Work Ethics

Meryl Streep makes a speech in The Devil Wears Prada tearing apart the young, naive, recently hired Anne Hathaway for looking down on the fashion industry. In it, she outlines the trail between the presumed department store/bargain bin sweater Hathaway is wearing and the fashion industry decision three years earlier to market the colour “cerulean”. She snootily refers to the way Hathaway assumes she’s just picking up a sweater, and has no idea that the colour was chosen for her by the people in that room and that thousands of jobs and millions of dollars are generated within this industry, so how dare she say it’s not important?

I wasn’t expecting The Devil Wears Prada to be a revolutionary movie, but Hathaway’s character is supposed to be this anti-corporate, idealistic, journalism student type. Not only does she never really question the beauty standards projected by the fashion industry, she misses the much deeper point (to me) that somehow, an industry that makes money has by definition become important.

I know this is corporate culture. What’s bugging me is just how pervasive it is. I was watching this movie with two girls aged nine and ten, and I have no idea how I would begin to unpack the assumptions in there. To be fair, if I were in Anne Hathaway’s place, I would have said “…and you think if you hadn’t picked cerulean, I somehow wouldn’t be wearing any sweater at all, so you’re right, the fact that you did all that has made a huge impact on my life. I’m completely humbled. I’ll be leaving now”. And then it would have been a really short and boring movie.

Money isn’t a means to an end in this speech. It’s not good because you can use it to buy stuff, it’s not important because it improves lives, and it certainly doesn’t matter whether anyone is being hurt by it. Money is important because it’s money. It’s the end, it’s the goal, it’s the definition of important, full stop.

Since I’m generally blessed enough not to know many corporate types, the conversations I don’t quite know how to opt out of are the work-for-work’s sake ones. The ones that tout “hard-working” as a virtue in and of itself, not because it accomplishes anything. My parents do this all the time (sidebar: how did we come to talk about “Protestant” work ethic? They’re Catholic, and damn, are they full of it). I have nothing against the idea of gardening and doing home improvement projects in order to relax, but within the work-for-work’s sake model, it can’t be about relaxing. My relaxing–reading, writing, chatting with friends etc–is not okay because it doesn’t really produce anything.

Simone de Beauvoir writes about the existentialist idea of transcending the base animal state by producing and creating, focusing on how women’s reproductive role has been turned around on them so that they live-to-create rather than create-to-exist. Socially, men create and produce things–or now, eventually, pure money–and accomplish stuff, and this allows them to be beyond the cycles of life and death. She’s writing to a large extent about how women have consistently been prevented from participating in this activity, how ideas about reproduction and reproductive roles have been used to lock women in to position as mere replicators (and I know her ideas have their significant shortcomings), but I’m wondering how much it’s possible to opt out of the entire system.

I’m not advocating laziness and uselessness, and I can’t imagine not wanting to take satisfaction from a sense of accomplishment. But it’s like we’ve substituted the sense of accomplishment for any actual accomplishment. The fact that I’m wearing cerulean instead of indigo because you decided it was in fashion is not the same as actually doing anything, no matter how much somebody paid you to do it.

But then, I’m crazy like that.

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13 thoughts on “Work Ethics

  1. Jay says:

    The only part of this I feel even somewhat competent (or inspired) to address is the one about work ethic.

    Frankly, I’ve never seen “work ethic” as “work for work’s sake”…work for work’s sake sounds utterly idiotic to me, much like the punishment details they used to make you do in Victorian prisons. For a closer example, take homework in school…I never did homework, and when asked why, I made the reasonable observation that for me, it accomlished nothing. I knew the material, and proved it regularly on tests and quizzes…what purpose does wasting paper and an hour of my life serve? None. Yet I was criticized for not doing it, because doing it (“it” being “wasting my time”) was a sign of responsibility. Frankly, I find it more responsible to recognize when something is a waste of time and put your time to better use, but hey, that’s just me.

    But I digress: work ethic.

    To me, work ethic is simply the nature in which you understand that almost nothing of value or consequence is created or attained without work, and so that in order to lead a happy and productive life, one should be prepared to work. This does not necessarily mean manual labor (a whole lotta work these days is cerebral), nor does it mean it can’t be enjoyable (indeed, the best kinds of work are those you can enjoy). Simply that if you’re not willing and prepared to expend effort, you should not expect happiness or even much in the way of satisfaction with your life (this is not to say it doesn’t happen…but the work ethic people win anyway…they just declare that those people have “low standards”).

