Off to Work

Blood, Sweat and Tears: The Evolution of Work

Richard Donkin. 2001. Texere, New York. 374 pages.

The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work

Joanne B. Ciulla. 2000. Three Rivers Press, New York. 266 pages.

Beyond the Bottom Line: The Search for Dignity at Work

Paula M. Rayman. 2001. Palgrave, New York. 220 pages.

We begin and end days tired. Many of us work 40, 50, 60 or more hours a week, often commuting additional hours to do so. We pack vacations and leisure time so full of activities that we need to recover from our time off work. Pushing ourselves at our jobs and in our private lives in the seemingly unappeasable need to achieve, we often don’t leave time even to think.

According to Richard Donkin in Blood, Sweat and Tears, there is a madness in the type and amount of work in which we engage. His conclusion does not seem far-fetched. Most of us can probably also identify with Joanne B. Ciulla, in The Working Life, that “the faster we work, the faster our time fills with new work. The faster we go, the less time we have.” Or Paula Rayman, who writes in Beyond the Bottom Line that the majority of people today seem to find themselves fighting against a never-ending cycle of overwork, pressured consumption and exhaustion from trying to get ahead and to find time.

These three authors examine some fundamental questions about the nature of modern work. Given that work consumes so much of our existence, it is worthwhile to reflect on some of the issues they raise. Why do we work? If we didn’t have to work to provide for our needs, would we still do it? Has our existence become choked with ultimately meaningless work? Is it possible to find self-fulfillment through the work we do? Can we work and have a life?

Religiously Committed to Work

An initial response to the question of why we work might be that employment simply provides the ability to earn a living or to make the money necessary to supply our physical needs and wants. But Donkin, who chronicles the evolution of work in people’s lives from prehistoric times to the present, says that’s a simplistic answer. After all, most people continue to overwork after basic needs and even financial security have been met.

Donkin believes that religion has had a tremendous influence on our modern view of work. Specifically, he posits that Western society is largely held captive within the “psychological, historical grip of the Protestant work ethic.” That ethic was born of the idea that Paradise could be regained and salvation attained through work. Donkin claims that God demanded work as atonement for Adam’s original sin. He notes that part of his punishment for taking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was that he and the rest of humanity would survive and work by “the sweat of [their] face” (Genesis 3:19).

Donkin describes Protestant reformer Martin Luther as “the face of the working man, a son of toil commanded like Adam to work in the sweat of his brow,” the antithesis of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and clergy of his time, who were accustomed to comfort and subservience. Donkin suggests it was through religious nonconformism that Luther, and later John Calvin, opened the door to a new Christian work ethic.

Certainly diligence and commitment to faith were not exclusively Protestant, but the virtue of hard work was more strongly emphasized in the various sects of Protestantism, including Puritanism. English Puritanism found its way to the New World with the colonization of North America. Along with it came the Protestant work ethic that would help shape the fabric of American society.

From Work to Toil

Immediately prior to the Industrial Revolution, work was parceled into jobs, structured into shifts, controlled by employers, and compensated through regular wages. Donkin notes that instead of being defined by specific projects such as harvest, work changed “to something that began to be perceived as a constant source of employment and income packaged by the parameters of time”—in other words, the type of jobs we do today.

Although the inherent virtue of work was initially thought of in religious terms, it didn’t take long to become secularized. Donkin argues that soon after the onset of the Industrial Revolution, “capitalism was employed as an efficient tool of the work ethic, lubricating industry, making the virtuous cycle spin more rapidly.” Modern capitalism, then, was a logical extension of the industrial efficiency born out of the Protestant work ethic.

According to Donkin, worker exploitation was rampant and the process was “laying waste human potential on a massive scale.” 

As the Industrial Revolution progressed, captains of industry sought to extract maximum efficiency from workers and machines. This led to the moving assembly line, which created a manufacturing revolution. Workers were often viewed as nothing but cogs in an industrial mechanism. According to Donkin, worker exploitation was rampant and the process was “laying waste human potential on a massive scale.” In describing both the successes and failings of the revolution, this author arrives at an inescapable conclusion: “These systems [of mass production] . . . amounted to a ghastly sublimation of the human spirit.”

Donkin discusses at length people and events, from the Industrial Revolution onward, that have influenced our contemporary work environment. He also reflects on the outlines of the future workplace. He envisages a growing multiskilled, mobile workforce, where managers will be coordinators rather than autocrats, and workers will increasingly manage themselves. He predicts that the successful companies of the future will explore and understand the need for freedom in the workplace and participate in a new corporate order.

