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In Theory: Has the economy damaged the work ethic?

April 26, 2013

Sociologist Max Weber first advanced the idea of a Protestant work ethic in 1914. A recent study suggests that not only does this ethic exist, it can make the effects of unemployment worse for Protestants than for non-Protestants.

The Dutch survey, which used data from 150,000 people in 82 countries traditionally identified as Protestant — including the U.S., U.K., South Africa, Germany and others — found that while unemployment has a negative effect on everyone, it affects Protestants more, up to 40% more in some cases. Dutch economist Dr. André van Hoorn, who led the study, said, "We found that the work ethic does exist, and that individual Protestants and historically Protestant societies appear to value work much more than others." Cary Cooper, professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University in England, said, "People who had followed the work ethic for years found themselves without a job [after the 2008 crash]; all the sacrifices – working long hours, not seeing the kids – had not worked out…. We may find that's damaged the work ethic and people are putting less focus on work and more on a balance between work and the rest of their life."

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Q: What are your thoughts on the study's findings?

If "modernism" is the thought that greater work and persistence yield greater positive results in terms of financial achievement and career satisfaction, then "post-modernism" means a critical look at modernism. Post-modernism suggests that modernism has not delivered all that it was predicted to achieve. Post-modernism posits that no single way of living or being is perfectly suited for every single being. Not every young woman today wants to get married and have children. People can change everything, including their sex, and go on to live productive, respectable lives.

Many people no longer think that 30 years in the workforce doing the same job, retiring and depending on a pension and a 401(k) plan is the only American way. My nephew has a master's degree from an Ivy League business school. Yet he left a Fortune 500 company and is perfectly happy managing a hip-hop Christian radio podcast. And of course some people have careers that have left them. For instance, with digital advances, many Angelenos who have worked long hours for two decades in post-production and other ancillary areas of television and film are seeing their jobs shipped to other states, or even other countries.

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