    Personally, I’ve been told I have a good work ethic…but this is simply a way of saying that I don’t feel comfortable cheating my bosses by doing the minimum required to keep my job. When I’m hired to do something, I prefer to do it, rather than do just enough of it to slide by. That may be all there is to it.

    Food for thought, if you were hungry.

  2. purtek says:

    Oh, I’ve been told plenty of times that I have a good work ethic, as well. In fact, when I started my current temp position with the City of Hamilton (nearly seven months ago now), a co-worker told me not to work so hard, since it would make the rest of them look bad (presumably for doing the minimum). I couldn’t actually imagine doing *less* since it’s not like I was killing myself with the strain.

    The title was something of a pun more than an actual commentary on that concept (which I agree is what people generally mean when they use the term). Much more along the lines of what you say about homework, where you do it because it’s “the responsible thing to do” rather than because it’s necessary.

    We’re also supposed to have a sense of abstract “ambition”, again, not because we’re supposed to want to feel good about genuine accomplishments, but because desire for upward mobility it just assumed to be a Good Thing. If you’re satisfied doing a good or even great job in one position, producing good work or helping people or whatever, but never getting a promotion, it’s often looked on with some suspicion.

    I feel like there are entire industries (like fashion and advertising) centred around work for work’s sake/money for money’s sake, and that exist primarily to feed back into the industry itself. Getting out of that loop is damn hard, especially when I see this pervasive message of ‘How can this not be important? It’s a multi-billion dollar industry”. And then even the “work ethic” gets assumed within it. It’s just a good thing, you’re a better person, if you do a good job & work hard at whatever you do, because the product/result is not the important part. I can’t quite live that way. But I also can’t quite not.

  3. Oliver Jones says:

    The protestant work ethic thing for catholics is interesting and I’ve been struggling with how to address it for a while.

    My boss is Jewish and kind of presumes that the secular values he upholds like reason over faith, utilitarianism, etc exist in some kind of rational sphere divorced from the religious ideologies which helped to embed these ideas within western discourse. I’m reluctant to tell him outright “your worldview is overwhelmingly Christian and your ideological commitments, though they operate under the guide of secularism, are genealogically derived from a series of protestant and humanist assumptions regarding ‘the person’, ‘the state’ and ‘work’. Though I recognize that I could probably make a pretty strong argument to that end, I feel a touch ham-fisted about forcing him into these kind of valuations of ‘protestant’ work ethic when he himself doesn’t identify with that language. So how do you term it, then? “Strong work ethic” doesn’t do it for me, because it just confirms the discursive foundations, but ‘protestant work ethic’ only accounts for the genealogy – it doesn’t make as much sense within the context of the global ideology.

    And, keeping with the response thematic, I have a terrible work ethic. I coast when I can, I complain about everything and leave my workplace fouled and alienated every single day. It’s not that I don’t desire upward social mobility (I know well enough that paycheque-to-paycheque is untenable) but I cannot convince myself that my productivity does anything for my enhancement as a person. There is no personal growth in sales, in technical support or in management, no affirmation of the autonomous self, no vehicle for the better person. Every productive exchange I engage in is mandated within a framework of production that bears no relation to what I value, to what I desire. I’m not a Marxist, and I am troubled by the idea of a broad or essential ‘humanity’, but ‘work’ as I understand is is an excruciating waste of time that dehumanizes anyone aware enough to realize their subordination, and scours the will of the vibrant. And I will continue to shirk, and half-ass it and watch the clock until the whole machine falls to bits from abuse and neglect.

  4. purtek says:

    I’m reluctant to tell him outright “your worldview is overwhelmingly Christian and your ideological commitments, though they operate under the guide of secularism, are genealogically derived from a series of protestant and humanist assumptions regarding ‘the person’, ‘the state’ and ‘work’.

    I so often find myself having *exactly* this dilemma. 😉

    In all seriousness, it’s kind of true. The point is that the expectations placed on individuals in a work (and, frankly, home) environment depend upon a series of assumptions that most people cannot fathom as anything but “reality”. The mixture of religion/historical culture/identity layers etc that go into making us all subject to the principle of “protestant” work ethic is way too much to unpack.

