At the heart of the work ethic is the idea that work is worthwhile for reasons other than the rewards it brings in terms of pay, products and profit. The work ethic gives work an intrinsic value:
Dedicated work is considered a mark of good character.... For people who accept this belief, dedicated work is a positive virtue, much like honesty or loyalty. Implicit in this belief is an ethical demand that a person ought to be diligent and industrious.
The rise of modern capitalism represented a complete turn around in commonly held beliefs and attitudes about work from those held in previous times: “It required the almost total dismantling of the mediaeval and classical system of thinking, their concepts, understandings and perceptions. In order to change the world it was necessary to change men’s understanding of it.”
Once the capitalist spirit took hold it was hard to resist or turn back. When businesspeople became capitalists, those in the same business either had to follow suit and give up their leisurely and relaxed way of doing business, or go out of business because they couldn’t compete with the ever expanding capitalist entrepreneurs.
The religious roots of the spirit of capitalism “died out slowly, giving way to a utilitarian worldliness.” By the time the United States were being settled by the Puritans, the Protestant work ethic had become a secular ethic, part of the culture of the new immigrants.
Nevertheless, their ministers continued to preach about the importance of industriousness and hard work as part of a righteous life: “Protestant ministers found that sermons stressing diligence and the divine justification of material wealth were well received by those reaping the benefits of hard work.” They gave weekly sermons promoting the “gospel of work”. Modern churches continue to reinforce the message of the value of work.
The emphasis on work as a religious calling was gradually superseded by a materialistic quest for social mobility and material success. This success-oriented work ethic encouraged ambition, hard work, self-reliance, and self-discipline and held out the promise that such effort would be materially rewarded. Rather than emphasising religious virtues, the revised work ethic focused on character: “Desirable character traits included perseverance, industry, frugality, sobriety, punctuality, reliability, thoroughness, and initiative.” If one had these character traits then one would be successful.
Secular institutions have taken over from the churches in preaching the virtues of work:
The identification of labour and enterprise with some sort of higher service remains with us—less God-centred, but still associated with notions of ‘good behaviour’. Our major political, industrial and cultural institutions are permeated with the work ethic—party leaderships preach the message; unions and management display solidarity on the issue.
However this identification is not just a remnant of earlier times, it is something that was reinforced in the centuries following the Protestant Reformation by those who had most to gain from such attitudes, in particular employers and businesspeople who profitted from a hardworking workforce.