The Protestant Work Dilemma: Why We Won’t Stop

Maarten van Doorn
Mar 20 · 7 min read

A once-influential group of Christians called Calvinists convinced many that it was predestined where you’d spend your Afterlife. Heaven or hell, your fate was already determined. Nothing you could do.

So naturally, they set out to figure out who the elect were. And according to a then-accepted piece of reasoning, if one managed to accumulate tons of wealth, perhaps that was a sign of God’s blessing:

[By making this connection between earning money and Heaven, Calvinism] gave broader groups of religiously inclined people a positive incentive to asceticism. By founding its ethic in the doctrine of predestination, it substituted for the spiritual aristocracy of monks outside of and above the world the spiritual aristocracy of the predestined saints of God within the world. — Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905)

And according to Max Weber’s famous The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, it’s this metaphysical link that made capitalism so successful. When it comes to accumulating profit, what could be more perfect than hard work, sacrifice, plus the threat of eternal damnation for the lazy?

These days, if you consider yourself lazy or a procrastinator — who doesn’t, in some area of life? — you almost certainly share some vestige of this moralism and use it to chastise yourself.

The Protestant Work Ethic has been a dominant narrative in northern and western Europe for a few centuries now and it’s about time we got rid of it.

Two kinds of laziness

When I keep procrastinating on something, that can mean two things.

One, the task involves something scary or too difficult: I’m afraid or not ready.

Two, my procrastination-instinct knows something that my conscious thoughts haven’t figured out yet.

In cases where the second explanation is the correct one, procrastination is a signal that the thing you’re procrastinating on is not that important to you and you should be working on other things.

This kind of laziness — about unimportant things — is not a sin, but is healthy prioritizing.

Our culture lumps together two kinds of business that should be separated: the work that comes from pointless toil glamour, and the effort that comes from trying to achieve a worthwhile goal.

Being busy does not equal being productive.

The Protestant Work Ethic values effort and personal sacrifice, but just because something takes up a lot of time, does not automatically make it important. Chasing productivity for its own sake isn’t worth it: it doesn’t matter how fast you move if it’s in a pointless direction.

“We are forever scratching our heads, clenching our fists and jaws, holding our breath, and tightening our rectal muscles, in order to will or to keep control of our feelings,” observed the magnificent philosopher Alan Watts.

Superfluous to add, these bodily contractions don’t make us get stuff done.

But they leave us tired and achy, thus satisfying the implicit logic of the Protestant work ethic: if it’s hurting, it must be working.

It doesn’t take a degree in formal logic to see that that inference doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

Two ways to make money

Sometime in the next few decades an algorithm or a robot is going to do whatever you do today better, faster, and cheaper.

Since AI will take much work out of our hands disappear, it’s unfortunate that the Protestant Work Ethic is still alive and kicking. We search for meaning, identity and community in the work we do. People define themselves largely in terms of what they’re able to contribute economically. Countless studies show that if people don’t have the impression they’re doing their bit, it can have a devastating psychological impact.

If people define themselves in terms of what they can contribute economically, then less work is not always a good thing. Hence the rise of so-called ‘bullshit jobs’.

In our capitalist system, there are two strategies for making money.

The first is what most of us do: work. Utilizing our knowledge and skillset to create or contribute something.

The second route is the parasitic way: by leveraging control over something that already exists, such as land, knowledge, or money, to increase your wealth. You produce nothing, yet get rich nonetheless.

For example, imagine that pirates decide to block the port of Shanghai. Now, anyone who wants to enter it, must give them 5% of their freight. The pirate makes access to the port from a freely available good to something that’s scarce and gets paid for it and GDP grows.

Yet, when you think about it, this construction very unjust, right? What the pirate adds to value — zero — is disproportionate to his income. He just put down a naval toll booth.

Work that doesn’t matter

The crux: there are many such toll booths in our economy. While there are usually no pirates involved, our untransparent system offers many opportunities to earn without contributing.

