Why a New Reformation Is Needed in Our Approach to Work
"Work hard, and you shall be rewarded."
Would you be surprised to know that this mantra is not just a simple adage? It’s really informed by a deeply religious stance that originated during the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648).
Depending on who you are, its putative wisdom may sound inspiring or off-putting. Whatever the case, it’s important to see that its spiritual foundation informs the general Western attitude toward hard work.
It is, in short, the Protestant Work Ethic.
Nonetheless, while its emphasis on hard work, diligence, and personal responsibility has contributed to economic growth, it's also casting a long shadow on our collective well-being. In galvanizing the spirit for hard work, it is also deceptively corrosive on our mental and physical well-being.
To grasp the nuances of this double-edged sword and find corrective measures, it’s important to delve into the history of the Protestant Work Ethic and how it continues to shape our relationship with work today.
The Origin of the Protestant Work Ethic
The German sociologist, Max Weber (1864-1920), wrote his seminal The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) to provide an account of how the early capitalism of the 18th century transformed into its 20th century variety, which was marked by the increased use of methods to maximize the accumulation of wealth through surplus production and advanced techniques of industrialization.
If you think Weber is a Marxist in this focus, then you would be mistaken. His study offers a competing account of the rise of capitalism which does not derive from class interest but from the profoundly Protestant ethos that celebrated hard effort and work.
While his in-depth analysis is well worth reading in its own right, here are the key features of his argument.
(1) The Church Doors Are Closed
The Protestant focus on salvation without requiring the intermediary of the Church gave rise to questions as to how one could know that one was obeying God’s will. It used to be the priest who would act as the so-called gatekeeper for questions relating to saving one's soul.
The Reformation may have liberated the laity from this problem of authority and access; but it suffered from a new problem—namely, how to find spiritual validation as an individual who probably felt a bit asea in matters eschatological.
(2) The Sweat of They Brow
One criterion to help laypeople judge their own state was their relation to their work. John Calvin (1509-1564) reinvigorated the notion of vocation, or what was God’s calling to humankind in terms of an individual’s work. Find your vocation, work hard at it, and you’ll essentially be doing God’s work.
Complementary to this, Martin Luther (1483-1546) initiated a remarkable reversal of the traditional notion of good works, which are typically acts of charity and kindness. Such acts are no longer good works. They are merely a superficial display that cannot really attest to one's faith. Instead, good works via the Reformation are quite literally acts of being at work according to one’s vocation.
“Yet a Christian has need of none of these things [traditional good works] for justification and salvation, but in all his works he ought to entertain this view and look only to this object—that he may serve and be useful to others in all that he does; having nothing before his eyes but the necessities and the advantage of his neighbour. Thus the Apostle commands us to work with our own hands, that we may have to give to those that need.”
— Martin Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty (1520)
(3) The Ascetic Turn
What happens as a result of this shift of what comprises goodness is that work becomes the main means by which one can remain faithful.
Call this the “ascetic turn” of work; ascetic because work now occupies the role of being the spiritual means to salvation. If one practices work with discipline, dedication, and abstention from distractions, then one no longer needs the Church to mediate spiritual affairs.
Ah, the cult of work emerges, and the stakes only get elevated as Reformation thinkers play out the logical implications of the new Protestant Work Ethic.
(4) Wealth ≈ Salvation
With Calvinism, where no one can truly know if one is saved, success at one’s work can be an indication that one is favored by God. Success is an ambiguous term if there is no real way to measure it against failure.
Yet, as Weber argues, what we begin to see in the run-up to the early capitalism of the 18th century is that wealth becomes a very good gauge by which to measure success. Sound familiar?
After all and just to note, much of the classical economic think of the 18th century is preoccupied with not only the production, circulation, and conservation of wealth, but also what counts as surplus value and unearned income.
(5) Accumulation of Spirit
Accumulation of wealth therefore becomes both a sign that one is obeying God’s will and a means by which one can perpetuate good will through acts of charity; acts which are only possible because . . . well, one has quite a bit of wealth to donate!
(6) Early Capitalism and Rationalization
Capitalism erupts as the West becomes more interested in rational methods and structures. Narrowly read, Weber suggests that the old views and values of religion were slowly replaced during the 18th and 19th centuries with more formal ways of thinking and explaining. Think here, the Enlightenment and its focus on progress and scientific methods.
