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The work ethic

The concept of the Protestant work ethic (PWE) was devised by the German sociologist Max Weber (1905), who saw it in part as the explanation for the origin of capitalism. People who believe in PWE tend to be achievement- and success-oriented, stress the need for efficacy and practicality, tend to be disinclined to leisure, and are conservative and conscious about wasting time, energy and money.

Despite all the arguments and research on PWE, there are relatively few clear definitions of what it is. PWE can be summarized as follows: a universal taboo is placed on idleness, while industriousness is considered a religious ideal; waste is a vice and frugality a virtue; complacency and failure are proscribed, and ambition and success are taken as signs of God’s favour; a universal sign of sin is poverty, and the crowning sign of God’s favour is wealth.

At the centre of the concept is the idea that the values and beliefs underlying PWE (morality, control, delayed gratification, asceticism, hard work) lead to economic success at both an individual and national level. In this sense, PWE can be conceived as a personally held belief system that is predictive of economic success. The latest measure of PWE assesses seven beliefs:

  • 1 The centrality of work: A belief in work for its own sake; the central part of one’s life.
  • 2 Self-reliance: The value of striving for independence and success at work.
  • 3 Hard work: A belief in the virtue of hard work - long hours, intense concentration.
  • 4 Leisure: A belief in productive leisure.
  • 5 Morality and ethics: A strong sense of justice at work.
  • 6 Delayed gratification: An orientation to the future and an ability to postpone rewards.
  • 7 Wasted time: A stress on the productive use of time.
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