    I must admit I’ve frequently said that my current job is doing its best to awaken my inner Marxist on exactly the principles you cite. Which is why, now that I have this opportunity, I’m writing this comment on the City of Hamilton’s dime.

  5. Jay says:

    ” ‘work’ as I understand is is an excruciating waste of time that dehumanizes anyone aware enough to realize their subordination, and scours the will of the vibrant.”

    I see this as a difference in point of view, not a tangible, objective fact. Work CAN be a drudgery and a waste of time; it can be stimulating and rewarding; or it can be simply a necessary step in getting what you want. Which it is depends on the nature of the task, the return on investment of time, and your attitude towards it.

    Homework was a waste of time because I expended effort and it garnered me nothing.
    Jobs, on the other hand, while they may not be rewarding or interesting in a personal-growth sense, at least garner me wages, the means to acquire things I find rewarding (like food and shelter, for instance). 🙂
    And in some rare cases, a job can provide both financial reward AND personal reward…my brother is lucky enough to teach music, something he enjoys so much he hardly considers it “work”. This is the ideal…but I don’t feel such jobs are the only ones worth putting effort into.

    I dont’ consider growth in the career/job field satisfying because I necessarily find “money” or “rank” rewarding in and of themselves. The main advantage to progress in the wage scale is not that you can buy more things, but really more that you need to work LESS in order to provide for those needs that require money…in essence, higher wages mean more time, which is (to me) the most valuable thing on earth…time to put into those things which are enriching to me as a person.

    For instance, I hate working overtime, despite the financial gains…I don’t consider it generally worth the time it costs me to spend with my family and other pursuits.

    “And I will continue to shirk, and half-ass it and watch the clock until the whole machine falls to bits from abuse and neglect.”

    How does this personally reward you? How does it do anything to enhance you as a person? Isn’t it counterproductive, on many levels?

  6. Oliver Jones says:

    oh, absolutely. I wouldn’t refute you on that one, jay. My position on’ work’ is entirely subjective and debatable. I try to assume an authoritative tone when I express an opinion because I find that usage affirming, although it can be confusing in an kind of perspectivist forum like this. I will however defend my opinion of work

    What was expressed in my previous comment was my own experience of work. I object to ‘work’ as we conceive of it – and indeed, as I engage with – because in ‘working’ I am required to subordinate myself to a series of mandated hierarchical impositions that undermine my autonomy as a person. The objection is abstract, surely, and I am no anarchist, but I am self-aware enough to recognize that my waking, productive life is arranged around a productive activity that serves none of my purposes beyond subsistence. I am not required to be grateful for the lower-class income my employment affords me, and as the glass ceiling might as well be in the cellar, upward social mobility is untenable. My financial entanglements are just taught enough to render my mobility as a labourer a personal liability, and when I have completed my undergraduate degree – or rather, have attained the ascribed vehicle for middle-class self-promotion – I will likely be contracted into a unfulfilling internship with no health protection, part-time wages, zero job stability and no future.

    There is no personal reward in resisting, no glory in bitching and complaining about how the dehumanizing drudgery of wage slavery. There is no ‘upside’ to sabotage. The impulse isn’t rational. But in saying ‘no’, in letting the machine fall apart from neglect, I’ve denied a greater system with no regard for me as an autonomous person – a system wholly inaccessible to myself – power over my will. And if I may access this resistance as a vehicle for self-affirmation, I have found a purpose for work.

  7. Jay says:

    *shrugs* As you like. I can’t help but think that a large measure of why you find it so unsatisfying is a result of “self-fulfilling prophecy”. You view work as some sort of degrading wage-slavery…and so, you derive no satisfaction from it (and really, who would). You seem to view your employer in a hostile manner, as an enemy…not as any sort of mutually beneficial arrangement (which is what employment, ideally, is).