Donkin is perhaps most engaging when he challenges society to reject its dependence on the Protestant work ethic, which, he says, “remains the surviving omnipresent altar in a secular world to which we make our daily sacrifice of unremitting toil.” It is a work ethic that “has been transformed by capitalism into a corporate ideology controlling our lives.” For this reason, he suggests that we adopt a new work ethic based not on religious antecedents but on personal choice and the needs of society.

The Protestant work ethic . . . “remains the surviving omnipresent altar in a secular world to which we make our daily sacrifice of unremitting toil.”

Material Motivations

The influence of the Protestant work ethic on modern life is also examined by Ciulla (The Working Life). She attributes the changing view of work (“from curse to calling”) to its moral value. But, examining cultural, religious and historical perspectives, she concludes that we have gone far beyond a moral work ethic to the point where we rely on jobs for self-fulfillment, happiness and our very identity.

Whether or not people would think of themselves as primarily motivated to work for happiness’ sake, there clearly are numerous compelling reasons to work. Money is an enormous motivation. Some people might work long hours for the hope of early retirement, others just to put food on the table and pay bills. Fear is also a factor: fear of losing one’s job or getting bypassed for promotion. Ciulla notes, “Luther’s and Calvin’s work ethic pales next to this work ethic of fear. Unlike the Protestant work ethic, the work ethic of fear does not hold out hope of salvation, but only offers the opportunity to work more.”

While work may no longer be viewed as a sacred duty, its underlying ethic continues to exist in secular form. Fundamental to the American Dream is the idea that with hard work people can make a better life for themselves. In addition, Ciulla cites various studies to show that steady employment results in positive discipline, connectedness, regularity and a feeling of worth. Work can be about “human dignity, identity, self-expression, and usefulness in the world.” In this way, jobs can provide both financial and psychological security.

Ciulla reminds us, however, that where people used to find self-fulfillment through family, friends, religion and community, many now seek it through work. This reflects a conscious or subconscious belief that our jobs can provide for all desires and needs, both tangible and intangible: income, material possessions, comfortable retirement, professional success, social status, etc. With a good job, there is the promise of living “the good life.”

For most, of course, this good life is measured by materialism, consumption and the availability of leisure time. Ironically, spending money on material pursuits requires additional income (i.e., work hours), thereby reducing that much-sought-after leisure time. In examining the vicious work-to-spend cycle, Ciulla concludes, “Consumption creates a need to work even when the desire to work is weak.”

The Search for Something More

Ciulla also laments the fact that modern work has become a dominating force in life at a time when technology and access to material luxuries should be making life easier and less work-intensive. Recognizing the divergence between the Western work ethic, the ever-increasing leisure ethic, and attempts to make work easier through technology, she observes: “We live in a paradoxical culture that both celebrates work and continually strives to eliminate it.”

We live in a paradoxical culture that both celebrates work and continually strives to eliminate it.” 

Joanne B. Ciulla, The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work

In addition to these conflicts, job dissatisfaction is a prevalent problem among workers. Ciulla examines the “blue-collar blues and white-collar woes” of organizational employment and the techniques and fads pursued by management to inspire employee loyalty and productivity. Although modern-day features such as health care coverage, parental leave, sick pay, child care, retirement plans and government safety regulations have made the modern workplace cleaner, safer and fairer, she notes that corporations continually struggle to make work more meaningful for employees. But most jobs do not contribute to a better world. Accordingly, many employees feel that the only value of their job is in receiving a paycheck. Ciulla recognizes that the demand for worthwhile, meaningful work comes at a time when we see the supply of such work shrinking.

Perhaps part of the problem is that in ages past, work was integrated as a part of life, thus connecting the worker to family and community. Modern work has largely become a force of alienation due to the distinct boundary between work life and home life. Technology may be reversing this trend by allowing some employees to telecommute—to fulfill traditional office functions at home. But technology itself will not satisfy the need for meaningful, interesting employment, and it raises its own problems.

Ciulla also criticizes organizational management for focusing on trying to make employees feel good about their jobs rather than on creating a fulfilling workplace. At the same time, she recognizes that employees themselves must shoulder some of the blame. “Many employees,” she writes, “have gotten lazy and willingly let their employers take responsibility for parts of their lives.”

Ciulla does an outstanding job of examining the meaning of work and its impact on our lives, but she is forced to admit that she has no all-encompassing solution to the dilemmas facing the modern worker. Nevertheless, she makes a persuasive case that we should think seriously about how to fit work into our lives instead of fitting our lives into our work as we search for “something more.”

Dignity at Work

Although the primary impetus behind employment may be to earn a living, Rayman (Beyond the Bottom Line) agrees that the meaning of work should go beyond a paycheck. People have a need for recognition of their good work, for their contributions and value. Effort that is validated can provide a sense of self-respect and dignity. On the other hand, having no work or being unemployed can contribute to a debilitating sense of “nobodiness,” a feeling of worthlessness that anyone who has experienced prolonged unemployment can attest to.

