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"Who doesn’t work doesn’t eat" – Soviet poster issued in Uzbekistan, 1920

Work ethic is a value based on hard work and diligence. It is also a belief in the moral benefit of work and its ability to enhance character. An example would be the Protestant work ethic. A work ethic may include being reliable, having initiative, or pursuing new skills.

Workers exhibiting a good work ethic in theory should be selected for better positions, more responsibility and ultimately promotion. Workers who fail to exhibit a good work ethic may be regarded as failing to provide fair value for the wage the employer is paying them and should not be promoted or placed in positions of greater responsibility.


Steven Malanga refers to "what was once understood as the work ethic—not just hard work but also a set of accompanying virtues, whose crucial role in the development and sustaining of free markets too few now recall.[1]

Max Weber quotes the ethical writings of Benjamin Franklin:

Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides. Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.[2]

Weber notes that this is not a philosophy of mere greed, but a statement laden with moral language. Indeed, Franklin claims that God revealed to him the usefulness of virtue.[3]

Many conservatives believe that laziness is morally wrong, even reprehensible, because one is not doing their share of the work and living off of the hard work of others, and for this reason oppose welfare programs.


Countercultural groups and communities, most notably freethinkers, have challenged these values in recent decades, characterizing them as submissive to authority and social convention, and not valuable in and of themselves, but only if it brings a positive result. An alternative perspective has arisen in recent years, suggesting that the work ethic is being subverted in a broader, more mainstream and more readily marketed-to proportion of society. This perspective has given rise to the phrase "work smart".

In the 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris in the UK and Elbert Hubbard in the US noted how "alienation" of workers from ownership of the tools of production and their work product was destructive of the work ethic because in the expanding firms of that era, the workers saw no point in doing more than the minimum.[citation needed]

The industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor revised the notion of work ethic to include giving up control over the work process to management so that the latter could study and "rationalize" the work process, and the notion of work ethic thereafter included acknowledgment of management control.

Marxists, and some non-Marxist sociologists[who?], think "work ethic" is not a useful sociological concept. They argue having a "work ethic" in excess of management's control doesn't appear rational in any mature industry where the employee can't rationally hope to become more than a manager whose fate still depends on the owner's decisions. The French Leftist philosopher André Gorz wrote:

"The work ethic has become obsolete. It is no longer true that producing more means working more, or that producing more will lead to a better way of life.

The connection between more and better has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet- unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact.

Neither is it true any longer that the more each individual works, the better off everyone will be. In a post-industrial society, not everyone has to work hard in order to survive, though may be forced to anyway due to the economic system. The present crisis has stimulated technological change of an unprecedented scale and speed: 'the micro-chip revolution'. The object and indeed the effect of this revolution has been to make rapidly increasing savings in labour, in the industrial, administrative and service sectors. Increasing production is secured in these sectors by decreasing amounts of labour. As a result, the social process of production no longer needs everyone to work in it on a full-time basis. The work ethic ceases to be viable in such a situation and workbased society is thrown into crisis."[4]

Others[who?] believe that the concept of "hard work" is meant to delude the working class into being loyal servants to the elite, and that working hard, in itself, is not automatically an honorable thing, but only a means to creating more wealth for the people at the top of the economic pyramid.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Whatever Happened to the Work Ethic?
  2. ^ Benjamin Franklin, Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One (1748), Italics in the original
  3. ^ Weber, Max The Protestant Ethic and "The Spirit of Capitalism" (Penguin Books, 2002) translated by Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells, pp.9-12
  4. ^ André Gorz, Critique of Economic Reason, Gallilé, 1989


  • Daniel T. Rodgers. The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978.

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