Revisiting the Work Ethic in America

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<ul><li>Articl~e</li><li><p>dishonesty, fraud, and other corruption brought back the reality of thehuman potential for evil and moral frailty. Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, andother corporate entities became major, glaring examples ofreprehensibleand irresponsible corporate mismanagement; public deception; and workerdisenfranchisement. Unanticipated bankruptcies of these and other majorcorporations destroyed worker pensions and shook the foundations of trustin the capitalistsystemasthe public sawexecutives pleading the FifthAmend-ment to avoid self-incrimination while retaining fortunes that resulted fromthe fraud and mismanagement by corporate officials and while Wall Streetbrokers and investors looked for an end to this economic debacle.</p><p>Ironically, at the same time the United States commemorated the dig-nity ofwork and workers involved in surviving and rebounding from thedevastation of the World Trade Center, Americans saw pillars ofindustryand commerce acknowledge (or plead the Fifth Amendment about) thebetrayal of public trust and the abdication of personal and professionalresponsibility in fraudulent corporate misbehavior, with, in our view,dev-astating effect on human beings and the public's trust in investment mar-kets and investment safeguards. We believe that human dignity, worth,and potential and a work ethic focused on doing one's best were at risk inthe moral decay that toppled these corporations. In light of these verydifferent tragic occurrences and the numerous changes in how work isviewed and how careers develop, it seems wise to revisit the Americanwork ethic in search of personal empowerment and resilience, while re-maining mindful of the ramifications of the work ethic on business, soci-ety, and individuals. A condensed review of the work ethic and the issuesrelated to the work ethic is followed by attention to implications for coun-seling and research.</p><p>BackgroundThe work ethic in the United States is a construct ofwork that has a longhistory ofevolution, with roots in religious concepts from Biblical times,Calvinist and Protestant asceticism, and the Industrial Revolution (Hill,1996; Niles &amp; Harris-Bowlsbey, 2002; Peterson &amp; Gonzalez, 2000; Tilgher,1930). Major theoretical changes in religious views ofwork and the im-pact of those changes on societal perspectives across decades have af-fected the attitudes people hold toward work and its value. In addition,the American work ethic continues to evolve as a result ofcurrent eventsand their sociocultural impact. The goal of this article is to delineateparadigm shifts, especially recent ones, in the American work ethic as ameans of discerning and understanding implications for work and lifetoday, with special emphasis on how these considerations and implica-tions affect the work of career counselors.</p><p>Brief History of the Work EthicEvolution of the American work ethic may be viewed as a series of para-digm shifts or changes in the way people view work, beginning in biblicaltimes and undergoing developmental changes affected by various histori-cal and sociocultural events. The roots of the work ethic belong to theo-logical perspectives on work ranging from Scripture, most notably the</p><p>The Career Development Quarterly December 2003 Volume52 133</p></li><li><p>Book of Genesis in the Bible through the Protestant Reformation andCalvinism. The modern, secularized view of the work ethic can be tracedthrough Weber's (1904/1958) contribution of the theory of the Protes-tant work ethic, but Americans' perceptions of the theory have also beeninfluenced by changes brought about by developments in capitalism andindustrialization. In the last 100 years alone, the women's suffrage move-ment, desegregation, and an emphasis on cultural diversity represent "new"paradigm shifts that have certainly changed the perspective of work inthe United States. Over time, work has increasingly become what Weberdescribed as the compelling "ethos" in American culture and, arguably,in all human life. These paradigm shifts, ranging from religious perspec-tives on work to the secularization ofwork, have contributed to changingviews of work over time, continue today, and will continue to have aprofound impact on career counseling. Time will tell if the events andaftermath ofSeptember 11, 2001, and recent corporate scandals lead tocontinued major shifts in the work ethic.