Work Ethic

Discussion: Evolution of the American Work Ethic

How has the American work ethic’s image, concept, and reality changed over the past century? Discuss.

“Through a mixture of hard work and thrift the Protestant societies of the North and West Atlantic achieved the most rapid economic growth in history.” — Niall Ferguson

Book Excerpt: Word Ethic & Work Ethic

What are the killer apps?

  1. Western Work ethic has changed for the worse over the past several decades; too many people now feel enitled to something rather than working for it although in rare cases there are those uplifting stories of persons who worked for what they have achieved; where and when the idea of working hard for something drove off the tracks is anyone’s best guess, but government and the parental society are much at the root of the problem

    • Of course there are also those who feel entitled due to a monopoly on inheritance (inherited property, inherited position, inherited social mores/standing, inherited skin color) supported by our systems of ownership. Some people start from zero, some start from 100. In all domains we have slackers and workers, but the payoff tends to increase along that slope.

    • It is hard to take seriously any historical program that calls Edison the creator of AC Current. That was Tesla, not Edison.

      The work ethic has died because those who do the work are not receiving the benefits of their labor, the Bankster steal it all.

      Charles Michael Couch

      • Thanks for getting this correction in. It was Tesla’s AC power distribution and GE’s capital which won the power generation/distribution war. I found Professor Ferguson’s list of “apps” compelling, however

      • Was an outrageous statement. Edison was nothing but the Anti-AC king. I can’t believe nobody caught this before air. It’s about as common a fact as there is historically. What a blunder. Oh, and another comment. Your shows are way to bloated. Four hours of international high-cost photography for about one hour of ideas. I’ll take the ideas, thank you. Save the filler images for the Discovery Channel or A&E. I learned so little from this program after investing so much time. Bummer.

    • I see this entitlement mentality as a major threat to our way of life. But corporate greed adds fuel to the fire. I think big business has gotten out of control with big government. It is getting harder and harder for the small business owner to compete. i.e eBay, once a great place for small business owners, now is being turned over to mega wholesalers and inporters. Many are not fond of the current president for that reason. I dont know, I am trying to make sense of captislism which I know is good but then again the mega corporations that are pushing many out. Comment anyone?

      • See my comment below – the megacorporations are crowding out the small operators in niche after niche. Add to this the increasingly regulatory and financial barriers to entry that governments set up against small-scale entrepreneurs. Becoming your own boss was the American dream, but it is increasingly becoming a nightmare.

  2. The American economy is run by a class that pays lip service to the principles of free market capitalism but expects high-risk business practices (and often fraud) to be insured (and in many cases financed directly) by the American taxpayer.

    • Yes, while they claim to be “too big to fail”, I call it “too well-connected to fail”. This is the truth, but it is not often spoken that clearly.

  3. Yeah, the whole slavery/colonialism/post-colonial economic exploitation thing didn’t hurt, either.

    • Racism might well be the killer app Dr. Ferguson didn’t (want to) mention. It certainly made building all those empires a lot easier.

  4. I think it’s mostly entitlement that has ruined american work ethic, as well as apathy. The baby boomers tried to make the world a better and more harmonious place, but largely failed,while generation x and beyond (and especially my generation, which is just coming of age since we are entering adulthood) don’t have much to work for. We also don’t expect to fail not just in business, but in all areas

    • The assertion that American work ethic has changed (in a negative manner) is not supported by facts. American workforce has continuously improved its productivity and it is one of the most productive communities in the word.

      One of the reasons why the American workforce cannot save as much as it used to do is that the average salary has stagnated over the last few decades (even if their productivity, hence the corporate profits have doubled over the same period).

      • What really has changed is that the old American dream of becomming your own boss, is not dead, but is in near-terminal decline. In the past, untold millions toiled and scrimped and saved, driven on by the hope and dream that someday they could afford to start up their own little business. You still see that, but you don’t see that nearly as often any more.

  5. Well, we are cushioned by a government safety net ( a good thing considering life before that) and parental love. There are thousands who still who start out with nothing and end up with a lot.

    On the other hand just looking at the Frontline program tonight of cell tower workers who are payed unjust/extremely low wages and then don’t have safety standards/equipment and suffer from the new American con/exploitation: the subcontractor. It is totally immoral as it deprives the people on the bottom of a fair, living wage. This is America’s new form of capitalist exploitation. Then the Republicans say “Get a job.” Who can live on such low wage jobs? Imagine 20% of workers earn poverty wages!

