home and workshop industries,
production had been a virtue, and excess goods were not
a problem. Now that factories could produce more than the
nation could use, hard work and production no longer always
provided assurance of prosperity.
first half of the twentieth century, the industrial system
continued to dominate work in America and much of the rest
of the world. Technology continued to advance, but innovation
tended to be focused on those areas of manufacture which
had not yet been mastered by machines. Little was done to
change the routine tasks of feeding materials into automated
equipment or other forms of semiskilled labor which were
more economically done by low wage workers (Rodgers, 1978).
Work Ethic and Industrial Management
of industries became more systematic and structured as increased
competition forced factory owners to hold costs down. The
model of management which developed, the traditional
model, was characterized by a very authoritarian style
which did not acknowledge the work ethic. To the contrary,
Daft and Steers (1986) described this model as holding "that
the average worker was basically lazy and was motivated
almost entirely by money (p. 93)." Workers were assumed
to neither desire nor be capable of autonomous or self-directed
work. As a result, the scientific management concept
was developed, predicated on specialization and division
of jobs into simple tasks. Scientific management was claimed
to increase worker production and result in increased pay.
It was therefore seen as beneficial to workers, as well
as to the company, since monetary gain was viewed as the
primary motivating factor for both.
of scientific management became more widespread in the early
1900's, it became apparent that factors other than pay were
significant to worker motivation. Some workers were self-starters
and didn't respond well to close supervision and others
became distrustful of management when pay increases failed
to keep pace with improved productivity (Daft and Steers,
1986). Although unacknowledged in management practice, these
were indicators of continued viability of the work ethic
end of World War II scientific management was considered
inadequate and outdated to deal with the needs of industry
(Jaggi, 1988). At this point the behaviorist school of thought
emerged to provide alternative theories for guiding the
management of workers. Contrary to the principles of scientific
management, the behaviorists argued that workers were not
intrinsically lazy. They were adaptive. If the environment
failed to provide a challenge, workers became lazy, but
if appropriate opportunities were provided, workers would
become creative and motivated.
to the new theories, managers turned their attention to
finding various ways to make jobs more fulfilling for workers.
Human relations became an important issue and efforts
were made to make people feel useful and important at work.
Company newspapers, employee awards, and company social
events were among the tools used by management to enhance
the job environment (Daft and Steers, 1986), but the basic
nature of the workplace remained unchanged. The adversarial
relationship between employee and employer persisted.
late 1950's job enrichment theories began to provide
the basis for fundamental changes in employer-employee relationships.
Herzberg, Mausner, and Snyderman (1959) identified factors
such as achievement, recognition, responsibility, advancement,
and personal growth which, when provided as an intrinsic
component of a job, tended to motivate workers to perform
better. Factors such as salary, company policies, supervisory
style, working conditions, and relations with fellow workers
tended to impair worker performance if inadequately provided
for, but did not particularly improve worker motivation
when the concepts of theory "X" and theory "Y" were introduced
by McGregor, the basis for a management style conducive
to achieving job enrichment for workers was provided (Jaggi,
1988). Theory "X" referred to the authoritarian management
style characteristic of scientific management but theory
"Y" supported a participatory style of management.
(1988) defined participatory management as "a cooperative
process in which management and workers work together to
accomplish a common goal (p. 446)." Unlike authoritarian
styles of management, which provided top-down, directive
control over workers assumed to be unmotivated and in need
of guidance, participatory management asserted that worker
involvement in decisionmaking provided valuable input and
enhanced employee satisfaction and morale. Yankelovich and
Immerwahr (1984) described participatory management as a
system which would open the way for the work ethic to be
a powerful resource in the workplace. They stated, however,
that the persistence of the traditional model in American
management discouraged workers, even though many wanted
to work hard and do good work for its own sake.
Work Ethic in the Information Age
as the people of the mid-nineteenth century encountered
tremendous cultural and social change with the dawn of the
industrial age, the people of the late twentieth century
experienced tremendous cultural and social shifts with the
advent of the information age. Toffler (1980) likened these
times of change to waves washing over the culture, bringing
with it changes in norms and expectations, as well as uncertainty
about the future.
1956 (Naisbitt, 1984) white-collar workers in technical,
managerial, and clerical positions have outnumbered workers
in blue-collar jobs. Porat (1977), in a study for the U.S.
Department of Commerce, examined over 400 occupations in
201 industries. He determined that in 1967, the economic
contribution of jobs primarily dealing with production of
information, as compared with goods-producing jobs, accounted
for 46% of the GNP and more than 53% of the income earned.