</p><p>Definition of Work EthicIn light of the impact that current events can and will likely have on thecontinued evolution of the work ethic, it seems critical for career counse-lors to reexamine the meaning of the work ethic. Because of its crucialimplications for society, business, and individuals in today's workplace,researchers have made many attempts to define and measure the con-temporary work ethic. A review of the general issues reflected in profes-sional literature concerning the work ethic suggests that research tendsto cluster around two primary aspects: its internal characteristics, as heldby individuals, and its external characteristics, as exhibited in work behav-iors. Furnham (1987) noted that, in a variety of ways, the work ethic hasbeen defined as a culturally socialized norm, a constellation ofpersonalitytraits or individual qualities, a dispositional variable of personality, or afacet ofinternal locus ofcontrol. In each of these definitions, it is possibleto see the constants of internal attitudes and external behaviors. For thepurposes of this article, the work ethic is considered in its most simplisticdefinition as a construct composed of two distinct parts: attitudes or valuesand the behaviors that outwardly reflect these attitudes or values.</p><p>In Weber's (1904/1958) theory of the Protestant work ethic, scholarsfind a popular construct around which a number ofscales have been devel-oped (a) to identity personality traits associated with the work ethic, (b) tomeasure the importance ofwork in the livesofindividuals, and (c) to explainand describebehaviors associated with both a and b (Mudrack, 1997;Wentworth&amp; Chell, 1997). The theory ofthe Protestant work ethic is Weber's attemptto define the individually held internal values and attitudes toward work.According to research on the Protestant work ethic, some traits associatedwith a strong work ethic include asceticism, integrity, independence, dili-gence, motivation, loyalty,and dependability (Hill, 1996; Kern, 1998). Thisfinding tends to reinforce the view that the work ethic is related to internallyheld values. For example, some research indicates that adherents to theProtestant work ethic viewmoney asan extrinsicreward that connotes achieve-ment ratherthan as a goal in and ofitself (Tang &amp; Gilbert, 1995). However,there seems to have been little study ofhow internal values might be affected</p><p>134 The Career Development Quarterly December 2003 Volume 52</p></li><li><p>by social or ethnic minority status or by significant social upheaval such asthat in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center or moderncorporate and accounting scandals. Understanding these issueswill requiremuch additional study and discussion.</p><p>As a dominant social norm in the United States, the "traditional" workethic of job commitment and achievement, of short-term pain for long-term gain, is often strongly held and highly valued. However, Brown(2000) noted that little direct research has emphasized the nature of thework ethic for members ofcultural and social minority groups. Typically,research has focused on the work ethic as a cultural norm principallyaffected by formative socialization experiences during childhood and ado-lescence. A moral value is placed on the worth ofwork, and this attitudeis internalized by children through experiencing and observing the atti-tudes and actions of family and peers at work (Brown, 2000; Hill, 1996;Hill &amp; Petty, 1995). Cultural values certainly have an impact on indi-vidual development, including career development (Carter, 1991); how-ever, because cultural values differ, the importance ofwork, among otherlife tasks, cannot be assumed universally to conform to the Protestantwork ethic. Therefore, it is essential to consider whether the currentconcept of the work ethic can be accurately, uniformly applied to allindividuals in the "salad bowl" of the United States today.</p><p>Research focused on relationships between an internal locus ofcontrol(perceived control over life events) and the Protestant work ethic alsoyields interesting data and perspectives (Mudrack, 1997; Mudrack &amp;Mason, 1995; Vodanovich, Weddle, &amp; Piotrowski, 1997). Internal locusof control has been studied as one method of conceptualizing and ex-plaining how some individuals are more likely than others to exhibit posi-tive attitudes toward work. In relation to work, individuals with an inter-nallocus ofcontrol can be deemed likely to believe that success or failurein work is due to individual efforts, rather than socioeconomic status,events, luck, or other external factors. Several studies have found a posi-tive correlation between internal locus of control and a high Protestantwork ethic (Kanter &amp; Mirvis, 1989; Mudrack, 1997). Whether an inter-nallocus of control can be affected by tragic and far-reaching effects ofthe attack on the World Trade Center and other current events remainsto be seen; however, the initial shock and sobering aftermath of theseevents certainly revealed a national sense ofvulnerability and a new andconstant need for individual and national vigilance in everyday tasks.