Monday, October 24, 2005

Declining Work Ethic

Of all the things that seem to be hurting us in an era of globalization, a declining work ethic would seem to be near the top. If you look at productivity figures for U.S. workers, you might not immediately suspect a declining work ethic. But if you encounter a spectrum of U.S. workers, or even U.S. college students, it is hard to miss the decline.

Any thoughts as to what is behind this? Where does the sense of entitlement come from, that people think they should have well-paid employment, license to be rude to customers, break time whenever they want it, and not have to work hard? Oh, I grant some of it comes from the top - you can't see a Bernie Ebbers or Dennis Kozlowski-type CEO at the top of your company's organizational chart and be inspired to work hard for your company... quite the opposite. But perhaps that's less of an explanation, and more of a manifestation of how lousy work ethic and and an exaggerated sense of both self-importance and entitlement reach all levels of employment, public and private. (Chicken v. Egg - did the phenomenon start at the bottom or at the top?)

Under a "CEO President", this phenomenon can seemingly put the nation at risk.


  1. "Any thoughts as to what is behind this? Where does the sense of entitlement come from, that people think they should have well-paid employment, license to be rude to customers, break time whenever they want it, and not have to work hard?"

    It won't be definitive (long as it turns out, but not definitive) but how's this?

    At a guess, I'd say it was primarily a result of the intersection of the principles of perception, the lowest common denominator (LCD), and our society's good fortune. My hypotheses would be that most people do not naturally give "100%"; for that matter, most people would probably rather not work at all and pretty much all people do what they think is best for them. (Always room for exceptions, but we are dealing with generalities.)

    In the past, people had a vested interest in working hard and conforming to societal norms. If you were a farmer, you ate what you grew and sold the rest (similar analysis for craftsman etc). The harder you worked, the greater the benefit to you. If you lived in a small stable community (like 99.99% of the people did back when what we generally think of as the "work ethic" was being formed) hard work and civility had the added benefits of being viewed positively by the community. Parents wanted their children to marry hard working "decent" people. Parents wanted their children to grow up to be hard working decent people (both so that they prospered and so that they could take care of their parents . . .). So in addition to being a material benefit (more to eat) it was also of social and psychological benefit to work hard (or at least to be perceived as doing so) and to play by societies rules.

    That model shook a little during the industrial revolution (and "unemployment" as well as "out of wedlock births increased dramatically). The price of greater freedom (not tied to the land or the landlord or "rural morality") was a loss of societal controls and norms.

    Things stabilized and the model evolved to one of lifetime (or near) lifetime employment. People went to work in the factories or for the government and they planned on working until they got their pension. (I never claimed this analysis was perfect, we are dealing in generalities here.) The factory model of fifty years ago lost the "material benefit" incentive to work hard (after all, the last thing a union wants is for management to start rewarding individual employees for hard work and a factory owner has a vested interest in keeping labor costs down) but you still had stability. You worked with a group of people for years (decades in most cases) and would rather have the reputation of being a good worker than a bad one (and the old "puritan work ethic" was still in the air whispering in your ear that hard work was a "good" thing). Besides, the company paid for your children to be born, you to eat, etc, etc. you had both a vested interest in it doing well and maybe even felt like you owed the place a little loyalty. Plus, you still had a society that valued "civility". (Think about TV shows from the fifties.)

    Then came the sixties (in a metaphysical sense). Now the name of the game is "personal freedom" and "feeling good". (My personal experience being that hard work and civility don't always align well with these things; but that may just be me.) Personal responsibility is passé and hard work is something to be mocked. Actually, pretty much everything that tries to make use do things we don't want to do (take responsibility for our actions, work hard, etc) is to be mocked. To some extent this is no different than most generations "teen years" but for whatever reason (parents had enough money to indulge their children, life got soft, popularity of TV, lack of parental involvement, whatever) this "teen" phenomenon became a cultural norm. It seems to work in both directions, we don't discipline children for behavior that would in the past be viewed as inappropriate (Rude remarks to teachers and other adults), and we see adults carrying on like teenagers (making rude remarks themselves, dressing like their children, etc)

    In a nutshell you see a shift from "personal responsibility" to "personal rights" and "governmental responsibility." You also see civility and societal norms go right out the window. To a large extend the cultural norms of today are the adolescent behaviors of the past.

    Don't get me wrong, I like the idea of a governmental safety net as well as the next guy, but I think there have been some unintended consequences. "The government provides social security and Medicare, therefore I don't have to play a personal role in helping society member who are too old to help themselves. That's why I pay taxes."

    For that matter, the material wealth of our society and the personal freedoms in provides (and don't get me wrong, I don't want to give up either one) also allows/encourages base behavior (the LCD). Our wealth and technology allow us to divorce where we work (and how we behave their) from where we live (and how we are viewed there.) In the old days, if the farmer's son got another farmer's daughter pregnant the families/neighbors made sure that they got married and there was a structure to take care of the resulting baby. You behaved in a certain way in the past because you didn't want your friends and neighbors (who were generally the same people) to think poorly of you. Today, you don't know who your neighbors are, and how would they know how you behave at work when you work miles from where you live? If you cheated your hired hands or treated them poorly, you were looked down upon by your neighbors, who were the people you knew and interacted with socially.