Some jobs in manufacturing and industry also became more
technical and necessitated a higher level of thinking on
the job as machines were interfaced with computers and control
systems became more complex.
and Immerwahr (1984) contrasted the work required of most
people during the industrial age with the work of the information
age. Industrial age jobs were typically low-discretion,
required little decisionmaking, and were analyzed and broken
into simple tasks which required very little thinking or
judgement on the part of workers. Information age jobs,
in contrast, were high-discretion and required considerable
thinking and decisionmaking on the part of workers (Miller,
1986). In the workplace characterized by high-discretion,
the work ethic became a much more important construct than
it was during the manipulative era of machines. Maccoby
(1988) emphasized the importance, in this setting, of giving
employees authority to make decisions which would meet the
needs of customers as well as support the goals of their
information age jobs provided opportunities for greater
self-expression by workers, people began to find more self-fulfillment
in their work. Yankelovich and Harmon (1988) reported that
a significant transformation in the meaning of the work
ethic resulted. Throughout history, work had been associated
with pain, sacrifice, and drudgery. The previously mentioned
Greek word for work, ponos, also meant "pain." For
the Hebrews as well as for the medieval Christians, the
unpleasantness of work was associated with Divine punishment
for man's sin. The Protestant ethic maintained that work
was a sacrifice that demonstrated moral worthiness, and
it stressed the importance of postponed gratification. With
the information age, however, came work which was perceived
as good and rewarding in itself. Most workers were satisfied
with their work and wanted to be successful in it (Wattenberg,
the Yankelovich and Harmon (1988), the work ethic of the
1980's stressed skill, challenge, autonomy, recognition,
and the quality of work produced. Autonomy was identified
as a particularly important factor in worker satisfaction
with their jobs. Motivation to work involved trust, caring,
meaning, self-knowledge, challenge, opportunity for personal
growth, and dignity (Maccoby, 1988; Walton, 1974). Workers
were seeking control over their work and a sense of empowerment
and many information age jobs were conducive to meeting
these needs. As a result, the work ethic was not abandoned
during the information age, but was transformed to a state
of relevance not found in most industrial age occupations.
though the information age was well established by the 1980's
and 1990's, not all jobs were high-discretion. Some occupations
continued to consist primarily of manual labor and allowed
minimal opportunity for worker involvement in decisionmaking.
In addition, authoritarian forms of management continued
to be utilized and the potential of the work ethic was wasted.
Statistics reported by Yankelovich and Immerwahr (1984)
indicated that by the early 1980's, 43% of the workforce
perceived their jobs as high-discretion and 21% of the workforce
perceived their jobs as low-discretion. The high-discretion
workers were likely to be better educated, to be in white-collar
or service jobs, and to have experienced technological changes
in their work. The low-discretion workers were more likely
to be union members, to be in blue-collar jobs, and to be
working in positions characterized by dirt, noise, and pollution.
Work Ethic and Empowerment
result of the rapid changes associated with the Information
Age workplace, codified and systematized knowledge not limited
to a specific organizational context was important during
the 1980's and 1990's (Maccoby, 1983). Higher levels of
education became necessary along with skills at solving
problems, managing people, and applying the latest information
to the tasks at hand. With increased education, higher expectations
and aspirations for careers emerged.
people, in particular, entering the workforce with high
school and college educations, expected opportunities for
advancement (Maccoby, 1983; Sheehy, 1990). They anticipated
that talent and hard work would be the basis for success
rather than chance or luck. In essence, information age
workers expected application of a positive work ethic to
result in rewards, and they sometimes became impatient if
progress was not experienced in a relatively short period
of time (Sheehy, 1990).
workers who acquired positions of supervision or ownership,
motivation to accomplish personal goals through success
in the organization enhanced the expression of work ethic
attributes. Barnard (1938) identified the process of persons
in an organization coordinating their activities to attain
common goals as important to the well-being of the organization.
One of the essential elements for this process was the creation
and allocation of satisfaction among individuals (Barnard,
explanation for organizational behavior was provided by
a model developed by Getzels and Guba (Getzels, 1968). The
major elements of the model were institution, role, and
expectation which formed the normative dimension of activity
in a social system; and individual, personality, and need-disposition
which constituted the personal dimension of activity in
a social system (Getzels, 1968). To the extent that a person's
work ethic beliefs influenced personality and need-disposition,
the observed behavior of that individual within the context
of the workplace would be affected. Particularly in the
high-discretion workplace of the information age, role and
expectations found within the workplace would tend to be
reinforced by a strong work ethic.
Changes in the Workplace
changes in the jobs people performed, changes in the levels
of education required for those jobs, and changes in the
extent to which people were given control or empowerment
in their work, the workforce of the 1980's and 1990's reflected
a larger number of women and a reduced number of workers
older than 65. Changes in gender and age of workers had
a significant impact on the culture of the later twentieth
century and influenced the pattern of work related norms
such as the work ethic.
