In the West, the work ethic is drawn from the influence of the Christian religion and from the Bible which says,
"Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. "— (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).
"Let no debt remain outstanding . . ." —(Romans 13:8).
As may be seen, this ethic places a premium upon independence, privacy (both for oneself and for others), prudence, sobriety and respect. Work is one of the principal means to these ends. The psychologist David C McClelland locates an individual and cultural trait which he labelled "the achievement motive" which is displayed as a drive for efficiency. This trait can be measured in individuals by psychological tests and it can be located in past and present cultures by examining their literature and folklore. McClelland claims that this trait is encouraged by certain types of family life and child raising which emphasise responsibility, capability and discipline. The appearance of this "efficiency" motif in the culture seems to precede all manner of cultural achievements from Classical Greece to the Italian Renaissance and the industrial revolution. Certain minority groups such as Jews have carried this trait in a strong form. The work ethic has been in decline in western society since the Second World War.
Hard work is productive, productivity creates prosperity and prosperity negates poverty and contributes to independence. The best means of welfare is self-support - personal independence. This can only be achieved and maintained through work (except where there is very great inherited wealth). Independence in turn promotes personal responsibility and self respect and makes it possible to support dependents and to be generous and beneficent to needy persons. The welfare state lives on the back of the independent individual (through taxes).
Without a commitment to work there is poverty or welfare dependency, and personal responsibility and self-respect are undermined. A transition to a social emphasis upon a leisure lifestyle and a dislike for work (and consequent laziness, slack-handedness, inattention, sloven and welfare bludging) must diminish the productivity of a society. It must also increase the taxation burden which the welfare state places upon the industrious person. Together these factors reduce the growth of wealth, decrease independency, and therefore also, undermine personal responsibility and self-respect. Other social evils, such as a rising crime rate, will follow.
One myth which has arisen is that the work ethic may help to promote unemployment. It is argued that the introduction of shorter working hours and early retirement may help to reduce unemployment. In fact, these methods can only succeed in sharing unemployment around. The person who works a four day week instead of five days is unemployed for one day. His level of prosperity must fall. If he is paid for five days while only working for four, the cost of unemployment is simply transferred to the employer as a cost of employment. This must make employment less worthwhile to employers and will therefore cause unemployment to increase. More work, on the contrary, generates more production and more wealth. The more wealthy a person is, the greater the proportion of his income that he will invest. More wealth means more investment, which means more employment (although an inflated wage structure may weaken this effect).
The fact remains, then, that work produces wealth, which must benefit not only the individual but the whole economy. Indeed, it must be said that the widely accepted notion of retirement while still fit to work (especially when that means dependency upon a state pension) is inconsistent with the work ethic. It may be noted that retirement often has a detrimental effect (where continuing activity has not been planned) upon a person's morale, health and financial security.
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