    I got a B.A. in English Lit, no internship. I’ve never used my degree in the workplace. I freely admit I wasted my college years, and don’t know a friend or relative who did a worse job of preparing themselves to enter the job market. Even after my degree, I’ve worked jobs that were essentially pure manual labor. While I certainly complained about the downsides of my various positions, and don’t hold any sort of rose-tinted view of the current labor market, I just don’t see why you view this as some sort of ever-spiralling hellhole of capitalist machinery designed to convert you into a loyal thrall serving Western civilization in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

    Is this a glass half-full/half-empty kinda thing? If so, it might be the first time I’ve ever been on the “half-full” side. 🙂

  8. Jay says:

    After re-reading and consideration, a bit more commentary on the OP:

    “We’re also supposed to have a sense of abstract “ambition”, again, not because we’re supposed to want to feel good about genuine accomplishments, but because desire for upward mobility it just assumed to be a Good Thing.”

    In general, isn’t it a Good Thing? Not in and of itself, but because it provides us with more opportunity for self-satisfaction?
    I’ll admit, it’s not always…and often it’s the contrary. I would not see the point of advancement if it meant I had to work long hours and travel frequently, since what I’d be missing (personal time and time with family) would not be made up for by “prestige” or even increased wages. But in my own life, generally, the further I’ve “advanced” (though not within a company, but by moving from company to company), the better my hourly wage has become, and the less I “need” overtime and long hours to provide for my family, and the more flexible my schedule has gotten (to accomodate things like holidays, and taking my son to charter school).
    Anecdotal, but for what it’s worth. Advancement helps me on a personal level, because it allows me to invest more time in self/family.

    “If you’re satisfied doing a good or even great job in one position, producing good work or helping people or whatever, but never getting a promotion, it’s often looked on with some suspicion.”

    I can agree this is a crap attitude (and foreign to me)…but I honestly have never encountered it. Maybe because I’ve never been satisfied in one place…as my responsibilities have grown (from single to married to one kid to three kids), my financial needs have likewise grown, and I’ve had to grow to meet them.
    But I agree…if you’re happy and/or doing good where you are…why change? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Do you see that “drive to advance” in pop culture, or just the business world?

    “I feel like there are entire industries (like fashion and advertising) centred around work for work’s sake/money for money’s sake, and that exist primarily to feed back into the industry itself.”

    While I can’t really disagree that those are “work for money’s sake”, I can understand some people (if not agree with them) in those situations. It’s a similar thing to practicing many kinds of law, or professional sports…the goal is to make a huge bundle while you’re young, then just retire and coast on your wealth (it seldom works out that way, but such is life).

    “Getting out of that loop is damn hard, especially when I see this pervasive message of ‘How can this not be important? It’s a multi-billion dollar industry”.”

    Oh I agree that fashion and advertising are not in the least “important”, in any real sense of the world. I think the main reason they’re promoted as such is not because “we’re big money, we must be important”, but out of sheer survival…if they don’t convince the rest of the world that they’re “important”, nobody would keep funneling money into them…and they’d have to work for a living. 🙂

    “And then even the “work ethic” gets assumed within it. It’s just a good thing, you’re a better person, if you do a good job & work hard at whatever you do, because the product/result is not the important part.”

    See, here’s where we disagree a bit.
    You seem to feel that it’s only worthwhile to work hard or do a good job at something were the product/result is “important”.
    Why?
    The reason homework was a waste was not that it’s result was unimportant, but that it had no reward, and I felt no duty to do it. There was no social contract.
    When I’m employed, it doesn’t matter whether I’m finding a cure for cancer or painting spots on sheep…my reasoning for a work ethic is that I honor my commitments, and in this case, I took a commitment to paint sheep or cure cancer, so I’ll by God do the best I can. And the only reason I agreed to accept that duty is because I’m getting something out of it…whether it’s the good feeling that I’ve helped cure people, or the weight of a wad of bills in my pocket for sheep-painting.

    I do think it is noble to work hard at something, regardless as to whether the product/result is “important”…both because that word (important) is up for grabs, depending on definition, and because the reward in working hard is a sense of personal satisfaction in meeting your obligations, not in seeing what your work has necessarily wrought (though that could provide a different sort of satisfaction, and it’s nice when there’s overlap).

    I am not personally “satisfied” when I rent a storage unit…but if I have a day where I don’t feel I worked hard/accomplished something, I feel bad about myself simply because I feel that rather than earning my money for that day, I stole it, and it’s just that my employer didn’t catch me. I don’t like feeling like a thief. Does that make any sense?

