Many years ago I saw the following television ad: two comely young people, adorned in their finest swimwear were splayed out on chaises around a swimming pool. The announcer intoned: “This is what life is all about”… or some such swill.
The ad was telling us that by inhaling chlorine fumes and working on their skin cancer these young peope had discovered the meaning of life.
I can’t recall what the ad was trying to sell, but I'm pretty sure that it wasn’t a Carnival cruise.
How did we get from the Protestant work ethic to a culture that makes a fetish out of leisure? How did anyone get the idea that doing nothing is the meaning of life? Why do we see vacation as the ultimate reward for hard work? Isn’t hard work its own reward?
At the least, the ad was another “be careful what you wish for…” moments. If the Western world is suffering from anything today, it’s excessive leisure. The less savory term is: chronic long-term unemployment.
Pity the politicians who are trying to sell a jobs agenda. In a culture that values leisure, people replace the habit of work with the habit of sloth. When they do, they dread one thing above all else: the loss of their entitlements. They might tell you that they want jobs but if they have acquired the habit of leisure, they are afraid of full time work.
In a recent article on the Lifehacker website Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic makes the case for the old work ethic. He even claims that hard work will make you feel better.
He begins by quoting legendary adman David Ogilvy:
Men die of boredom, psychological conflict, and disease. They do not die of hard work.
Our culture devalues hard work by making it into a disease: workaholism. The term itself suggests compulsive binging.
Lifehacker debunks the idea convincingly:
Workaholics tend to have higher social status in every society, including laidback cultures like those found in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, or South America. Every significant achievement in civilization (from art to science to sport) is the result of people who worked a lot harder than everyone else, and also happened to be utterly unconcerned about maintaining work-life balance. Exceptional achievers live longer, and they pretty much work until their death. Unsurprisingly, the 10 most workaholic nations in the world account for most of the world's GDP.
The article also argues, somewhere misleadingly, that work should be meaningful and that you will feel better if your work does not feel like work, thus if it feels like fun.
I think it’s great when people love their jobs, but the article should also have mentioned that often when people do not love their jobs, the reason is that they are not very good at what they are doing.
The feeling of accomplishment comes with success. If you do not have the talent to succeed and to excel, you are not going to love your job, no matter how meaningful it is.
Saying that work should be so much fun that you can’t get enough of it creates a false impression. You are unlikely to excel at anything if you do not have the fortitude to persevere when faced with difficulties and obstacles.
Perseverance is fundamentally important to a work ethic; it is decidedly not fun.
Chamorro-Premuzic then takes out after those who are touting the virtues of what is called the work/life balance, the ability to balance the hardship of labor with the reward of leisure.
The fault, he says, lies in the fact that our culture—I would call it our therapy culture—values feeling over doing.
In his words:
The belief that our ultimate aim in life is to feel good makes no evolutionary sense. It stems from a distorted interpretation of positive psychology, which, in fact, foments self-improvement and growth rather than narcissistic self-indulgence. This misinterpretation explains why so many people in the industrialized Western world seek attention by complaining about their poor work-life balance. It may also explain the recent rise of the East vis-à-vis the West—you will not see many people in Japan, China, or Singapore complain about their poor work-life, even though they often work a lot harder. Unemployment and stagnation are in part the result of prioritizing leisure and pleasure over work.
It’s a cold, cruel competitive world out there. When you are involved in any competition and you decide that your leisure-time pursuits are more important than doing whatever it takes to excel, you will have armed yourself with a convenient rationalization for failure.
Those who make sloth a virtue are setting themselves up for failure.
Today, in many parts of the Western world people are learning this lesson the hard way.