There are, according to Rayman, three main factors that contribute to dignity at work: the ability to gain a livelihood for one’s family; the capacity for self-respect; and the opportunity to make a difference through social responsibility. She refers to these points as the “Three Pillars of Dignity” and then lists a variety of forces that erode them.

Undermining people’s ability to earn a living are rampant consumerism and a cost of living that outstrips wage increases. According to studies, almost 70 percent of workers choose to put in extra hours to keep up with rising costs, and two out of five families send an additional member to work to help support them. On the other hand, many people fall prey to the innate human weakness to want more than they need. A desire to “keep up with the Joneses” and a general dissatisfaction with life often drive the accumulation of physical goods. But as Rayman points out, overconsumption has social and spiritual costs.

That most workplace environments do not contribute to self-respect is a common gripe. Too often, employees are reduced to instruments of economic growth without consideration for their dignity. Rayman sees a role for both employers and employees in solving this problem. Employers not only need to validate good work; they must become interested in what Randall Tobias, former chairman and CEO of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, describes as “the intelligent mind and the anxious heart of the employee.” As for employees, Rayman relates the advice of Martin Luther King Jr., who once said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted or Beethoven conducted music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Rayman also addresses the fact that although holding steady employment and earning money may be viewed by some as sufficient participation in society, an even greater sense of belonging and satisfaction result from contributing directly to the greater good. She reminds us not to let the pursuit of status and wages replace other, more worthwhile goals. As an example, she notes that parents need to seriously consider how their work schedules and values will affect following generations. For those who believe financial security is the best way to set their children on the road to success, she points to compelling research demonstrating that parental involvement, not affluence, is the number one indicator of a child’s academic success.

The way work is organized today has undermined the time-out period, the concept of sacred time, or the Sabbath that Adam and Eve and even God respected.” 

Rayman discusses systemic causes and possible solutions to certain workplace difficulties. Provocatively, she identifies society’s failure to set aside time for rest and rejuvenation. “The way work is organized today has undermined the time-out period, the concept of sacred time, or the Sabbath that Adam and Eve and even God respected.” Recognizing the wisdom in God’s establishment of a time for rest, she remarks, “Without the reality of a Sabbath, there would be endless days of labor, with no time to appreciate the fruits of the labor.”

Although much of the world, under the auspices of globalization, may be capable of previously unattainable economic prosperity as the fruits of labor, Rayman notes that we are in danger of losing our dignity and greater human potential. She points to the corporate emphasis on profit as largely responsible for depriving human beings of their dignity.

Working on Our Lives

These three authors haven’t merely written insightful social commentaries on the topic of work, they have challenged readers to make personal changes to counter the forces that deprive us of fulfilling, balanced lives.

Donkin and Ciulla argue convincingly that the Protestant work ethic has led Western society to place too much emphasis on work and to relegate other, more lasting values to a subordinate position. Interestingly, however, the Bible itself offers no support for the Protestant work ethic. The Bible’s teachings do not exalt work as sacred or as a means to salvation. As with much religious tradition and ideology, the Protestant work ethic appears to be the result of misinterpretation and misapplication of Scripture.

The Bible does acknowledge work as a part of life, but not as the purpose for life. It certainly speaks to the importance of work and the value of a job well done. When Martin Luther King Jr. counseled street sweepers to work to the best of their ability, he was reiterating advice given long ago by King Solomon: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

As Rayman reminds us, it is also in the Bible that God established one day a week, the seventh-day Sabbath, for physical and spiritual rejuvenation. Jesus Christ explained, “The Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27). Yet how many people who find themselves physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted from their jobs at the end of every week avail themselves of this weekly God-given reprieve?

None of the authors derides the value or necessity of hard work. Donkin explicitly states that we must work and quotes the apostle Paul’s declaration: “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). He points out that for Paul the question of working or not working was not the issue. Nor does that seem to be the issue today. He explains, “The modern debate is not so much about the need for work but about the quantity and quality of work expected of the individual.”

Further, he observes, “If we believe we have become slaves to our jobs we should examine our own value systems and make some adjustments.”

Among the value system adjustments Donkin recommends is the “need to recover the spiritual in our lives and harness it to the way we work.” Although he refers to the Bible to support some of his arguments, he does not suggest a particular source for the spiritual reawakening required for his new work ethic.

Maybe we should adopt a new ethic, even if not exactly the one Donkin recommends. Shouldn’t we embrace a work ethic that leads to true fulfillment and unleashes our full human potential? That requires the ability to look beyond our jobs as a source for meaning and satisfaction in life. Perhaps that is something we can all work on.