As we slobbered over turkey, chocolate and glasses of bubbly this year, the subject of the work ethic came up. I googled it. The first definition was that the principle behind the work ethic is intrinsically virtuous or worthy of reward. I nearly choked on the dinner. Intrinsically virtuous? How often do those two words come together these days? That is some concept. Worthy of reward? That too has an 18th century ring to it. Does worthy of reward imply that if the work is rewarded, it is no longer ‘ethical’? The plot thickens. Further down the Google definitions, hard work and diligence were terms associated with the work ethic and it seems capitalists believe in its ability to enhance character. Well, they would, for an example of the work ethic was going into work when the boss wasn’t there or while you were on holiday (at that point we almost all left the Christmas table to rush to send an email into the office).
Work ethic. It has a Protestant ring to it and indeed, in Ireland anyway, it is ascribed to the Protestants, often with resignation and a sigh – sure, they don’t know how to enjoy themselves. So, is it someone who is driven to work, to succeed, to excel to the exclusion of all else – like John Banville who, I believe, suggested that good writers couldn’t/shouldn’t have children. In that case, is the work ethic a good thing?
I remember, as a child, it used to be ascribed to my father’s family who were Baptists from Birmingham (I think there may be a poem in that). But in relation to my dad, that work ethic label got changed to workaholic. He was passionate about his work in human rights, very committed, worked hard, was relatively successful, hardly ever at home and wasn’t paid much (actually, I think I could say the same for my mother who worked in education but then, she was at home a lot more which might explain her lack of work ethic). I think my father’s work was intrinsically virtuous and worthy of reward (as indeed was my mother’s) but in the liberal 60s and 70s the work ethic wasn’t very trendy so workaholic became the name of the game but always said with a stamp of approval. Workaholic is probably more accurate – after all ‘aholic’ denotes addiction, obsession, attributes which aren’t intrinsically virtuous or worthy.
Michael Viney of The Guardian says he inherited his work ethic (over Christmas he was gathering his intrinsically virtuous seeds for next year) from his father. Now, that is interesting. The work ethic does seem to be a male thing. You rarely hear of a woman being troubled by it despite often being responsible for running an office, a household, rearing children and usually working 16 hour days. Mrs Thatcher had the reputation for only needing four hours sleep; it was rarely described as a work ethic but then again, her work definitely wasn’t intrinsically virtuous. Maybe, to have a strong work ethic or be a workaholic you need to be selfish, arrogant, obsessive as well as have an irresponsible attitude towards family and community, ironically the most worthy and intrinsically important aspects of society. Yes, I think that might be it. That would also explain why the work ethic is not inherited by women. So, having worked that out, we went on to enjoy our Christmas dinner.
Happy New Year. I hope 2017 doesn’t trouble too many of you with a work ethic. One of my new year resolutions is to write as well as I ethically can and travel, that is, go on lots of holidays!