Wednesday, November 02, 2005

More on Work Ethic

There were some interesting comments to the recent discussion of declining work ethic, including:
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.
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.
I am interested in the effect to which today's teenagers are expressing diminishing expectations as a result of changes in the workplace and increased international competition for white collar jobs. If I recall high school correctly, I doubt that many are thinking about it.

I am not one to lament about "those awful kids today" and how they will ultimately ruin the country/world. That song has been sung for centuries, yet here we are. I am one to believe that the behavior of kids reflects the behavior of the grown-ups that surround them, and that the values of kids are most affected by the values of their parents. I think that most kids seek peers who share their value systems, rather than "falling in with the wrong crowd" and being "corrupted" by those kids who don't. Most teenage rebellion ends up being more annoying than harmful. Listening to Ozzy or Alice Cooper or even Marily Manson won't turn a kid into a satanist, nor will listening to 50 Cent or Tupac turn a kid into a gangster.

At the same time, our culture has changed a lot in the past century. On the BBC series, Manor House, an elderly woman who had worked as a maid (starting at the age of 14) in the very house where the series was set was asked by the modern-era persons who were performing the "below stairs" servant roles, why people didn't just quit if they didn't like the working conditions. Despite their having worked for more than a month within a context most modern workers would find unacceptable, it hadn't occurred to them that workers of the Edwardian era may have had no choice - they couldn't afford to be unemployed, couldn't risk leaving an employer without a reference, and some had no place to go if they gave up their room and board. We've now progressed to an era where, as mythago recently pointed out, some people (who should know better) can't even envision a world before OSHA, let alone one where a worker could not afford to quit a dangerous job.

As I've previously argued, with no claim to having originated the idea, within the workplace there is also a top-down element to these issues. It is difficult for workers to remain dedicated and motivated within the context of a workplace where management treats and compensates itself like royalty, while showing little in the way of competence, honesty, work ethic, or loyalty. Where a CEO is siphoning off millions from the company for new corporate jets which are essentially reserved for the CEO and his family (ENRON-style), lavish multi-million dollar parties (Tyco style), multi-million dollar "loans" which are quickly forgiven.... it becomes easy to rationalize taking an extra fifteen minutes for lunch, or spending time surfing the web instead of working. And if you work for a company like Delphi, where management scoffs at the value of your work and demands that you agree to have your wages slashed by two thirds, all the while rewarding itself at record levels.... Well, let's just say that I doubt that worker productivity or morale are at peak levels.

Solutions for the working family? Once you get past his acknowledgement of how hard many people work, Sebastian Mallaby seems to exemplify the management position:
The high-risk, high-reward economy encourages people to put everything into their jobs, with the result that they have little energy left over for chores that might save money. To keep up with their work, two-career couples buy cooked meals, send the laundry out, bribe the kids with toys rather than attention. Perhaps in time the pendulum may swing back. The spend-hard-in-order-to-work-hard family may give way to thriftier behavior.
Is he actually suggesting that if their wages are slashed, workers will muster what little is left of their energy after the workday to spend more time doing their own cooking, cleaning and child care? And what of the service economy that is presently driven in no small part by the hard spending of working families?

Some of our nation's political leaders depict this as the result of an entitlement culture. The Gingrichian-type solution is to suggest that we kick out any social safety net which might catch a falling worker - with emphasis on "worker", not "manager". These individuals advance the argument that employer-provided or employer-subsidized benefits amount to a "welfare state". None of these consequences are to be extended to the nation's wealthy or politically connected classes - which is perhaps the segment of society with the greatest present sense of entitlement.

The movement to strip workers of benefits, privatize Social Security, and reduce job protections goes hand-in-hand with the movement to end taxation of wealth in favor of the taxation of wages. The former position is insincere - the Republicans who wish to deprive workers of pensions and health benefits are part of a majority in both houses of Congress and control the White House, where if they were sincere they have now had ample opportunity to put their money where their mouths are, ending their own generous health and pension benefits. Consistent with their... hypocrisy, they advocate "bankruptcy reform" for individual consumers, while perpetuating a bankruptcy system which permits even profitable corporations to escape their freely negotiated labor contracts and to shift their pension obligations to the taxpayer.

Are there easy answers? I wish there were. It seems likely that reduced opportunity for workers will force an increase in work ethic, but at significant consequence to other aspects of our society which we (meaning, middle class America) deem valuable (and perhaps also at significant cost to the service sector). There seems to be no chance of reigning in the practices at the highest levels of government and industry where cronyism, self-indulgence, and even outright laziness are seemingly accepted as the just rewards of success (even for those who hold their positions only by virtue of an ancestor's hard work or good fortune).

Meanwhile, we'll probably continue to pretend to be a classless society. (In the economic sense, that is.)


  1. I am one to believe that the behavior of kids reflects the behavior of the grown-ups that surround them

    Fair enough. But the teenagers are, indeed, absorbing the same message as their parents: there's no such thing as company loyalty, because your company sure as hell doesn't have any loyalty to you.

    I don't think we'll see an increase in actual work ethic so much as an increase in the appearance of work ethic. Especially in the short-term-job economy. If you expect to be at a company for a long time, you have a disincentive to cut corners and cheat; if you expect to be gone, why bother putting in effort beyond what gets you through the day?

  2. Oh, I'm stepping forward from there a few years, to when if you're cut loose you'll either face protracted unemployment or even worse job prospects - isn't that the ideal of those who are pushing for these changes, and working so hard to hobble unions?

    As long as the job market remains relatively vibrant, though, your vision of the future is likely to be the one that prevails. You can already see a great deal of that in... well, pretty much every workplace, where some people do an amazing job of putting on an appearance of being busy and hard-working - at least to management - even as their co-workers curse their lazy posteriors.