The Work Ethic Still Matters

After studying the work ethic for the past 40 years, my most profound and enduring conclusion is that the work ethic matters. Our attitudes about work and whether it is important make a huge difference in how we live our lives. People who espouse the work ethic have a greater enthusiasm for living and a higher quality of life.  Those who take pride in their work and feel an internalized commitment to doing it well find greater meaning and fulfillment in life and they are better employees. Job satisfaction and productivity are significantly influenced by an employee’s work values.  Although some jobs are more pleasant than others, job satisfaction is determined more by the worker than by the job.

Work refers to any activity that provides a useful product or service to your family or society.  Thus, work is not limited to paid employment; it also includes all of the service one renders in the home, in the community, and in volunteer organizations. Certainly no one would disparage mothers who perform endless child-rearing tasks by saying they don’t work simply because they are not employed outside the home. After revising my 1980 book on The American Work Ethic, I have reached the same conclusions: the work ethic still matters.

When I began studying this topic in 1973, I was impressed with the vitality of the work ethic in early America; our country was built on the foundation of diligence, perseverance, thrift, and dedication. These values were strongly endorsed as the only acceptable way to live in the eyes of God and the only sure pathway to financial success. The data we collected in 1975 indicated that outstanding workers still accepted the work ethic, although there were substantial age differences—young people were much less inclined to accept the moral importance of work, although they still believed in taking pride in their work.  The results also demonstrated how the values of adult employees are primarily developed by early childhood experiences; although on-the-job experiences also contribute to the development of the work ethic. Managers can help employees acquire positive work values through the principles of good supervision.

Much has been written about the differences in attitudes and values of people born during different time periods; Boomers (born between 1944 and 1964) are expected to think and act much differently than Millenials (born after 2000). On one hand, the differences between these groups are substantial and these classifications provide meaningful explanations for why each group responds differently to such things as supervision, work schedules, training, and technology. But in a larger sense, there have always been profound differences between older and younger workers.  Every generation faces the challenge of socializing the next generation; concern about the carefree values of younger workers is not something new.  Millenials will always be Millenials, but they will not always think and act like Millenials do now.

The most disturbing trend in today’s work ethic is a growing entitlement mentality. Increasingly, people seem to believe that they are entitled to rights and rewards that they have not earned, but somehow deserve. Evidence of this change can be seen from the responses of job applicants to the Employee Dependability Profile, one of our pre-employment tests, as well as in attitudes expressed toward healthcare and government assistance. Until about five years ago, the general feeling was that no one had a right to health care for two reasons: first, there was no one who had a corresponding obligation to provide it and, second, people were responsible to support themselves. During the past five years, however, an increasing number of people, especially students and young employees, think everyone has a right to health care and it is society’s responsibility to provide it.

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The growing acceptance of government welfare is an interesting phenomenon; people, who at one time criticized government programs, such as Social Security and unemployment compensation, quickly changed their opinions when they began receiving money from them. In general, people who receive money from the government tend to think they are entitled to it regardless of what it is for or why it is given.  They also tend to think the money should continue indefinitely and they are very disturbed by anyone who suggests that the amounts should be limited or reduced.

This entitlement mentality is clearly inconsistent with the work ethic that was preached in early America. Care for the poor and needy was the not the responsibility of government, but of people who were expected to feel compassion and kindness. The character ethic that built America taught the virtues of self-reliance, integrity, empathy, and service. People were commended for working hard and providing for themselves and their families. They were also commended for a willingness to help others who needed assistance. These were important attributes of good character.

Looking back over the past 40 years reinforces the value of work and the importance of the work ethic.  Technological advances have significantly increased our productivity and allowed us to produce more in less time.  But these advances have not eliminated the need for diligent work; countless opportunities still abound for building our neighborhoods, cleaning our communities, teaching youth, strengthening families, and developing our personal talents. Being actively engaged in good works still contributes to personal happiness and a better society; the work ethic still matters.  $

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