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Why work is so miserable in America

The Protestant work ethic hijacked America. It’s time for a new pro-worker ethos.

A black-and-white steel engraving of factory workers working at a wood gasifier. Getty Images

When you hear the phrase “work ethic,” you might think of the perfect employee. The one who puts her job above everything else, who never complains, the type that lives to work.

That is certainly one version of the work ethic, and it’s a story that serves employers much more than it serves employees. But is that the only version of the work ethic? Or to put it more directly, is it the best version of the work ethic? A new book by the University of Michigan philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues that we should revisit the origins of the work ethic because the answer to both of those questions is no.

Anderson tells the history of the Protestant Work Ethic and how it gave rise to dueling interpretations. One of those interpretations was pro-worker and the other was not. And for various reasons, the anti-worker version is the one that ultimately prevailed — or at least it’s the one that dominates our society today.

So I invited her onto The Gray Area to talk about what happened and why she thinks we need to reclaim the work ethic for workers. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday.


Sean Illing

Where does the phrase “Protestant work ethic” come from?

Elizabeth Anderson

The phrase the Protestant work ethic comes from the great social theorist Max Weber, who wrote a book called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; the English translation came out in 1920. He set the basic terms for our understanding of the work ethic. In his description, the Protestant work ethic was an ethic of nose to the grindstone for the workers for the maximum profit of the capitalist. So it’s a pretty dreary ethic, and he himself, despite his profession of value neutrality and social science, condemned the work ethic as consigning us to an iron cage, and he contrasted the Puritan attitude toward work as recalling the capitalist version of the work ethic that came to us where we are forced to work in our calling.

Sean Illing

How important is the Protestant part of the Protestant work ethic? Is the religious foundation essential?

Elizabeth Anderson

This is coming right out of the Puritans. The Puritans in England were basically Calvinist in theology and obsessed with getting certainty about their salvation. Theologically, the Calvinists think we’re all doomed from the start except for a tiny number of people who are saved. The critical issue, then, is you’re all desperate to know whether you’re saved, and the Puritan said the only way to tell is if you are working really, really hard because that shows that God has graced you and that you really have faith.

Sean Illing

There were contradictions built into the work ethic right from the start. You call them the “repressive” and “uplifting” dimensions, and these dimensions get teased apart during the Industrial Revolution, and out of that comes the conservative and progressive work ethics. Tell me about these competing work ethics and what happened here.

Elizabeth Anderson

Probably most of us know the Puritans as the biggest killjoys in European history. They banned the celebration of Christmas. You’re not supposed to have any fun. You’re supposed to be full of sobriety and self-denial and frugality, and they definitely thought that you should be working crazy hard. You needed your rest. You have the Sabbath, but then you have to go straight back to work. The purpose of rest is to restore yourself to that end.

But the important thing is they thought that workers would reap some rewards from all of this self-denial. You get to save up, you’ll be able to buy property, you’ll get wealthier. You can afford some conveniences, no luxury, but at least you’ll have a more comfortable life. And that was because the model workers in the 17th century, when the work ethic was perfected, both had capital and engaged in manual labor. The master craftsman who owned his own shop, even merchant sailors were entitled to a share of the profits of the commercial voyage.

We don’t have a sharp distinction between manual workers and capitalists in the 17th century. The critical issue in the Industrial Revolution is then you get a very sharp split between wage laborers whose only source of income is the wage they get from their employer on the one hand, and capitalists on the other hand, whose entire income comes from profit or interest or some kind of income flow from ownership of an asset.

Sean Illing

This is the hijacking of the term “Protestant work ethic” you’re talking about, right?

Elizabeth Anderson

Absolutely. The version that we received that ended up being neoliberalism as we know it today is the version that Max Weber described and condemned in 1920. That’s the version that I claim was hijacked by the capitalists and turned against the workers.

There’s another separate tradition of the work ethic, which is consistent because they kept to the class neutrality of the rights and duties of the work ethic. The whole idea was, yeah, you work really hard and then you’re entitled to reap the fruits of your labor, and that means you need decent pay, a living wage. You’re entitled to have improving prospects if you fulfill the demands of the work ethic.

Now, what was happening, especially in the first half of the Industrial Revolution, is that because now you have a sharp division between capitalists and workers, the workers are working harder than ever under more grueling and dangerous conditions, and their wages stagnate all the way through the mid-19th century. They’re basically flat. Meanwhile, the capitalists are reaping all the gains of the Industrial Revolution. So their income is growing by leaps and bounds, even though they’re actually not doing much, they’re just investing assets. There’s a lot of passive income there. So you see a betrayal of the idea that working hard is going to enable you to improve your life.

Sean Illing

The rich have always wanted the poor to work for them — that’s as old as civilization. So what is the real innovation with the conservative work ethic? Is it that we get an ideology that morally justifies exploitation?

