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.


17 comments on “Work Ethic

  1. BeeHappee says:

    Bill, here is some speculative explanation of why this “declinism” happens in personal lives and collective thought:

    I work now mainly with people in their 20s and early 30s and do not personally think there is a decline in work ethic compared to the folks I worked with in my previous job, who were in their 40-60s. There are certain differences in work styles and attitudes, but I don’t think there is less motivation.

    This I can say – WP is getting worse and worse, this post of yours was yet another one that did not show in the reader, and “it never used to happen before in the good old days!!!” 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      Thanks Bee. That’s a helpful article. The combination of the reminiscence bump and positivity effect not only provides an explanation, but it’s not far off from Wesley’s speculation–that old men complain about the present in comparison their positive memories of their younger years (“when the cheerfulness of youth gave a pleasing air to all that was round about them”), and in so doing influence younger people who look up to them as wise. Very interesting. Whatever the reason, it seems that we’ve been doing it for at least 3,000 years.

      As for the reader problem I don’t know what is causing it, but it may help explain why their is less interaction with my posts on some days. Probably because people who rely on the reader just aren’t seeing the posts. Frustrating, but I don’t yet know what to do about it.


  2. Laurie Graves says:

    Great post!


  3. gatheringplaceseasonfour says:

    Isaiah 43:18

    Liked by 1 person

  4. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, we have touched on this subject here at least a couple times. For me I used to equate work ethic with hard labor. The world of work has gotten less physical labor oriented and more problem solution and accomplishment oriented. Work ethics of today, I believe have changed and situations arise now that are difficult to know what is the right thing to do. It has become much more difficult to define exactly what is ethical in some instances.

    We tend to think because of Isis and terrorism that it’s some thing new and things are getting worse in the world. I suspect that media has changed our knowledge of what’s happening on a global level. What would modern day news look like if it were reporting what was happening during the Crusades or when the Vikings went on a conquest. Nothing has really changed in the world. It’s just become more high tech.

    I too remember those youthful days of bliss and a better life but I didn’t have the responsibility of earning a living, paying bills, making decisions that would benefit a family and the list goes on. As responsibilities of life are added, it does appear that the world was a better place 20 or 30 years ago. Now that I’m past those high responsibility years the world looks much better than when I was in my 30s and 40s.

    So is the world better or worse? I guess after some thought I would have to agree that it is better than ever compared to outside toilets and baths in a wash tub in the middle of the kitchen. During an icebreaker question at my weekly church Life-group meeting, the question was asked “If you could go back to any age, what age would it be.” Several there were puzzled at my answer of “Right now today. This is the best season of life for me.”

    Have a great work ethic day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      While human progress and improvement isn’t necessarily inevitable or guaranteed, anyone looking at human history objectively would be hard-pressed to deny that we have been on an upward ascent for a long time and that our conditions are improving faster now than ever. But as studies and polls consistently show, it doesn’t feel that way intuitively. It usually feels like things are getting worse. I have a lot to say about that from a theological perspective (particularly addressing the idea that there is a divine plan for things to get worse, rather than better) but I’ll spare everyone that rant. For now, at least. 🙂


  5. This is great! I’m going to show these statistics to my pessimistic husband.
    Can we blame it all on the expanding media presence in our lives? 🙂


    • Bill says:

      I think the bad news contributes to the feeling, but if we went back and read newspapers from 30, 60 or 90 years ago they’d be filled with bad news too–usually worse overall than the news we’re reading these days. It seems that we’ve had this tendency for all of recorded history. The reason seems to be some sort of quirk of human psychology.


  6. I too have a number of young adults (20’s) in my workplace, and I would say 99 % of them have a fabulous work ethic. I agree with comments above, I think a factor affecting our perception is the nature of “work”. Do we see someone who puts in a lot of hours at physical tasks as having a better work ethic than an academic who sits for hours at a laptop, researching and constructing a new article on their area of study? I think there is a tendency to think this way, which makes we wonder how work ethic is actually defined or measured. That goes for crime, poverty etc too – how we measure those things can change how we tell those stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      That could well be a factor, but after I’d been practicing law 20 years I was convinced that the young lawyers didn’t have as good a work ethic as my peers and I had 20 years earlier. I remember a physician my age complaining to me on an airplane once that the young docs in his practice didn’t have the same work ethic he had at their age. My guess is that this phenomenon is more attributable to a quirk of human psychology than a change in the nature of work. We tend to always think things were better in the past than they are now. The article Bee linked offers some scientific explanations for “declinism.”


  7. Joanna says:

    I now feel more justified for sticking up for the younger generation 😀 I think it is about time our generation acknowledged that whilst we gave the younger generation the technology that enriches their lives, they also gave them high debts, unaffordable housing and a massive clean up operation. I also think that many of them are far less money orientated than the 80s when I became of age. The Yuppies were in full swing at that time and much less activism. Work definitely but only for number one and possibly number two.


  8. EllaDee says:

    Interesting observations and linked article… I encounter people with upbeat attitudes willing to embrace and the new, whatever life delivers to them, and others who seem invested in “declinism” who cling to the past good, bad or indifferent. The first are busy, interested, engaged people; the latter seem self-limited by beliefs and assumptions… assisted by heavy reliance on news media.


    • Bill says:

      Change is going to happen. That’s just a certainty. We get to choose whether we expect the change to be for the better or the for the worse. For some reason it seems that human nature tends to assume change will be bad, even though we have a long history to disprove that.


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