    Let me ask this: if there are two people who work a dull and unrewarding job (IT tech support, let’s say), but one works hard and applies himself, and the other slacks as much as he can get away with without being fired…which do you see as the better person? The former, because he doing a good job can be it’s own reward, from a self-respect point of view? Or the latter, because working hard for no reward and no recognition is for saps, and it’s just common sense to take the path of least resistance? It’s a matter of opinion, really.

  9. purtek says:

    Sorry about ignoring you guys this week–the internet was eating my brain in other media.

    I wonder, Jay, if some of the difference here is based on the perception that it’s the responsibility of the worker to impress the employer, and generate the terms of the supposedly mutually beneficial arrangement. Like we’re operating in a seller’s (employer’s) market, and the “wage slave” mentality is based on the feeling that it’s up to *us* to make that glass half full, or to fill it up, goddammit, because nobody’s going to do it for us.

    And I know you and I differ as to the role of welfare and social justice in society, so this could go back to that same theme.

    Part of *my* personal objection is that I *am* inclined to work very hard, and I’m stuck working via a temp agency with no job security, no sick days or any other kind of benefits, and very, very poor pay. The *only* reward to my working harder is, just as you say, the shiny feeling of self-respect I’m supposed to get out of it. And frankly, I’m coming to believe that people who continually point me back to that feeling are really trying to get me to shut up about my completely unacceptable work situation.

    Now, I’m not saying that my personal case is an example of blatant workplace discrimination or exploitation, but it’s certainly the kind of argument that has been used to discourage people who ask for better working conditions, better pay or flexibility with respect to work-life balance issues. Which is way less than cool.

    Forgive me if I’m not really responding to your points, or if I’m less than coherent in this comment–I’m currently taking an unpaid sick day that I can afford due to unforeseen fainting spells.

  10. Jay says:

    “I wonder, Jay, if some of the difference here is based on the perception that it’s the responsibility of the worker to impress the employer, and generate the terms of the supposedly mutually beneficial arrangement.

    I’ll admit this could definitely be a factor…since that’s almost exactly how I see it.
    I am not entitled to a job. The workplace and employers owe me nothing. If I want a job (more, if I want a job I find rewarding) it is up to me to find an employer and convince him to give me a job and compensation. To me, that’s the long and the short.

    If employment weren’t a seller’s market (or for that matter, in those jobs where it isn’t), workers can demand better pay and rewards, because without them, the employer is screwed. This is not usually the case for the vast majority of workers…but I see nothing wrong with that. People, in general (myself included) are eminently dispensable. This is a fact of life.

    “And I know you and I differ as to the role of welfare and social justice in society, so this could go back to that same theme.”

    I tentatively agree with this statement…and I’d like a better understanding of “social justice”, for that matter. I’ve never really understood it…can you expound (in this or another thread)?

    “…I’m stuck working via a temp agency with no job security, no sick days or any other kind of benefits, and very, very poor pay.”

    Been there…it sucks. But I’ve also been unemployed; I find that sucks worse.

    “The *only* reward to my working harder is, just as you say, the shiny feeling of self-respect I’m supposed to get out of it.”

    Well, there’s also (presumably) food on your table and clothes on your back. If part of your POV is the concept that these things are no more than your due as a human being, then I can understand why you feel unrewarded.

    “And frankly, I’m coming to believe that people who continually point me back to that feeling are really trying to get me to shut up about my completely unacceptable work situation.”

    Ah, see, this I can really relate to. May I share another anecdote?
    My last job (before my present) was the aforementioned manual labor, where I’d work long hours loading and unloading trucks (not to mention stocking shelves, dealing with pain-in-the-ass people, and driving a big truck in shitty weather). It was not fun, it was not rewarding on any personal level…and I can began to feel it was not rewarding in the financial level either. When I politely and subtly (I thought) began to bring these facts to my boss’s attention, I got the brush-off…and got that same feeling, that he was more or less saying “you’re lucky just to have a job”.
    Eventually, I reached the breaking point, and threatened to leave. This produced a complete 180, and resulted in a change of duties and a pay raise.
    Now granted, the new job turned out to be less of a plum than I thought (or rather, it was a small and somewhat sour plum), resulting in my eventual leaving (I basically traded long hours with pissy wages for long hours with unpaid overtime). But the fact is, you always have one way to make your displeasure with your job known…you walk. No one likes it (I hate it), but sometimes it’s your only recourse, when you find your job so painful and hideous that you can’t bear to continue working it…or when you decide you can do better somewhere else.