    Far from perceiving that they will profit from hard work, most Americans don't see any direct correlation between how hard they work and how much they are rewarded for their work. More to the point, part of that "freedom" our society enjoys is the freedom to have TV and the movies belittle the people who work hard and praise (and present for emulation) those who "cheat the system" and profit without working at all. Don't get me wrong, the "rogue" has always been a popular character, but you used to have societal pressure to make sure that the "message" of the media was that cheaters didn't prosper and honesty and respectfulness were the best policies. Also, generally the rogues were portrayed as flawed and unsuccessful individuals. Now think about today's media and the messages it sends. Once again, I'm not advocating changing the ground rules about the First Amendment or questioning its many benefits, just pointing out what should be obvious. The lowest common denominator is what sells. It always has been, it's just that we used to have societal controls that prevented it from being the driving force that it is today. (I'm not advocating a return to the Victorian era, but is society really better off because today we have an entire industry designed around the idea that pimps and drug dealers are heroes and that "ho" is a term of endearment for a woman?)

    Where did all of that rambling leave us? Lets see, no work ethic because not only is a work ethic not perceived (which is all that really matters) as being beneficial, it is seen as being something to be mocked. A sense of entitlement because . . . that's right, left out a step. "Perception and Material things".

    TV has had a huge impact on our society. We had other forms of media, but none nearly as pervasive as television. Television is the single largest source of perceptions for people today. It doesn't matter what "reality" is, what matters is what TV says it is. Similarly, to a large extent people's since of well being is not driven by how they are doing, it is driven by how they perceive that they are doing relative to others.

    Today, in terms of material wealth the American people are better off than they have ever been before. If you took a person of above average means from early 20th Century America and dropped him into a working class home of today, he would be amazed by the material wealth on display. Not just TVs, computers, and telephones; but microwaves, electricity and running water (not to mention more clothes, toys, tools, etc there is a reason that old homes don't have much closet space). Compared to what his neighbors had in rural early 20th Century American the working poor of the 21st Century are wealthy beyond compare. Now look at it another way. If you are poor and working class in 21st Century America, your primary source of information about the world is the TV set. According to it, with very few exceptions, everyone is rich except you; and even the people on TV who aren't rich all dress better and have more expensive "things" than you do. They get to do and say whatever they want and they always get away with it. There is no "Horatio Alger" telling people to work hard. There is only the TV set telling people that all they need to do is watch one more infomercial to get rich quick (like everyone else already is) and entertainment programs about the easy life. Despite living in an age of unparalled affluence, all people want today is more; and since they perceive that everyone else has it, they feel that they are entitled to it. (Don't get me started on commercials.)

    So in a nutshell: that kid at the store is rude to customers and feels like he is entitled to a break and a raise without working because: a) he can get away with acting that way and people tend to sink to the LCD, b) that's the way his role models on TV act, and c) he resents the fact that he isn't already rich and famous, and d) that's the way teenagers have always been, you and I just were less inclined to notice it when we were younger. : )


    (Washington Post column this week detailed a new study that found most teenagers feel that they will be rich, famous, or both when they grow-up, and that they are on the right track to achieve these things, but the country (read grown-ups) isn't.)

  2. Then came the sixties

    Cue Imperial March!

    Did you forget the '80s?

  3. No, I thought we were discussing "work ethic" not "greed".

    I'll let you handle the 80s (and the 70s for that matter) the post was to long as it was . . . : )


  4. One thing the awful teens today *aren't* saying is that they expect they'll be able to put in a fair day's work for a fair day's pay and raise their family at a decent standard of living.

    That's because we've pretty much tanked any possibility of that ideal being reality, and that didn't happen in the 1960s. In the 1960s, it was still possible to believe one could work twenty years in the mill and retire with a modest pension, or that as long as you showed up at the office and did the work assigned to you, you'd have a job.

  5. I don't think that the nation is past the Horatio Alger myth. I think that to the extent that teens don't expect to work hard and have a better lifestyle than their parents, there's a counter-movement of unrealistic expectation - in a world of manufactured celebrity, many teens expect to become celebrities, have people fawn over them, and have wealth without work, in the manner of the Hilton sisters (while overlooking the fact that their parents aren't billionaires who can afford to pour countless dollars into beauticians, plastic surgeons and publicists in order to manufacture that fame).

    The cool kids can dream of being sports heroes, fashion models, or manufactured celebrities. If you're a high school kid who actually wants to work hard and succeed at school, or (God forbid) wants to be a scientist or mathematician, you're probably considered to be a "nerd" if not (also) a "loser".

  6. . . .it was still possible to believe one could work twenty years in the mill and retire with a modest pension, or that as long as you showed up at the office and did the work assigned to you, you'd have a job . . .

    I'm not sure which side of the argument it cuts on, but the last place that still seems to be possible is the civil service and military.

    30 years still equals benefits and a pension and although not impossible, it is still hard to lose your job . . .



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