(1978) told of the growing restlessness of women in the
late 1800's and the early 1900's. As the economic center
of society was moved out of the home or workshop and into
the factory, women were left behind. Some women became operatives
in textile mills, office workers, or salesclerks, and increased
numbers were employed as teachers (Sawhill, 1974). Women
comprised a relatively small percentage of the workforce,
however, and their wages were about half that of men. Those
who labored at housework and child-rearing received no pay
at all and often were afforded little respect or appreciation
for what they did.
not until World War II and the years following that women
began to enter the workplace in great numbers. In 1900 women
made up 18% of the nation's workforce, but by 1947 they
comprised 28% of the workforce (Levitan & Johnson, 1983).
By 1980 42.5% of the nation's workers were women (Stencel,
1981). In 1990 the number of women workers was approaching
50% of the workforce, and Naisbitt and Aburdene (1990) reported
that women held 39.3% of all executive, administrative,
and management jobs. Due to the increase in the number of
women working outside the home, their attitudes about work
have become a significant influence on the work ethic in
the contemporary workplace.
of attitudes of men and women in the workplace have shown
that men tended to be more concerned with earning a good
income, having freedom from close supervision, having leadership
opportunities, and having a job that enhanced their social
status. Women were inclined to seek job characteristics
which allowed them to help others, to be original and creative,
to progress steadily in their work, and to work with people
rather than things (Lyson, 1984). Women, more than men,
also tended to seek personal benefits such as enjoyment,
pride, fulfillment, and personal challenge (Bridges, 1989).
trend which shaped the workforce of the later twentieth
century was an increase in the number of older workers who
retired from their jobs. Statistics reported by Quinn (1983)
showed that in 1950, persons 65 years old and older comprised
45.8% of the workforce as compared to 18.4% in 1981. Part
of this trend can be explained by the continued shift away
from agriculture and self-employment--occupations which
traditionally had high older worker participation rates.
In addition, increased provision for retirement income,
as a result of pensions or other retirement plans, has removed
the financial burden which necessitated work for many older
adults in the past.
(1972) noted a trend on the part of younger workers to view
work differently than older workers. He found less acceptance,
among young people entering the workforce, of the concept
that hard work was a virtue and a duty and less upward striving
by young workers compared to that of their parents and grandparents.
Yankelovich (1981) reported findings which contradicted
the view that younger workers were less committed to the
work ethic, but he did find a decline in belief that hard
work would pay off. This was a significant shift because
pay and "getting ahead" were the primary incentives management
used to encourage productivity during the industrial age.
If economic reward had lost its ability to motivate workers,
then productivity could be expected to decline, in the absence
of some other reason for working hard (Yankelovich, 1981).
Within this context, the work ethic, and a management style
which unfettered it, was a significant factor for maintaining
and increasing performance.
Shaping the Contemporary Work Ethic
work ethic is a cultural norm that places a positive moral
value on doing a good job and is based on a belief that
work has intrinsic value for its own sake (Cherrington,
1980; Quinn, 1983; Yankelovich & Immerwahr, 1984). Like
other cultural norms, a person's adherence to or belief
in the work ethic is principally influenced by socialization
experiences during childhood and adolescence. Through interaction
with family, peers, and significant adults, a person "learns
to place a value on work behavior as others approach him
in situations demanding increasing responsibility for productivity"
(Braude, 1975, p. 134). Based on praise or blame and affection
or anger, a child appraises his or her performance in household
chores, or later in part-time jobs, but this appraisal is
based on the perspective of others. As a child matures,
these attitudes toward work become internalized, and work
performance is less dependent on the reactions of others.
are also influenced by the attitudes of others toward work
(Braude, 1975). If a parent demonstrates a dislike for a
job or a fear of unemployment, children will tend to assimilate
these attitudes. Parents who demonstrate a strong work ethic
tend to impart a strong work ethic to their children.
significant factor shaping the work attitudes of people
is the socialization which occurs in the workplace. As a
person enters the workplace, the perceptions and reactions
of others tend to confirm or contradict the work attitudes
shaped in childhood (Braude, 1975). The occupational culture,
especially the influence of an "inner fraternity" of colleagues,
has a significant impact on the attitudes toward work and
the work ethic which form part of each person's belief system.
the mechanisms provided by society to transfer the culture
to young people is the public school. One of the functions
of schools is to foster student understanding of cultural
norms, and in some cases to recognize the merits of accepting
them. Vocational education, for example, has as a stated
goal that it will promote the work ethic (Gregson, 1991;
Miller, 1985). Reubens (1974) listed "inculcation of good
work attitudes" as one of the highest priorities for high
school education. In the absence of early socialization
which supports good work attitudes, schools should not be
expected to completely transform a young person's work ethic
orientation, but enlightening students about what the work
ethic is, and why it is important to success in the contemporary
workplace, should be a component of secondary education.
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