Yet, it’s not so much that religion gets replaced, as much as it is the case that religion takes a backseat to scientific and rational forms of analysis, explanation, and prediction.
In short: more efficient ways of accumulating wealth are dominant, not as pathways to salvation, but simply as an end in itself: capitalism = the accumulation of wealth.
Does the Protestant Work Ethic Still Exist Today?
We’re now quite far from the beginning of the 20th century when Weber put forward his original thesis. It would be an entirely different project to consider how capitalism is still driven by the roots of Protestantism, especially since scholars distinguish several phases of its transformation—e.g. late capitalism, credit capitalism, and global capitalism.
Our focus is instead on work.
One can say that the Protestant Work Ethic and modern workplace culture go hand-in-hand. Or to put it more bluntly: we don't have the modern work culture without the Protestant Work Ethic.
Here are three ways to think about this relationship.
(A) Hustle Culture
Hustle culture celebrates the Spartan-like effort to be continuously and relentlessly at work. Nothing valorizes one’s worth like prodigious and single-minded effort. And it doesn’t have to be at one job. Nothing epitomizes the comedic and tragic nature of this view when George W. Bush was speaking to a crowd in Omaha, Nebraska in 2005. A woman was in the middle of expressing belief in Bush’s economic policies by saying she worked three jobs. Bush interrupted:
“You work three jobs? Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that."
The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), anticipated this ironic turn when he described the age of “the worker” as one in which
“More and more, work enlists all good conscience on its side; the desire for joy already calls itself a “need to recuperate” and is beginning to be ashamed of itself.”
The Gay Science, #329
Perhaps also of interest:
(B) Is Work-Life Balance the Right Idea?
We often use the phrase “work-life balance” to express an ideal or goal. If only we could balance the two by finding the right job, or having our current job shift to something like flexible hours or a 4-day workweek.
But the phrase might also be a symptom of how bad our predicament is.
The fact that work and life are already separate and need to be brought together suggests that we’re fighting a losing battle.
Instead, we have to think of work and life by default as one holistic unit, not as two things we need to bring together. In other words, we need to begin with the premise that they are a unit, and not with the premise that they ought to be united.
Work and life are not like turning left or turning right directionally, actions which are mutually exclusive. Work and life ought to be mutually inclusive, things that occur at the same time.
Former outdoor executive, Josh Fairchild, puts it this way:
The tired phrase “work-life balance” could very well be the culprit of so much of our collective discontent. As is if work isn’t life and life isn’t work, and the two must be balanced upon the fulcrum of our mental health. From the janitor to the equity fund manager, it might be time to re-examine how the paradigm of a career in our capitalist society has swallowed what it means to be a human being.
(C) Confirmation Bias: To Work or Not to Work
Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek to confirm one’s preconceptions. In this case, the dominance of the Protestant Work Ethic is one in which we find ourselves measuring the value of others based on their relation to work.
Those who don’t work must be choosing not to; so they must be lazy.
He works hard, so he must be a good person.
She is wealthy, so she must be successful and hard-working.
Or, the one that is indirectly related to the topic of work but is too enticing to omit (it's more about the confirmation bias about how one views immigrants):
The immigrant is simultaneously lazy and stealing our jobs – otherwise known as, Schrödinger’s Immigrant.
Reforming the Protestant Work Ethic is no easy task. It pervades the Western social imagination, its forms of evaluation and judgment, and its language and rhetoric. And I would wager it is the presumption of most organizational models simply because there has not been another view or model cogently articulated and adopted.
We need a new reformation—one that rejects the valorization of relentless effort and instead embraces a holistic approach to life. It's time to honor our whole selves.
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About the Author
Todd Mei (PhD) is former Associate Professor of Philosophy whose PhD thesis examined Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He is currently a researcher and consultant in meaningful work and is founder of Philosophy2u. With over 20 years of experience in teaching, researching, and publishing in the philosophy of work and economics, existentialism, hermeneutics, and ethics, Todd enjoys bringing insight, innovation, and worklife revolution to organizations, businesses, and individuals.
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