Short outlook on attitudes toward work across time
Collective attitudes toward work, its significance and importance in relation to other human activities, undergo profound changes over time.
Back in time
Labor is a punishment given by the gods for the ancient Greeks. Work that results in something (food, buildings, shoes, clothes) is considered inferior. Aristotle writes in “Politics” that:
“Citizens must not live the lives of craftsmen or merchants, for such lives have nothing noble and opposes perfection. Neither should they be farmers since free time is necessary both for the development of virtue, as well as for the fulfilment of political duties. “
The ethics of Romans is quite close to the Greek outlook, regarding manual labor as being suitable only for slaves. This disregard found, to some degree, its way over time in modern societies, in the shape of contempt for unskilled labor.
At the opposite end, the ancient Jews divide their lives between the study of sacred texts and physical labor because, in their opinion, work has two aspects: an unpleasant physical one through which men atone for the original sin, and an intellectual one — a chance that each may share in the salvation of mankind.
This view is shared by early Christians as well — they value the results of work and have a stern position on the opposite of work, laziness. Laziness is one of the seven deadly sins, brings soul and body weakening and lack of necessary things for living, thus urging theft and being a cause of quarrel and forgetfulness of God. By contrast, activity and creation represent the reflection of the divine image in humans. Work represents the mean for obtaining divine blessing and for access to a better afterlife.
Fast forward to the 16th century, the ideals of the ancient aristocratic life of cultivating free time are forgotten, while those of early Christians become the norm. Following the Protestant revolution a new work ethic is emerging: one that presents work as a public virtue, contributing to the perfection of the individual and benefiting the society. Reformers such as Martin Luther foster the philosophy of ancient Jews, that people should pray and work (”ora et labora”). The inactive body is prone to vice. Thus, the inactivity of a contemplative nature is condemned and it is stressed that everybody must work according to abilities. All permitted professions become equal before God by emphasising that the fulfilment of secular duties is the only way to please God. This moral qualification of earthly life is one of the most successful feats of the Reformation, that will facilitate the development of capitalism to its present form. Luther’s edict started to produce generation after generation of self-motivated workers, who want to work because in this way they become better people.
In the 17th century the philosopher John Locke conveys the economic significance of labor as follows:
“Since labor transforms the earth into something useful, it changes something worthless into something precious. Therefore the value is the property of the laborer.”
Later, essayist Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) describes work not only as a means of earning a living, but also as one that provides individuals with a sense of identity and a purpose, supplying a socio-moral framework:
“Blessed is he who who has found work and should not wish for another blessing. He works, has a purpose in life, has discovered it and will pursue it! Work is Life: from the depths of the heart of the one who works pierces the divine power which has been bestowed upon him, the sacred heavenly essence of life which has been breathed into him by God Almighty. From the depths of his soul springs and embraces him all that is noble, all knowledge, self-knowledge, and many more, as soon as he begins the work which suits him”.
However, some people question this new norm. Paul Lafargue (1880) points out in his work “Le droit à la paresse: réfutation du droit au travail de 1848” that the great industrialists promote the idea that laziness is not good because lazy workers reduce their ability to get richer. Through advertising, factory owners persuade masses to buy more. In order to buy more, workers need more money, therefore need to work harder. Consequently, they eventually become physically exhausted and in debt. The author concludes that, if everyone worked less, we would all live better. In other words, fewer working hours per person would increase the demand for labor and give those already employed more free time. This theory which is supported by economic reason (increased leisure time increases consumption) will be adopted in the next century by several nations, by setting a maximum number of hours of work per week.
Aside the critical reflections to the “work norm”, at the beginning of 20th century a rational way of life based on occupation sets in. German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) points out that the idea of profession is one of the constituent parts of the society at the time, one that we find in our modern societies as well.
At national level, the attitudes towards work are nuanced. The Westerners’ attitudes are described by two American researchers, Copeland and Griggs, as follows:
”Perhaps it is because of our puritanical work ethic and of our essential faith in the cause -effect relationship that we are so proud of our work. Work gives us an identity. We often define ourselves and others by what we do.”
In Japan, work is also a way of life and is seen as being above all. Yet, unlike the Western perspective, it is motivated not by material earnings (a consequence of work), but by belonging to the group. This difference is easily seen in the way people present themselves:
- A Westerner introduces himself through his profession, through what he does, saying “I am a doctor” or “I am an engineer”,
- While a Japanese will present himself through the company he is part of, saying “I’m Tanaka from Toyota”.
Sparrow and Hiltrop were curious to know if people would keep working if they made lots of money in the next short period, so they asked people in different countries. The result: no matter their culture, most respondents said ”yes” — 90% in Japan, 88% in the USA, 86% in the Netherlands, 84% in Belgium, 70% in Germany and 68% in the UK. This stance is confirmed to soem degree by another study made by Bhagat, who asked ”How important do you consider work?” — Japan ranked first, followed by Israel and Serbia (high level), USA and Belgium (medium level), Germany and the Netherlands (quite low level) and Great Britain (last place). While Germany’s position in this ranking might seem strange, given that Germans are seen as a hard-working nation, the explanation relates to the fact that they work primarily in the spirit of order and discipline in which they are educated, and not necessarily because of the importance they place on work.
In other cultures, work retained negative connotations. For example, in South America and some Middle Eastern countries, work has degrees of acceptance: a university graduate will never consent to a job considered under his training, even when it would bring more money, because it would also cause the contempt of his peers.
The current work ideology at global level glorifies success and encourages work in a competitive society. Work is the source of economic growth and the equivalent of power to consume and reputation. While some people have to take a second job to survive, others double their working hours because they feel that they struggle in the realm of competence and knowledge is perishable. They have to use their skills now, otherwise they risk becoming outdated and ineffective.
Work means having a status — hence the social stigma of those who do not work and the prestige enjoyed by those who do well-paid work. At the top of professions classification we find the intellectual activities that use abstract knowledge and decision making (not so much execution). At the other end, the manual labor, that constituted the backbone of everything up to a century ago, is again largely unappreciated. Access to various professions has become theoretically very open, thus making manual labor a symbol of school and professional failure.
Despite that, physical work gained prestige when connected to leisure time — think of carpentry or gardening. Moreover, governments nudge changes in people’s perceptions about manual work through campaigns that promote the uniqueness of handicrafts (pottery, weaving), thus re-valuing the traditional village work, and campaigns that de-stigmatise vocational training and emphasise the necessity of trained professionals in all areas of activities.
Not lastly, it is important to notice that there are also contradictions in terms of work-related values at both, the individual and societal levels. At individual level, man cannot live without work, but he considers that work prevents him from living. At the societal level, some individuals reject work by reducing their consumption needs, while others claim the right to work in order to have an identity, a social role and a professional function that gives them psychological balance.
Furthermore, we are witnessing the beginning of a collective mutation towards a culture of minimal effort (coffee is made by itself, laundry is washed by itself, it is enough to look and earn). This standpoint assigns low value to work and is most visible in the attitudes of young generations, with the effects becoming noticeable when they enter the work market.
Source: Based on a section from “Recrutarea si selectia angajatilor. Strategii pentru performanta in servicii” (2012) Catalina Brindusoiu (Mueller), Bucharest: ASE Press