In Theory: Has the economy damaged the work ethic?

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." 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.

In an effort to survive, more and more people are stepping away from their original training and reinventing themselves. While the money may not be as good, some are finding that with re-education comes a new and more compassionate way of looking at "the other," because thanks to the economy, they have themselves been cast out and have become "the other."

Self-expression and tolerance of others seem to be approaching a par with adhering to any party line. What it means for us as pastors is having church members who feel free to question the validity of everything, including the sanctity and the traditionalism of the Scriptures.

Many may reason thus: Christians have supported slavery, homophobia, the absence of adequate gun control, war, and insane wealth at the expense of others. What is moral, ethical or good about that?

Pastors are called to help people refine and deepen their core values as they contemplate new ways of looking at spirituality. For us pastors, listening is a marvelous tool. Sharing stories of other people's survival and pulling together as family through change can also be very heartening.

The Rev. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel


The findings don't surprise me, and I believe they'd be the same for Catholic, Orthodox and other Christians as well. The Bible's many references to work and its value naturally have great impact upon how believers perceive it. From the very beginning God created us to work. "Six days you shall labor and do all your work," says Exodus 20:9, while we rest on the seventh to worship and honor God. Colossians 3:23-24 ascribes divine meaning to every kind of work we do: "Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.... It is the Lord Christ whom you serve."

We use a portion of the profits from our work to give to others who have need. We are encouraged to pursue work as a principle of wisdom: "In all labor there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty" (Proverbs 14:23). For these reasons it's easy to take it hard when we can't find work, but Scripture also encourages us that God is the one who provides us the work we need. Every morning in the wilderness he provided manna for Israel, but they were required to go out of the camp and gather it. That's a very fit illustration of God's provision of work and our responsibility to find it.

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church


André van Hoorn goes to great lengths in his studies to support the idea that the Protestant work ethic still exerts force today. He makes a great number of assumptions to discount the effects of literacy, cognitive practices and historical social development on how people react to unemployment. While Weber's theory about the Protestant work ethic was popular 100 years ago, I suspect most people today would disagree with that old idea.

People suffer negative effects from unemployment based on personal experiences and societal reactions to the roles they play. Religious belief and religious influences in society certainly play a role in everyone's life and response to employment and unemployment. But, much more is going on in our cities and countries than just historical Protestant beliefs and practices. Individuals within Protestant countries differ more from each other than they do from some individuals in Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Hindu, Islamic or atheist countries. Some researchers state that literacy is a better explanation of the differences in the societies that Weber credited to the Protestant work ethic. I doubt the idea that Protestants and historically Protestant societies value work much more than others.

Steven Gibson


I studied Protestant Work Ethics in seminary, and the root was most evident in a segment of Protestantism that went viral. The view was that God blesses the faithful and the proof to knowing if one was among the blessed was success, so Calvinist Protestants (early Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Pilgrims, etc.) worked their tails off to prove it. They weren't earning salvation; that's impossible. They were trying to evidence their membership among the saved. That was laudable but misplaced, and yet it led to U.S. world power.

While serving as youth minister in a church descended from such, I met furloughed missionaries whose ministries were south of the border. They believed that had Protestants settled there, it would rival America today.

Yes, Protestants have an impelling work ethic, and that's centered on the document that fomented the Protestant Reformation: the Bible. God says "if you don't work, you don't eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10). So with no success imperative, Mexico finds itself today with corruption, drug cartels, half-population poverty, and fleeing workers seeking the American Dream.

God created Adam and directed him to work The Garden. When I tend mine, I reap the most vegetables, and America's settlement was driven by desire to produce. Today, if we lag in technology or military we sense corporate failure. It's our heritage; we should work to excel. But as the ethic fades, illegal aliens get advantages that citizens can't afford with moderate earnings, and our unemployed citizens are encouraged to stay that way. Have more kids; get more government support. Nobody "must" work because they get housing and food regardless, and we Protestants sit amazed, with nary the benefit of indigents and foreigners; we lose our houses and owe our souls to the company store, but the unemployed and non-citizen pay their bills with scrip and food stamps for which we're taxed to compensate. I guess I'm negatively affected.

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church


I'm pretty sure the most devastating aspect of unemployment is the inability to financially support oneself and one's family. For most people this is the overwhelming concern regardless of religious belief or cultural influence.