Elizabeth Anderson

To an extent, but it’s a particular kind of exploitation that’s quite extreme. So by the late 18th century, we see conservative thinkers, notably Edmund Burke and Thomas Robert Malthus, who are in an absolute panic about the rising radicalism of propertyless workers. Many of them are inspired by the French Revolution in 1789. They’re out in the streets. They’re starting to protest and demand that their voices be heard. Also, the welfare rolls are growing, and conservatives are in a complete panic over this.

Malthus had this idea that it must be because of population increase: Those lazy workers are having too many kids that they can’t afford to feed because they will not restrain their sexual impulses. And many of us might recall similar ideas being promulgated in all the controversies about welfare reform in the United States, despite the fact that there’s never any empirical evidence for this.

Sean Illing

That’s sort of the point, isn’t it? These ideologies have a material impact on how we see the world, on who we see, and who we ignore, and they color our moral intuitions in all kinds of ways.

Elizabeth Anderson

A lot of what I’m writing about, and this is especially true in the US, is a culture deeply imbued with the hijacked version of the work ethic, the capitalist version. And so, there’s unbelievable contempt and suspicion of the poor. The overwhelming majority of Republicans think that poor people, who maybe are getting food stamps or some kind of public assistance, are lazy and life is easy for them. It’s like they’re just living in a hammock. Now, anyone who’s actually been poor knows that it’s in fact a lot of work to be poor, just getting the daily subsistence, and often they’re keeping down three part-time jobs. They can’t get full-time hours anywhere, and it’s enormously difficult just to pay for basic necessities.

But that’s not the image that many Americans have because we’re deeply imbued with the work ethic, suspicion of the poor, contempt for the poor, when in fact what social scientists have been telling us ever since the rise of social science is that a lot of poverty is structural. It has nothing to do with the virtues and vices of individuals. It’s already built into the system.

Sean Illing

You’ve mentioned the word neoliberalism, which is a boogeyman term at this point, but this is really what you’re contesting in this book.

Elizabeth Anderson

That is correct. Neoliberalism just is the late 20th century and early 21st century revival of the conservative work ethic. Really all the patterns of thinking were already set in the late 18th century, which became policies that redistribute income from workers to property owners and the holders of assets. That’s what neoliberalism amounts to: a whole bunch of policies that secure an increasing share of income for the holders of capital assets.

Sean Illing

I’m wondering why you think neoliberalism won when it did. I mean, we had this long period of post-war social democracy in America. And then in the late ’70s or early ’80s, depending on who you ask, that gives way to the era of neoliberalism, the era we’re still living in today. Why did it win at that particular moment in history?

Elizabeth Anderson

The late ’70s were a period of stagflation. We had the Vietnam War, rising distrust in institutions, and society was ripe for a critique of heavy-handed government. There was actually excessive regulation, I have to say. That’s a legacy of the New Deal. And so, society was ripe for a critique of many aspects of the New Deal regime that was still dominant in the 1970s, but it’s also the case that a lot of businesspeople themselves hated the New Deal from the start, never liked it, always resented it. Businesses, though, had won a great victory in 1948 with the Taft-Hartley Law, which undermined labor unions, and they had to spend a couple of decades steadily chipping away at the power of unions.

By the mid-70s, they had already undermined unions quite a lot. Reagan gets elected in 1980, and one of his most famous acts was to fire all of the striking air traffic controllers. That was a deliberate signal he was sending to corporations that they should be equally tough and break unions and employ very aggressive methods. And that, I think, got the ball rolling even faster.

Sean Illing

Zooming out a bit, do you think it would just be better if our livelihoods and our status and sense of self-worth and all that weren’t anchored to our jobs?

Elizabeth Anderson

I think that Americans probably excessively identify themselves with their jobs, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to do that. I think it depends on what the content of your job is.

Sean Illing

But that’s part of the problem though, right? To borrow a phrase from the late David Graeber, we have all these “bullshit jobs.” The nature of the work we do matters a ton. If we were all working jobs that we truly enjoyed, well, that would be different.

Elizabeth Anderson

Yes. And in fact, even the professional-managerial class has its difficulties. You might have come across this Washington Post article, which was discussing who are the happiest workers in America. It’s the lumberjacks, the farmers, and the fishers. Professionals are actually way down there.

Sean Illing

What do you think is the most immediate thing we could do to empower workers so that they have more genuine freedom in their lives?

Elizabeth Anderson

Well, I do think unions would definitely help. I think paid vacations would help. Workers having more say at work would help. Making basic necessities more available to people without having that be tied to work is critical. In all the social democracies, access to health care is not contingent on your having a job, and you don’t have to pay a lot for it. The prices are way more reasonable than they are in the United States. So I think we have to have some kind of public provision there. And also, in the social democracies, you don’t have to pay for college. You have a rich public university system and your tuition’s paid for. In places like Denmark and Germany, 18-year-olds even get a stipend for going to college. So they’re not even financially dependent on their parents while they’re not working, they’re just going to school.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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