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It is no accident that the downsizing of the 1980s and 1990s has been accompanied by a resurgence in the propaganda aimed at reinforcing the work ethic.
The wave of retrenchments and sackings in English-speaking countries has been accompanied by growing inequalities in pay between executives and ordinary workers and an increasing substitution of full-time permanent jobs with insecure, temporary and part-time jobs. These jobs pay low wages and have few of the benefits or protections usually associated with full-time permanent work.
Employers have been left with the problem of motivating workers in restructured workplaces, where hard work does not lead to a secure, well-paid job.
Associated with the downsizing and the temporary jobs is a massive increase in the number of people relying on welfare. Welfare has long been characterised as eroding the work ethic. Governments and employers fear that a life on welfare, despite the low level of benefits and constant work tests, might seem to be a more desirable option than working in a mind-numbingly boring, poorly paid job.
Governments in Australia, the UK, Canada and the US are all now implementing welfare reforms aimed at maintaining the work ethic of the unemployed. Long-term welfare entitlements have been abolished and increasingly sole mothers and disabled people are being expected to work. The requirement to work for benefits has been introduced to ensure the unemployed do not loose their work ethic and to make unemployment a less desirable option than a low-paying job.
The values associated with the work ethic cause people to be judged by what work they do and how hard they work. The work ethic leads to a belief that those who are wealthy have achieved their success through hard work and those who are poor deserve to be, because they have failed to make the most out of the opportunities that are available. In a work-dominated society, happiness must be earned through hard work. The stress and/or boredom associated with work are the price one has to pay in order to attain happiness.
The work ethic and the respect given to the wealthy, who are supposed icons of hard work, is not inherently natural nor inevitable but has been promoted and reinforced by those who benefit most from it, through preaching, propaganda, public relations, education and socialisation. Since the early Protestant leaders preached the work ethic, work has come to be seen as an essential characteristic of being human and work, no matter how tedious it is, is generally considered to be better than no work. Work provides people with a sense of belonging, a place in the order of things. Work has become central to defining the identity of modern citizens.
Today the work ethic is taught in homes and schools. The desire of employers for well-trained employees with a good work ethic has put pressure on schools to promote a work ethic in their students and to instil work values such as punctuality, discipline and obedience.
Increasingly schools parallel the workplace in organisational structure and in their expectation that children work hard. Those children that appear to "work hard" get better grades.
But is the work ethic really appropriate for the 21st Century. It is based on assumptions and premises that are fast becoming outdated. Those pushing the work ethic today claim that every person needs to work, and work hard, if productivity is to increase. All progress, it is argued, depends on increasing productivity.
The fallacy of this assumption is becoming clear as fewer and fewer people are required in the workforce and more and more of the consumer products that we are urged to buy add little to the quality of our lives. The escalating production and consumption, that is necessary to provide most people with jobs, is degrading the environment at rates that undermine any improvements that can be achieved through technological and legislative change.
Employment has become such a priority that much environmental destruction is justified merely on the grounds that it provides jobs. And people are so concerned to keep their jobs that they are willing to do what their employers require of them even if they believe it is wrong or environmentally destructive.
The social benefit of having the majority of able-bodied people in a society working hard all week goes unquestioned, particularly by those who work hardest. Few people today can imagine a society that does not revolve around work.
We need to find new ways of judging and valuing each other that are not work and income dependent. It would be a sad world indeed if producing goods for consumption was the highest goal to which humans could aspire.