I would have more confidence in the study if I knew which, if any, non-Protestant countries were examined for comparison. Is the work ethic of historically Protestant cultures stronger than that of Japan, Singapore and China? And are the people in those countries less distressed by unemployment? I doubt it.

In the United States, it's difficult to isolate the influence of Calvinism from capitalism's promise of upward mobility. Millions of immigrants of many faiths have proven that those who work hard and prepare can climb the economic ladder.

There may be a lingering Calvinist influence that accounts for the researchers' conclusions. However, I believe that the desire to climb that ladder, to earn more money and achieve higher status — in other words, materialism — is the real force that drives the work-focused lives of most Americans today.

The religious message in this is that materialism is the antithesis of Christ's message. Jesus didn't condemn wealth per se, but he did condemn those who make it their god.

I would never wish unemployment, and the terrible problems that it brings, on anyone. However, if the recession compels us to reassess our lives and realize that God, family and neighborly love are more important than material gain, then perhaps some good may come of it.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta


Unemployment is a serious problem and it is good that we are examining it through a moral lens. This study shows that in predominantly Protestant countries, people out of work all experience the increased negative effects of unemployment, no matter what their religious beliefs.

At the core of Protestantism is the belief in salvation through grace alone. Weber theorized that because people have doubts that God will come through for them in the end, they try to earn redemption.

Earthly success becomes conflated with the expectation of heaven after death.

Currently around 12 million people are unemployed in the United States. Recently California's 9.4% unemployment rate was reported as good news. These statistics are depressing enough, but actual unemployment is much higher. The so-called long-term unemployed, "long-term" being six months in some instances, aren't included in official unemployment rates, for instance.

Meanwhile, the financial industry big-shots who imploded our economy and destroyed all the jobs are still raking in major bucks and not a one has been brought to justice. Many big corporations (I'm not picking on small businesses here) are doing fine, sitting on piles of cash while creating few new jobs. The recovery for workers, who are also our taxpayers and consumers, is weak, at best.

The shapers and beneficiaries of this unfairness are the ones who should be feeling guilty. Maybe their bad consciences will lead them to an ethic that works for the rest of us. To the unemployed, I extend my sympathy and support and recommend Luke 12:27.

Roberta Medford


The Protestant work ethic is deeply embedded in our American culture. The all-American hero is a self-made, self-reliant, often underprivileged individual who rises to prominence through persistent labor and self-denial. Our language is fraught with work-ethic slogans such as, "a penny saved is a penny earned," and "the early bird gets the worm." Several years ago an investment firm announced, "We make money the old-fashioned way. We earn it," an obvious work-ethic reference.

Can the Protestant work ethic lead to an imbalance of a person's priorities? I think there's no doubt that it can and often does, especially when a person seeks unobtainable worth and fulfillment from work. No work-related achievement or success can accomplish this.

But work is actually God's idea. When God first created humans, He commissioned a fulfilling work ethic for them. They were to be creative, productive, procreative and have dominion — not domination — over everything on Earth. We had a better idea and went our own way. God forecast that as a result, we would toil incessantly to be productive and our efforts would never be fully satisfying.

The Protestant work ethic goes off track by emphasizing the trivialized toil of work that is disconnected from our original God-given commission. Jesus Christ commands us to reestablish the kingdom of God on Earth by redirecting our work ethic back to that original commission.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church


My thoughts about the study of the Protestant work ethic are that it is an outlook that is very familiar to me as someone of my age, gender and religious cohort, and that I am a product of its belief system, for better or worse. My family believed in work before play, and that principle remains a part of who I am today, sometimes to my detriment. The rewards built into the system were definitely an incentive, and I became an over-achiever at an early age. It was not something that I consciously chose, just something that was expected.

The advantages of such an attitude for many of us were in academic achievements in school, college and advanced degrees and job opportunities. But the downside of the Protestant work ethic was that life became a series of goals to achieve, not opportunities to experience. That is not to say that there were not some fun times, but they were always tempered by the need to meet expectations. And it is probably the reason I have retired from meaningful, long-term jobs twice — but am still working. I guess failing retirement doesn't seem like such a bad thing to me.

But I think I probably need to work on a better balance in my life between work and play. I should learn to say "no" to putting more things on my plate and learn to relax more. But I am not sure exactly how to do that. As the saying goes, "It is hard to teach and old dog new tricks." But perhaps there is still hope for me yet. Maybe I should learn to practice the shirk ethic. Hmmm.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta

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