The Irrational Work Ethic

Written on August 18, 2008. Written by .

Taking it Easy
Do you know how to be unproductive?
Photo courtesy of ®oberto’s

How many hours a day do you think a typical man worked for most of human history? According to modern estimates the answer is 3-5 hours. That is the total amount of work it required for a hunter-gatherer to hunt, gather, and do all the other chores that were necessary for survival. Doesn’t it seem strange that with all the technological advancements that have been made since pre-historic times that we are now spending even more time working? There has to be an explanation for this.

One reason of course is that new technologies bring not only tremendous benefits, but also a lot of upkeep and development costs. But that is not a complete explanation. If that was the only reason then we might be better off to just get rid of the technology because it would not be paying for its upkeep costs. So what other explanations are there? I believe there are two main reasons why we are working so hard. One is that many individuals are being exploited to the benefit of wealthy business and property owners. This requires the exploited individuals to work more than they would have had to in the absence of exploitation. The other reason is the existence of an irrationally strong work ethic, which is what I would like to discuss.

Living in America, there are many forces that seem to tell you that you are obligated to work hard. This may be partially caused by the capitalist nature of our economy, but there are countries in Europe that are just as capitalist that seem to have a more reasonable work ethic. In the book Just Work, Russell Muirhead argues that the work ethic in America stems from the protestant work ethic of early settlers. The protestant work ethic is based on the assumption of an afterlife. Some protestants believed that hard work would buy them a ticket to heaven, and those who believed in predetermination used hard work as a way to convince themselves that they were one of those chosen to go to heaven. It caused people to work so hard that it could only be rational under the assumption of an afterlife. And their faulty decisions have a lasting impact on the rest of us. Each individual is in competition with the rest of society for jobs or business. If everyone else is working irrationally hard, then they will have to work irrationally hard to keep up.

It is somewhat of a one-way process because at any time you can get away with working harder, but you can’t as easily get away with working less; you might get fired or lose customers. So we have found ourselves in a position where we as a society could not readily convert back to a more forgiving work ethic even if we all agreed that it would be desirable.

What would it be like if everyone worked less? It makes sense that overall production would fall, but this may actually result in improved overall life quality. If it was culturally accepted that nobody should have to work more than 20 hours a week, civilization would still go on. But if you demand to work less than 20 hours a week in today’s society, there is a good chance that you would find it hard to get by. The point is that there is nothing fundamentally significant about the 40 hour per week level of work, so we should not rule out the concept of working less than that level.

It is disturbingly often that I hear people say that they feel guilty for not getting enough work done. We should not feel guilty for being unproductive; humans are not meant to be productivity engines. We are animals with a psychology oriented around social interaction. We should spend time loafing around and socializing. Work can certainly provide a lot of fulfillment in our lives, but only if it is performed within the bounds of a lifestyle that is reasonable for human beings.

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