  6. I think the image has changed. Today we’re probably more known for SUVs and swimming pools. I don’t think this is just an image issue but a transformation that’s taken place in reality, around changing contexts… a transition from drive to decadents. Of course there have always been those working hard to make it and those who already have it, and maybe those who already had it defined the American image of their present-day (attracting those who wanted to make it), if this makes any sense.

    What I don’t think has changed is any evaluation of the concept and its assumed values, motivations, needs. I think what’s changed is how well we’re living up to it and how we’re seen as living up to it. Probably the concept’s value/meaning deserves some reconsideration. ?

      • Surely spinning in his grave at a cool 60Hz. I’m glad I’m not the only EE nerd to catch that one.

  7. The part of the show where Niall Ferguson argues that people who belong to a certain faith group work harder than others (unfortunately) sounds more like preaching than argumentation. I am sure that PBS audience will catch many fallacies. Let me give you one example.

    The correlation Weber saw between the number of churches around St. Louis and the number of innovative products he saw at the St Louis World’s fair was NOT a causation.

    What Weber did not know when he wrote “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” and what we know (and Niall Ferguson should have researched) is that almost all the things Weber was amazed at St. Louis World’s Fair were made by the non-religuous industrialists. entrepreneurs and scientists who came from non-religious parts of the United States.

    Besides in 1904 Weber also did not know that the very religious region he traveled would create much less wealth than the non-religious part of the US he did not travel.

    • I am sort of surprised that Dr. Ferguson hung so much of his argument on Weber. Also, the phenomenon of Asian (and particularly Chinese) families working hard, living frugally, saving like crazy, and investing in family-owned enterprises is hardly new, nor is it something exclusively Protestant. Many would say that this is an example of a Confucian Ethic, and it is a credible claim. What’s new in the PRC is not the emergence of a Confucian Ethic, but its re-emergence after being supressed during the insane Mao years.

    • What part of the US in 1904 was “non-religious”? New England, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York were founded almost exclusively by the most fervent and radical Protestants on earth. If any region of the country was somewhat less religious at it’s inception it was the American South, which was settled more for economic reasons than purely religious. Further, that region was settled largely by Anglicans which in many respects were not thoroughly Protestant or “reformed”, and held to English social conventions opposed by Puritans, Quakers etc. The most industrial, educated and wealthy parts of the United States in 1904 were in no way secular. The fact that some unnamed individual inventors and industrialists are assumed to have been secular is almost irrelevant. Ben Franklin, for example, was not a Christian in any conventional sense, but he was raised a Puritan in a thoroughly Puritan New England. He embodied every cultural and ethical quality of the society in which he was raised regardless of his stated creed. This work ethic was NOT equally shared by Southern slave owning aristocrats and their cousins back in England.

  8. Edison asserted that alternating current was more dangerous than direct current.

    Niall Ferguson asserted that the more religious a community the more productive it is.

    Edison ‘demonstrated’ the danger of alternating current by not demonstrating AC technology (which is much safer than Edison’s DC).

    Niall Ferguson ‘demonstrated’ the productivity of religious Americans by not showing the more productive non-relogious parts of the American society such as Silicon Valley, Austin, Manhattan and New England.

  9. I thought my TV receiver did not get Fox News. Hold on. This is PBS. God-fearing Americans saving ‘merica while godless East coast ruining it. Such a scholar Niall Ferguson is.

  10. An enjoyable show. A bit frenetic, but still effective. It’s the sequel to “The Ascent of Money” that I had been waiting for. I can’t disagree with his views of the things that have brought us up to these current times. But what about the path forward from here? I think it will have very little to do with a culture’s work ethic. I think it will have to do with the ease with which employers have access to workers in countries whose governments allow poverty wages and sweatshop working conditions. That’s why China and The Rest are rising. It’s the employers’ global race to the bottom. Things will continue to worsen for workers–employed and unemployed–until they learn to coordinate with each other throughout the world so they can all rise together.

  11. Excellent comments Ohabey. Also, Fergie’s explanation for the ‘fall of communism’ is one of the more vacuous and silly I’ve ever witnessed presented by an academic. Larry Summers and Niall Ferguson prove that Harvard will hire anyone.