In a 2017 article, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, whose recent speeches at Davos and Fox went viral, argues:

A growing share of those we hail as “successful” and “innovative” are earning their wealth at the expense of others … From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, from big pharma to the lobby machines in Washington and Westminster, zoom in and you’ll see [earning without value creation] everywhere. — Rutger Bregman

For instance:

Studies conducted by the International Monetary Fund and the Bank for International Settlements– not exactly leftist thinktanks — have revealed that much of the financial sector has become downright parasitic. How instead of creating wealth, they gobble it up. — Rutger Bregman

The banking analyst will have a harder time telling you what his work is — what he produces. However, interestingly, the modern-day ‘freerider’ often works damn hard, and will sincerely present himself as a ‘job creator’ and/or ‘investor’ who ‘earns’ his income by virtue of his high ‘productivity.’

Countless people in the financial sector, for example, apply great effort to amass “rent” on their wealth, and indeed have convinced themselves that they are bona fide value creators. So even though they’re not conducive to anything, it feels, for them, like they’re doing their role in society and all is well.

We don’t link our sense of doing good with what we are actually producing. We judge it according to how hard we have been on ourselves. If I get home tired, I have been a good person today. I did the right thing.

For instance, when current Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein was asked about the purpose of his job, his straight-faced answer was that he is “doing God’s work”.

Or, consider this: according to a recent EpsilonTheory essay, not everyone in a non-contributing employment position feels he’s doing God’s work. Over time, the average banking analyst

Comes to understand that his job function is explicitly this: to permit his immediate boss to signal competence to her immediate boss, a chain of signaling which ultimately ends with a client who wants to do something (e.g. buy another company) while offloading some of the various types of risk and accountability associated with that thing to the most credible third-party sources (i.e. you). — Rusty Guinn, EpsilonTheory

This sounds rather extreme, doesn’t it? Guinn anticipates this objection:

I know this because we talk to all of these people daily. They are among our 100,000+ subscribers, and in our prior lives, they were our clients. It has happened in software. In video game development. In mobile app development. In FP&A, corporate development and strategy functions across industrial, chemical, materials, consumer goods and consumer devices companies. It has happened in investments, from public active management to venture capital. It has happened in media and entertainment, in digital media, in publishing, and even in the arts. We are a nation full of people doing jobs where the real job is to look like you are doing the job. —Rusty Guinn, EpsilonTheory

Centuries after Calvinism, being busy is still a fundamental social norm. So even though it's pointless or parasitic, we struggle.

Because we feel we should.

Consequently, my guess is the fear of massive unemployment due to AI is unjustified. The enormous number of meaningless work we’ve already invented to keep ourselves busy, makes me think we can come up with much more of that work for ourselves in the future.

The benefits of working less

This has been a dense article, and I’m not sure about all its empirical details. So let me remind you of the core observation: If Bregman and Guinn are correct, in many vocations, one either spends time constructing toll boots, sucking others dry, or alternatively pretends to produce something to look (or feel) like adding to society.

In both cases, one works hard, but adds little. What we do gets increasingly divorced from what we contribute.

Reminiscent of the Protestant Work Ethic, we see working as good. Even if it has no or negative value. This makes us blind for the distinction between busyness and productivity, and to the benefits of working less:

  • It’s not hard to imagine that working less hours a day solves many of the stress, anxiety, and busyness-related mental health issues that plague today’s workforce.
  • Reduced working hours would be an effective means to slow climate change.
  • Working overtime can be deadly: surgeons, pilots, and so forth, make more lethal mistakes during long working days.
  • According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Finnish students have the least amount of homework in the world. They average under half an hour of homework a night. Finnish students typically do not have outside tutors or lessons either. Surprise surprise, Finnish students outperform almost everyone else, including the high performing Asian nations whose students receive countless extra hours of instruction.

If we were to maximize well-being, instead of maximizing GDP or (perceived) effort, it is likely that working and consuming might play a smaller role in people’s daily activities compared to now.

So perhaps we should let go of the moral idea that working is the summum of all virtues, even if it’s not making a single life a little bit better.

Really, who are we fooling here?


There’s more to that

If you want more arguments for changing common sense, please subscribe to my personal blog. You’ll get a weekly dose of similarly mind-expanding ideas.

Thanks to Michael Thompson and Niklas Göke

Maarten van Doorn

Written by

PhD candidate in philosophy. Reconsidering the obvious. Chasing interestingness. Get good ideas that make you think: maartenvandoorn.com

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