    “…it’s certainly the kind of argument that has been used to discourage people who ask for better working conditions, better pay or flexibility with respect to work-life balance issues. Which is way less than cool.”

    No disagreement. While I try not to treat my employers as enemies, I certainly don’t take everything they say at face value, and I certainly don’t expect them to have my best interests at heart. I do expect them to at least CONSIDER my best interests, because our relationship is a symbiotic one…if it becomes a predator-prey relationship, I’m going to make like a gazelle and get the fuck out.

    I hope I don’t come across as unsympathetic; I’m not trying to say “suck it up” or anything. I’m largely speaking in generalities, which are never comforting to the individual situation. I hope you find better work soon…I know you’re an intelligent woman, and I presume you are not without talent and education. I have full confidence that if a schmuck like me can find decent work, so too can you.

  11. purtek says:

    You don’t come off as unsympathetic at all, and I’m certainly not trying to get all self-pitying, so I think we’re good on that balance.

    As to the “I could just leave” argument…I’ve found it has to get pretty darn bad for me to do that. Again, in my own personal situation, I have absolutely *no* savings and would require a job immediately in order to make next month’s rent. On my wages, I can barely take a sick day (so the fact that I appear to have the flu right now does not bode well for the next few weeks), and given everything else that I have going on, it’s tough for me to expend the energy required to line up a new job while working full time at this one. And that, or worse, is the reality for a lot of people, meaning that the extent to which I can exercise the “just leave” option is pretty limited, and could be even worse (if I had children, say, which I know you do). That allows my bosses extra leeway in treating me poorly, because it has to get a hell of a lot worse before I can say it’s bad enough for me to accept the consequences of giving up.

    The food on my table and roof over my head are the rewards of my labour, sure, and though they come into play within the complicated concept of human rights (more later, I hope), I do know that they’re not just going to be handed to me. But those rewards are going to come whether I do the minimum required in order to keep this crap-ass job or put in my best effort and commit loads of energy to doing a great job of whatever I’m handed to do. The only thing motivating me to do the latter is this nebulous concept of “self-respect”, which, given the other circumstances, is not worth the additional tiredness and stress it costs.

    I tend to disagree with the idea that people are dispensable, though I don’t think I have the brains to argue that at the moment.

    As to the more generalized concept of social justice–can you wait a couple of weeks? It’s the topic of the teaching at church soon, and I’m sure that will lead me to a much better way of phrasing it than I could come up with right now. 🙂

  12. Jay says:

    Okay, I’ve had an epiphany about the “slackin’ at work” mindset (and forgive me if this is a “duhhhh” moment).

    The reason you don’t feel the normal obligation to work hard is because you feel the employer/employee contract is failing…your employer is not meeting their obligation (they are demanding more than should be expected for the reward), so you feel, why should you meet yours?

    This is a perfectly reasonable way of viewing the situation. Am I near the target?

  13. purtek says:

    Pretty darn near, yes. 🙂 And I don’t think this is a “duhhh” moment, because I think I tend to write starting in the middle of a stream of consciousness, and I certainly don’t expect everybody to jump right in to where I am in the stream.

    Where I would maybe reconfigure your interpretation of what I’m saying is first in calling it “not meeting my obligation” because if I’m doing the minimum, I’m still actually meeting what has been defined as my obligation. What I’m not doing is accepting is the additional, defacto, never-really-agreed-upon responsibilities to display ambition beyond the job itself, initiative and energy in taking on additional tasks that are not actually commensurate with the reward system that we have actually agreed upon.

    So what I’m overall saying is that emphasizing hard work, initiative and going above and beyond as moral values/rewards in themselves, we’re taking away the responsibility of employers to actually offer substantive rewards for this behaviour which they theoretically value and we’re placing the responsibility onto employees who are often (as in my case and probably yours, if not now then historically) in seriously reduced power positions.

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