  12. Congratulations. A fantastic program.

    Of all the killer apps, the work ethic is the only killer app I think was not properly credited.

    While I have no doubt that the work ethic is one of the killer apps in the West, attributing its causality to Christian Protestantism is only half true.

    Protestants, regardless of religion, are a class of anti-fundamentalists. Today’s (small ‘P’) protestants include Christian Protestants, moderate Catholics, moderate Jews, moderate Moslems, and an equally large portion of educated atheists. They are a class of people less religiously constrained by fundamentalism – and are far more educated and skilled in what is and in what can be achieved than their fundamentalist brothers.

    Societies less constrained by religious fundamentalism have always been the more successful societies.

    Christian Protestantism may be growing among the non West rest, but it is not growing as fast as the quality and quantity of their education and skills.

    Comparing empty church pews in Europe with the mall-like church attendances in the US shouldn’t be used as an indication of any sort of decline. The real indication is in a society’s knowledge, skills and attitude with work. Access to quality education is the key.

  13. After working for 45 years…owning my own business and actually hiring people and paying taxes… I know one thing…People in the US work their butts off…

    All this nonsense about “entitlement society” is cover for I’ve got mine, screw you. Our democratic republic is a moral system based on working for the common good. Clean water and food, safe roads and bridges, a system of public education, equal justice under law, fire and police protection, etc, etc.

    No one does it alone…But now we have people demonizing public education, science, infrastructure repair, the safety net of Medicare and Social Security…and everything else that this country is about. But the long arc bends toward the truth…and that’s the facts, Jack

  14. I don’t believe this “app” either. It sort of implies that Catholics, Orthodox, and non-Christians are lazy, which is not the case. And I think Catholic France was more influential on the world stage than Protestant Sweden.

    • You’re comparing a tiny country to a large nation. Sweden almost certainly had a broader standard of living and higher literacy rates etc. It’s simplistic to say all Protestants work hard and Catholics are lazy. It’s beside the point, and not the argument. You have to look at the larger cultural values, institutions etc.

  15. I too noticed the Edison – Alternating Current mishap… Which kind of throws into question some other topics he touched on based on conjecture, not proofs… (always question what you see!)

    Had a hard time digesting parts of the religious bit… While I agree that historically the protestant ethic definitely helped to open up the route for the progression of capitalism, there have also been excesses… Also, while religion in general may provide a sense of community and serve as a source of motivation and self-confidence for some, I strongly doubt it is a be all end all…

    Still tho, I found most of the program refreshing and at times perhaps even enlightening…

  16. The work ethic is suffering from a possibly deadly case of “affluenza.”

    We are becoming a debt based economy. Once a convenience, debt is now a lifestyle. When we had to stop using Keynes’s name to justify public sector debt, we used Friedman’s name to justify private sector debt (which got taken up by the taxpayer anyway.) On the one hand was the illusory prosperity of money creation through debt. On the other was everyone, from the billionaire to the pauper, getting addicted to the easy life.

    The easy money and the addiction feed each other. We are a democracy, but the people simply don’t want the pain necessary for adjustment to a healthier economic foundation. There is hope still, but time is running out.

    The success of Western civilization is becoming its own undoing. Though, it has been a glorious ride.

  17. I can’t speak for the rest of the “Western” world, but in the US there are still plenty of people that are working hard, or would if a job were available to them. Unlike so many European nations, our workers get relatively few days off, and many US workers do not even take all of those. It must also be understood that between high taxes, minimum wage laws, and lingering prejudices, there are more people than we realize that are working and working hard, but they don’t show up in the official statistics because they are “off the books” in the unofficial economy. The so-called “safety net” in the US is so minimal that very, very few people really can get by without working at all.

    The real problem in the US, as Dr. Ferguson mentioned in the last episode of his program, is not so much with our work habits, but with our savings habits – or rather, the lack thereof. This is not so much a problem on the income side of the equation, but rather on the expenditure side. The “Protestant Ethic” combined work-as-calling with frugality-as-godliness, but too many of us have let the latter go.

