The Work Ethic Reconsidered

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  • The Work Ethic ReconsideredAuthor(s): Rogene A. BuchholzSource: Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Jul., 1978), pp. 450-459Published by: Cornell University, School of Industrial & Labor RelationsStable URL: .Accessed: 24/06/2014 20:36

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    MANY scholars and other observers be- lieve that a basic change has taken

    place in American society with respect to the traditional beliefs held about work. The following quote is typical: We also believe that America-along with many other developed countries-is no longer dominated by the work ethic of the past, which stressed work for its own sake. It was this specific type of ideology, originally formulated and diffused by Calvin and his followers, that provided the social-psychological basis for the factory discipline necessary to carry out the ex- treme division of labor of the industrial age. But today we are entering upon a post-industrial society and, as the President said on September 1, 1971, the American worker has new needs.'

    This study identifies five sets of common beliefs about work by factor analyzing questionnaire responses made on a five-point Likert type scale to a series of belief statements. Questionnaires returned by 366 blue- and white-collar workers from the Pitts- burgh area and 72 union officials from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area were subsequently analyzed. The traditional work ethic beliefs-stressing the values of individualism and hard work-received the least support in all occupations surveyed, from hourly un- ion workers to managers and professionals. The belief system winning the strongest support was the "humanistic," stressing the value of work that is per- sonally fulfilling, and intermediate levels of support were shown for the three systems stressing the value of leisure, organizational life, and Marxist-related views.

    Rogene A. Buchholz is Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Washington University. This study was supported by a grant from the College of Business Administration Research Committee at the University of Minnesota. The author is indebted to Professor Jack Flagler, Director of the Labor Education Service at the University of Minnesota, for his help in designing the sample.-EDITOR

    'Harold L. Sheppard and Neal Q. Herrick, Where Have All the Robots Gone? (New York: The Free Press, 1972), p. xiii.

    This conclusion was based on a survey of 1,533 employed workers, conducted for the Department of Labor in 1969 by the Univer- sity of Michigan Survey Research Center. Because a large proportion of the workers surveyed said that the nature of their jobs was more important to them than security or pay, the authors of the study concluded that the nature of work itself is foremost among the causes of worker discontent. They found elements of autonomy, opportunity for per- sonal growth, and interesting work to be more highly correlated than security or pay with overall job satisfaction.2

    This inference about a basic change in the American work ethic can also be found in one volume of a recent series of research reports dealing with problems related to the work ethic, such as productivity, the four- day workweek, changes in blue-collar oc- cupations and attitudes, and jobs for the future.3 Nonetheless, the foreword to the book states that the work ethic is declining and ties this conclusion directly to the alienation and discontent of the American worker.

    This book explores the widening problem of making people want to work. It seems that the old American work ethic may be failing, or at least slipping, and there is no consensus whether this is for better or worse. . . . As portrayed in a host of official studies, press findings, and in- dustry reports, the increasingly familiar "blue collar blues" of bored, alienated assem-bly-line workers have spread to a white collar world of dull, unchallenging jobs. There is fear that

    21bid., p. xiv. 3Editorial Research Reports oil the Amlerican Wl'ork

    Ethic (Washington: Congressional QUarterly, Inc., 1973).

    Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 31, No. 4 (July 1978). ? 1978 by Cornell University. 0019-7939/78/3 104-0450$00.75


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    worker discontent is so pervasive it may under- mine the nation's social and economic structure.4

    Most of these studies fail, however, to draw firm conclusions about the nature and direction of such changes. Their con- clusions about the work ethic are based primarily on empirical data regarding dis- satisfaction with jobs and may confuse such dissatisfaction with lack of belief. People can, after all, be dissatisfiedwith the job they are presently holding and yet still believe that work is an important and virtuous ac- tivity.

    Thus, there is a need for studies that deal more directly with the work ethic itself and measure its strength relative to other beliefs about work.5 This point has been made by John D. Long, who argued that the lack of such information makes it difficult to draw authoritative conclusions about the relative strength of various ethical systems oper- ating in the United States today.6

    Furthermore, there have been no studies of occupational differences on this subject. Some studies have shown differences in perceptions of worker priorities and sources of dissatisfaction to exist among manage- ment, international union officials, and shop stewards.7 Other studies have dealt with the value systems of managers and un- ion leaders and have come to conflicting conclusions regarding basic similarities or

    4Ibid., p. 1. For other sources that reach similar con- clusions see Judson Gooding, The Job Revolution (New York: Walker and Co., 1972); Special Task Force to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Work in America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1973); and Dale Tarnowieski, The Changing Success Ethic: An AMA Survey Report (New York: AMACOM, 1973).

    5The central life interest study of Robert Dubin and others is related to this study but really asks a different question; it deals with an individual's interest in his present job rather than with his concept of work, and focuses on behavior rather than beliefs. See Robert Dubin, Joseph E. Champoux, and Lyman W. Porter, "Central Life Interests and Organizational Commit- ment of Blue Collar and Clerical Workers," Ad- ministrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Septem- ber 1975), pp. 411-21.

    6John D. Long, "The Protestant Ethic Reexamined," in William D. Evans and Robert A. Wagley, eds., Business and Society 74-75 (Morristown, N.J.: General Learning Press, 1974), pp. 8-15.

    7Sheppard and Herrick, Where Have All the Robots Gone?

    differences between these two groups.8 None of these studies, however, have dealt in a direct way with the work ethic in relation to other beliefs about work.

