Hard yakka: what’s the work ethic really worth?

It’s time to look closer at the value behind the work ethic. Julian Smith / AAP

Accepting the Democratic nomination earlier this month, President Barack Obama said he was inspired by the spirit of “the auto worker who won the lottery after his plant almost closed, but kept coming to work every day”.

He reflected on the workers he had met who “feared they would never build another American car” and how many were back to work in the reinvented auto industry.

Like many who have gone before him, Obama appeals to the belief that hard work is an inherent social good and a sign of moral virtue in an individual.

This idea is ingrained in Western culture; as sociologist Max Weber famously argued, while the Protestant origins of vocation as a path to salvation have died out “the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs”.

We continue to be haunted by the work ethic.

In Australia these values are invoked on both sides of politics: Howard and Costello urged us to “work till you drop” while Gillard, in her 2011 Whitlam oration, encouraged us to set our “alarm clocks early”. Meanwhile, average working hours are increasing, the debate about work-life balance continues, and many of us report that we would like to work less.

Gillard has backed the notion of hard work for its own sake. AAP/Alan Porritt

While the quality and security of jobs in Australia and their potential to offer fulfilment varies greatly, there is strong moral pressure for workers at all levels to be as productive as possible.

In mainstream Australia individuals who do not “pull their weight” are stigmatised, with those receiving welfare colloquially referred to as “dole bludgers” demonised on tabloid television. At the other end of the spectrum our television “heroes” are the dedicated doctors of RPA and the vigilant lifeguards of Bondi Rescue.

Throughout the Olympics the commitment of athletes to punishing training regimes was lauded as something to emulate. Even in the reality genre we see a similar message. Two of our most popular programs, Master Chef and The Voice, portray a common narrative of individuals finding their calling. Contestants enter the competitions to follow their “dreams” of a pursuing a career that they are “passionate” about. The judges and mentors warn that enthusiasm is not enough; only those who are willing to work hard will be successful.

In interviews I conducted a part of a recent research project on the working lives of Melburnians, many of the participants spoke of their desire to find their “passion” – work which would fascinate and absorb them, and would allow them to express their authentic self. This kind of work was the ideal: highly desirable but increasingly difficult to obtain.

A number of people I interviewed felt that they were overworked and would like more time to spend with family, but many of them experienced guilt if they were not “giving their all”. There was a general understanding that productivity was to be applauded and idleness was unhealthy and to be feared.

A number of interviewees dedicated themselves to what they saw as their calling, but some suggested that the parts of the job that made the work fulfilling were starting to be limited because of work intensification and rationalisation.

For instance, a teacher complained that demands of reporting and other paperwork meant that she had little time to get to know her students and their parents. Similarly, a paramedic suggested that the need to meet performance targets and an increasing workload was limiting the time spent on “actual patient care”. The jobs weren’t what they used to be.

As Kathi Weeks notes in The Problem with Work, “the ethical discourse of work is becoming ever more abstracted from the realities of many jobs”.

Yet the ethic remains powerful and continues to be a useful tool of persuasion when invoked by politicians. If we are to resist trends toward work intensification and longer hours, we need to challenge the assumptions about work by raising questions about its value.

In short, we need to question the work ethic.