    There were many reasons for savings (rainy day, retirement, future major purchases, etc.), but one big reason that so many people operating under the “Protestant Ethic” tried so hard to save money was to accumulate start-up capital so that they could become entrepreneurs, or at least self-employed. This is what “the American Dream” really was – becoming your own boss. Home ownership was just the icing on the cake, the just desserts that followed from one’s own business success. Unfortunately, we are seeing less and less of this. It isn’t so much that freeloading upon the taxpayer dollar has become so much more lucrative instead; it hasn’t. However, we have made it more difficult for even the smallest scale entrepreneurs to make a go of it. Many of the niches that used to be filled in the US economy by a multitude of small independent businesses have increasingly become dominated by massive corporations, or by governments, leaving fewer opportunities for the little guys. Need I also point out that these massive entities – especially the corporations – have been aggressively automating, offshoring, and downsizing, and governments have become increasingly constrained in their staffing as well.

    The increasing domination of the US economy by expanding giant entities that are not hiring but are crowding out small-scale entrepreneurs is placing increasing numbers of Americans in a bad spot. Many are going to have to try and make a go at self-employment or entrepreneurship in spite of the poor opportunities and barriers to entry. This means that if anything, Americans need to be living beneath their means and saving even more than they used to, and it means that they need to get used to the idea that the returns on their invested savings and on their labor may be considerably less in the past than it has been in the future.

    The good times are truly over, and a much harder and less prosperous future is what we really have to look forward. There is nothing left to do but to buckle down and make the best of it.

    • I understand what you are saying.

      The lack of investment in small businesses is caused by the indebted government sucking up much of the banks’ funds plus our national savings. (I am also an American.) When banks can get money from the Fed at 0% and lend it to the federal government at 1.5 to 2% risk-free (or to large corporations under similar conditions), they don’t want to lend to start-ups.

      For high profits, banks are better off gambling on the market turbulence created by the overflow of debt around the world. The government has already made it clear big banks will be bailed out if they lose too much.

      This arrangement works nicely for the government and the banks. The banks get what they want, and the government is able to run large deficits with impunity.

      Many Americans work hard. Unfortunately, the best and brightest have been siphoned off by big banks and hedge funds to devise clever gambling techniques and the systems to support them. The hard work of Americans is generating less real wealth than it should because capital is mis-allocated in favor of the government and big corporations. There is still too much largesse that the government can’t really afford (such as the mortgage interest deduction, social security and medicare.) The money created through debt is making us think we don’t have to confront the difficult problem of deciding to increase taxes or cut these benefits, and thus making the dilemma worse as time goes on.

      The root problem is still debt. There are too many more claims on wealth (US dollars, government bonds, promises to future retirees, reserves held by foreigners) than the amount of actual wealth. Something has to give. All we are doing is playing tricks to delay the crash by making the eventual crash worse — but we have peace in our time!

      With the right leader, I believe Americans have enough character and means to be called to bite the bullet, rebuild our fiscal and monetary systems, not panic, and lay a foundation for true prosperity. It will be a hell of a ride, but we really don’t have a choice.

  18. Some great comments have been expressed regarding the decline of American work ethic, corporate conglomeration- stifling the dream of independence from Wall Street or large silent/angel partners, and pre boomer/post boomer failed ideals. Largely, what must be considered is where our country is heading with regard to lobbyist malfeasance, governmental corruption, and how (if)any of us find watching our earned income being redistributed to the wealthy (bail outs/lobbyist) or entitlements beyond your basic social security. A younger poster stated, “The baby boomers tried to make the world a better and more harmonious place, but largely failed, while generation x and beyond (and especially my generation, which is just coming of age since we are entering adulthood) don’t have much to work for. We also don’t expect to fail not just in business, but in all areas”, which holds a great deal of weight; particularly “don’t have much to work for”. Our government has deteriorated the work ethic as much as any job pushed overseas. Atop this, the erroneous, and limited view of Americans (definitely our faults on a local level), regarding work ethics leads us (Americans) to much self-doubt. Having been an ex-pat, and working in many overseas locations, it can unmistakably noted that there are defeated, or worthless, people abroad as well as local.

  19. Debt is fundamentally at odds with the work ethic. It says, I want to enjoy the future fruits of my labor now. Or it says, I don’t have to make tough decisions; I can borrow money to put them off. It breeds not just laziness and dependence, but a profound insecurity in the financial plumbing as too much money is owed that threatens to be inflated away or defaulted on.

