Work Ethic

At Daniel Pink’s talk someone asked him how to motivate employees now that the work ethic isn’t as strong as it used to be. In response he asked for a show of hands: asking whether the audience believed the work ethic today is not as strong as it was 30 years ago, is the same as it was 30 years ago or is stronger than it was 30 years ago. My hand went up confidently for the proposition that the work ethic is weaker today than it was 30 years ago.

Then he asked an interesting follow-up question, causing me to reconsider my answer: For those who think the work ethic is weaker today than it was 30 years ago, how do you think people would’ve answered that question 30 years ago? In fact, in 1985 most people would have answered that the work ethic was stronger in 1955. In 1955 most people would have answered that it was stronger in 1925. Etc.

It’s human nature, it seems, to think the young people of today (whenever “today” might be) aren’t as industrious and hard-working as they were in the prior generation. That’s probably been true for as long as human beings have been thinking about that question.

I suspect that’s related to our human tendency to think things are getting worse, even when they aren’t–and even when it isn’t a close call.

Consider world poverty. According to a recent survey, 2/3 of Americans believe the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has doubled in the last 20 years. Another 29% believe the percentage has stayed about the same. But, as Nicholas Kristoff puts it, “That’s 95% of Americans–who are utterly wrong.” In fact, over the last 20 years the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has been reduced by half, from 35% in 1993 to only 14% in 2011 (the latest data available).

What about crime rates. Crime is a lot worse today than it was a few decades ago, right? Well, that’s what we believe–and we’re flat wrong. 70% of Americans believe the crime rate has risen and is continuing to rise, when in fact it has dropped dramatically. Violent crime has fallen by over 30% in America over the last 25 years and nonviolent crimes have decreased even more. The rest of the developed world has seen similar declines in crime.

The reality is that there is less poverty, less crime, less violence, less ignorance and less injustice in the world today than ever before. And the prognosis for continued improvement is good.

I don’t know why it’s in our nature to think things are getting worse, even when they aren’t; even when they’re radically improving. But that is seems hard to dispute.

The ancient poets Horace and Virgil complained that each generation was less industrious and virtuous than its predecessor. Apparently there was pining for “the good old days” at the time Ecclesiastes was written: “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.”

John Wesley devoted an entire sermon to the subject in 1787, writing (at age 84): “Perhaps there are few suppositions which have passed more currently in the world than this, — that the former days were better than these; and that in several respects. It is generally supposed, that we now live in the dregs of time, when the world is, as it were, grown old; and, consequently, that everything therein is in a declining state.”

I think his explanation of the matter is as good as any:

Is it not the common practice of old men to praise the past and condemn the present time? And this may probably operate much farther than one would at first imagine. When those that have more experience than us, and therefore we are apt to think more wisdom, are almost continually harping upon this, the degeneracy of the world; those who are accustomed from their infancy to hear how much better the world was formerly than it is now, (and so it really seemed to them when they were young, and just come into the world, and when the cheerfulness of youth gave a pleasing air to all that was round about them) the idea of the world’s being worse and worse would naturally grow up with them. And so it will be, till we, in our turn, grow peevish, fretful, discontented, and full of melancholy complaints, “How wicked the world is grown!’ How much better it was when we were young, in the golden days that we can remember!”

So as I reflect on all this I conclude that I don’t know if the work ethic of today’s workforce is inferior to that of 30 years ago, but now I rather doubt it. Folks today could be twice as industrious as the workforce of 30 years ago, and most of us would still believe they’ve gotten lazier. For whatever reason, we’ve always seemed to think that way.