    This study attempts to fill this gap through the development of a conceptual framework that allows beliefs about work to be measured in a multidimensional scheme and the application of this measure to a full range of occupations, including union of- ficials.

    Conceptual Framework Since the work ethic is a tightly integrated

    set of beliefs that form a system and fit into a coherent pattern,9 this kind of study requires the measurement of belief systems. There are several models of belief systems in the literature,'0 but the concept employed in this study will rely primarily on the work of Rokeach and the model he has developed. According to Rokeach, "the belief system is conceived to represent all the beliefs, sets, ex- pectancies, or hypotheses, conscious or un- conscious, that a person at a given time accepts as true of the world he lives in."" Beliefs constitute assumptions about the world a person lives in, the validity of which he does not question, nor need he do so in the ordinary course of events. The system

    8George W. England, Naresh C. Agarwal, and Robert E. Trerise, "Union Leaders and Managers: A Com- parison of Values Systems," Industrial Relations, Vol. 10, No. 2 (May 1971), pp. 211-26; E. Wight Bakke, Mutual Survival, The Goal of Unions and Manage- ment (New Haven: Yale University, New Haven Labor and Management Center, 1947); and Edwin L. Miller, "Job Attitudes of National Union Officials: Percep- tions of the Importance of Certain Personality Traits as a Function of Job Level and Union Organizational Structure," Personnel Psychology, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Winter 1966), pp. 395-410.

    9Rogene A. Buchholz, "Beliefs About Work: A Factor Analytic Model and Multivariate Analysis of the Pres- ent American Concept of Work," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1974), pp. 35-53.

    "0See Ward Goodenough, Cooperation in Change (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1963), and Robert A. Hahn, "Understanding Beliefs: An Essay on the Methodology of the Statement and Analysis of Belief Systems," Current Anthropology, No. 14 (1973), pp. 215-28.

    "1Milton Rokeach, The Open and Closed M1ind (New York: Basic Books, 1960), p. 33.

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    into which beliefs fit performs the function of organizing the world of ideas, people, and authority in a way that makes sense to that individual and allows a person to function in ways he or she may consider effective.'2

    A search of the work of scholars who have written extensively on this subject revealed the existence of several distinct and clearly definable contemporary belief systems. These systems, each found in many separate works, were all empirically measurable. For purposes of this study, the following five belief systems about the nature of work- each thought to constitute a set of unique assumptions about this kind of human activity-were formulated:'3

    The humanistic belief system. Work is the way in which man discovers himself and ful- fills himself as a human being. Thus, in- dividual growth and development on the job are more important than the output of the work process and what happens to peo- ple in the workplace is more important than productivity. Work must be redesigned to allow man to become fully human and reach higher stages of development rather than to stress fulfillment of material, low-order needs and wants. Work is an indispensible human activity that cannot be eliminated but must be made meaningful and fulfill- ing for individuals to allow them to discover their potential as human beings.'4

    Marxist-related beliefs. Productive activi- ty or work is basic to human fulfillment, for without work man cannot provide for his physical needs nor can he maintain contact with the deepest part of himself. Through work man creates the world and himself and keeps in touch with his fellow human beings. As presently organized, however, work in the United States does not allow man to fulfill himself as a creative and social individual because the work of the average person mainly benefits the ownership

    "2Milton Rokeach, Beliefs, Attitudes and Values (San Francisco: Jersey-Bass, Inc., 1969), pp. 11-12.

    '3The references that follow each belief system are in- tended as examples of the literature searched and are not an exhaustive list of the sources on which the systems are based.

    "4Erik Fromm, The Revolution of Hope (New York: Bantam, 1968), and Abraham H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality (New York: Harper & Row, 1954).

    classes of society rather than the worker himself. Workers are exploited and alienated from their productive activity. They should have more of a say as to what goes on in corporations and exercise more control over the workplace.'5

    The organizational belief system. Work takes on meaning only as it affects the group or the organization for which one works and as it contributes to one's status and rise in the organizational hierarchy. Work is not so much an end in itself, but a means valued only for how well it serves group interests and contributes to one's success in the organization. Success is more dependent on one's ability to conform and adapt to group norms than it is the result of individual ef- fort and accomplishment. In other words, success in the organization is more depend- ent on the ability to get along and "play the game" than it is on individual produc- tivity.'6

    The leisure ethic. Work has no meaning in itself; one only finds meaning in leisure. Therefore jobs cannot be made meaningful or fulfilling. Work is a human necessity to produce goods and services and enable one to earn the money to buy them. Human ful- fillment is found in leisure activities where one has a choice regarding the use of his time, can find pleasure in pursuing ac- tivities of interest to him personally, and can become creative and involved. Thus the fewer hours one can spend working and the more leisure time he has available, the better.'7

    The work ethic. Work is good in itself and bestows dignity on a person. Everyone

    15T.B. Bottomore, Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956), and David Caute, Essential Writings of Karl Marx (New York: Collier, 1967).

    '6John Kenneth Galbraith, The New IDndustrla I State (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1967); William H. Whyte, The Organization ManI (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956); C. Wright Mills, White Collar (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951); Vance Packard, The Pyramid Climbers (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962).

    '7Daniel Bell, Work and its Discontenits (New York: League for Industrial Democracy, 1970); Sebastian De Grazia, Of Time Work and Leisure (New York: Twen- tieth Century Fund, 1962): and Kenneth Roberts, Leisure...