    • I don’t think the problem is debt in itself. Debt has been used judiciously and effectively for centuries by both individuals and companies. It’s been an integral part of economies all this time. It’s only in the past few decades that individuals, companies, and governments seem to have lost the ability to use it properly. It’s interesting to think about why this recent change has occurred.

      • I think debt was OK when it was used sparingly as a convenience by entities who had a reliable stream of income. Only when it became a lifestyle of individuals, governments and corporations did it become a problem. Quite how this happened is up for debate, but the loss of sound money (via the gold standard) might have something to do with it.

        And I don’t believe debt is a good thing even as an entrepreneurial instrument. Who is going to lend money to a risky small business start-up except at exhorbitant interests? Taking equity is better. Even in the business world, debt has become an instrument that big corporations use to their advantage against more innovative small rivals.

  20. Just saw six killer apps on WLIW; wonderful show, great thought without attendant PC crap, unfortunately followed by usual fatuous PBS product.

  21. While the Protestant work ethic is an important factor in the success of Northern Europe and North America, in comparison to Catholic Europe and Latin America; there is a larger reason Protestant nations tended to thrive in Western culture: literacy. From the start of the Reformation, Protestants encouraged all lay people to read and interpret scripture themselves. Therefore literacy and education thrived among the common people who had no “practical” use for literacy. Conversely, the Roman Catholic Church forbid the reading of scripture by lay people for centuries and did relatively little to encourage it later. Spanish colonies in Latin America did not produce much literacy beyond church clergy, while Puritans in New England were educating men, women and children of all social ranks for one primary reason: reading scripture. Within the United States literacy and education for all classes tended to be stronger among the more throughly reformed churches. Puritan New England was far more literate among the middle and lower classes than the Anglican South in early colonial times.

  22. Ferguson claims that as China absorbs the Protestant work ethic now being lost by the US, China may overtake America as a leading economic power. However, he doesn’t take into account the Confucian work ethic, which is secular, family oriented, and powers many of the East Asian economies. Once Korea, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, and now China downloaded the killer apps of science and competition, that ethic combined fueled the rise of these nations.
    Now some of this may be my speculation, but one advantage those with the Confucian work ethic have over the West is saving and self sacrifice for the next generation. Weakening family ties of the West(increased rates of cohabitation in Europe, US, children growing up in disrupted homes) may give the West a disadvantage over the East, where marriage rates are still high and families educate and invest significantly in a small number of children. Also, in general Christianity promotes marriage and stable families.
    Imagine what China could achieve with the combined Protestant/Confucian work ethic.

  23. I really admire the “work ethic” of all the hedge fund operators…who, when things get tough rely on the taxpayers to bail them out…so they can stay in the 1% top.
    Or how about the “work ethic” of all those slave owners in the South? Who was responsible for the wealth of the Southern belles? That is, whose “work ethic” helped them to the top? ( Of course, once those blacks were freed, they became real lazy and lost all their desire for work….so now they have become welfare mothers dependent on the “job creators”.)

  24. What happened to the American work ethic? A good work ethic and loyalty to one’s company once counted for something. In time, a trusted worker could expect promotions, increased pay, and more responsibility. These days all a worker can expect is to be treated poorly, lied to, and laid off at the first hint of a downturn. Working hard is no longer a path to prosperity in this country. To even get a decent paying job in the United States requires indenturing oneself to the student loan providers. Workers in the United States suffer from low morale, cynicism, and lack of hope. Workers know no matter how hard you work you will never really get anywhere. There was once trust between workers and management. That trust is now gone.

  25. Since this comment has been “awaiting moderation” for the better part of a week, allow me to explain.

    Translation of “ARBEIT MACHT NICHT FREI” from the German:


    The slogan “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” deceptively embellished the entry gates at Auschwitz and other concentration camps during World War II.

    Those who believe work is the royal road to freedom and heavenly bliss are well advised to repent. Such delusions eventually have a way of falling to bits. This ap is a killer all right, and it’s the poor worker who all too often ends up the unsuspecting victim of a predatory employer or state. Stemming from the so-called “work ethic,” this myth is moribund among Europeans; persists among American conservatives as a still potent relic of seventeenth-century Puritanism; and has been embraced by a burgeoning class of born-again Chinese Christians who ambitiously hope to emulate the “success” of the West even as their manipulative communist overlords crush religious freedom in Tibet.

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