</p><p>Weber's (1904/1958) well-known viewofchanges in the economic struc-ture as related to paradigm shifts regarding work seems to have particu-lar relevance to the continuing evolution of the work ethic, especially inlight ofcurrent events. For example, the social effects of joblessness aloneare considerable, due, in part, to the value people place on work in Americansociety. Social effects of unemployment, for example, are correlated withhomelessness, spouse and child abuse, and alcoholism. In one longitudi-nal study ofthe effects of joblessness, sociologist M. Harvey Brenner (ascited in Tripett, 1982) found that a 1%increase in the national unemploy-ment figures was correlated with a 4.1 % increase in the suicide rate, aswell as with an increase in the homicide rate and increased admissions toboth state mental hospitals and prisons. Seen in this light, if work gives oris perceived to give an individual dignity, then not working removes an</p><p>The Career Development Quarterly December2003 Volume52 135</p></li><li><p>individual's dignity. The implications ofthis perspective are chilling in anera of the "temping" of the workforce through contract work and re-peated instances of involuntary unemployment (Bridges, 1994; Rifkin,1995). If an individual gets dignity from working, how can he or she haveany sense of dignity in unemployment, and how ironic and troubling isthis quandary in an era that has had many serial periods of involuntaryunemployment?</p><p>The Work Ethic TodayViewed from the combined historicaland theological perspectiveof Weber's(1904/1958) theory, it is possible to see how the modern work ethic hasevolved and how attributes and attitudes ofindividuals in work have beensecularized over time into the construct known as the work ethic. As hasbeen noted, the most common definitions of the work ethic tend to por-tray a person who values hard work and displays personal qualities ofhonesty, asceticism, industriousness, and integrity. However, some em-ployers suggest that it is becoming increasingly difficult to hire workerswho have these qualities (Hill, 1996; Weaver, 1997; Wentworth &amp; Chell,1997), and as noted, some scholars have contended that there is no uni-versal work ethic, especially for women and members of minority groups(Peterson &amp; Gonzalez, 2000), or more precisely that this dominant workethic is biased against and therefore hazardous to and disenfranchising ofwomen and members of minority groups. In response to these and simi-lar concerns, Rifkin (1995) and others have contended that the workethic in today's society continues to change, perhaps not necessarily forthe better.</p><p>Modern ideas of the work ethic might be best conceptualized as a kindofuneasy compromise. Implicit in the understanding ofthe work ethic iswhat might be perceived as a social contract consisting ofsome key prom-ises: the ability to afford both necessities and luxuries, the idea that anindividual's basic needs will be provided for, physical safety, economicgain, and psychological fulfillment. The compromise for individuals seemsto be that, if they work hard, honestly, and well, these benefits will un-doubtedly accrue (Rifkin, 1995). In other words, hard work pays off inthe long term; however, in the United States, as well as in the rest of theworld, economic turbulence, unemployment, underemployment, corpo-rate downsizing, and scandals in accounting and management, such asthose attributed to Enron, WoridCom, Tyco, and others in 2002, seemto at least threaten, if not invalidate, the old promises of the work ethic.Is the social contract dead?</p><p>In addition, Kanter and Mirvis (1989) discussed the concept ofan "en-titled" (p. 144) generation. In this perspective, earlier events in the twen-tieth century- such as increased education, baby boomers raised in af-fluence, industrial and technological progress, mass marketing, and agood economy-contributed to the development of a nation of peoplewho believe in being better off economically than their parents' genera-tion and who regard the good life as a kind of birthright (Albee, 1977).However, this perceived birthright may not be the reality for workers inthis decade, because victims of major corporate bankruptcies see theirjobs, pensions, and other aspects of this American dream vanish.</p><p>136 The Career Development Quarterly December 2003 Volume 52</p></li><li><p>Following this line ofthought, Yankelovich (1978) suggested the exist-ence of "New Breed Values," which are a partial result of the disparitybetween formerly held work values and the realities of modern work. Formany, the values of the 1950s and 1960s have been eroded as the appealof and the sense of intrinsic value in working have decreased. In the faceof the changing nature ofmodern employment, dramatically reduced jobstability, less emphasis on job and on family, and less personal fulfillment,younger workers and the increasing numbers of independent, contractworkers of all ages may not appreciate or embrace the incentives forwork that motivated their parents (Weaver, 1997; Wentworth &amp; Chell,1997). As noted earlier, incentives for work may also differ across cul-tures (Brown, 2000; Peterson &amp; Gonzalez, 2000). Apparently, althoughindividuals have, to some extent, withdrawn from emotional involvementin work, the new incentives may include an increasing number ofexternalmotivators, such as the demand for steady pay increases and fringe ben-efits to compensate for the lack of job appeal and leisure time. One sur-vey by Kanter and Mirvis (1989) forcibly demonstrated how the workethic has been changing...</p></li></ul>