What’s up with this Calvinist Work Is Good For You Thing?

There seems to be a lot of Protestant work ethic out there in the PF blogosphere. We have Frugal Zeitgeist wondering Does a Minimalist Lifestyle Breed Laziness while Financial Samurai is concerned about The Dark Side of Early Retirement and observing Being Overly Content Can Be Detrimental To Your Career.

What’s up with that? We seem to definitely be in the ‘no pain no gain‘ zone. Work is there to pay the rent, not there to give meaning to life. Saying it is necessary and good for the soul seems downright Calvinist to me.

When I started work, true, it did give me some meaning, because it was a continuation of the arc that I had been preparing for, as I accepted society’s view of what a good lifestyle would look like. That path runs along these lines

  1. get born
  2. go to school
  3. go to university
  4. get job
  5. get married
  6. have kids
  7. retire
  8. die

All very 1950s, and I wasn’t even born then, but this expectation ran on through the 1970s.

At the same time, however, I was working and living life, and there was the process of what Carl Jung termed individuation going on in me. According to Jung, it is

the process by which individual beings are formed and differentiated [from other human beings]; in particular, it is the development of the psychological individual as a being distinct from the general, collective psychology.

Psychological Types, Coll. Works V6

Max Weber's seminal book on the work ethic and capitalism

Work is good for the soul is probably the force that drives Western capitalism according to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I’d go along with him in that the notion that work is good for you is part of western collective psychology, indeed I had to get to middle age before I found it possible to conceive that this was not a natural part of the way life is. That takes some doing, for instance this lady waited till retirement itself to challenge it, she has seen the light now :)

Compare my failure to challenge the status quo with Weber’s agricultural labourers on page 59:

since the interest of the employer in a speeding- up of harvesting increases with the increase of the results and the intensity of the work, the attempt has again and again been made, by increasing the piece-rates of the workmen, thereby giving them an opportunity to earn what is for them a very high wage, to interest them in increasing their own efficiency. But a peculiar difficulty has been met with surprising frequency: raising the piece-rates has often had the result that not more but less has been accomplished in the same time, because the worker reacted to the increase not by increasing but by decreasing the amount of his work.

Compared with those guys I have 150 years of educational advances, two college degrees, the hindsight of the Enlightenment. They spotted something I didn’t – enough is enough, the aim of life is to have a good time and probably a few beers with their mates. They could recognise what enough looked like, where I had to see more than four decades before I could even recognise the concept.

Of course, I’m selling the Protestant work ethic short. It was part of putting men on the moon, it drove people to cure smallpox and all sorts of good stuff that the West has achieved. It’s problem is it knows no bounds, so it also gives us the BP oil spill, climate change, bad advertising, junk food. It adds energy, but little critical direction, apart from the search for more.

It may even be possible that work is good for some people at some times, but it isn’t necessarily good for everybody, all the time. Yes, we should not become freeloaders on society, to that extent we should do enough work to pay our way. Cutting costs and retiring early doesn’t mean living on benefits for me, unless they are ones everybody in Britain enjoys like using the NHS. I’ve paid my taxes and my NI stamps for more than 30 years.

Early in my career I did get meaning from work, because I had not begun the process of individuation and establishing what my own values were.  As I got older, I realised that I was a debt slave, but in a velvet lined rut. I needed to work to be able to pay the mortgage.

Once I jumped to this, I realised that I didn’t like having other people having such control over my life, and looked at how to pay down this debt. I worked that out without PF blogs and suchlike, because there was no Internet at the time I started. It’s not that hard to work out that you have to spend less than you earn, and it was pretty obvious that if you don’t want other people controlling your life then don’t owe them any money :)

Even after paying down the mortgage I didn’t jump to the slavery part, until my declining but erstwhile good employer began to bring in nutty demeaning performance management BS, at the same time as the project I was working on was cancelled. The manager I worked for tried to use this to squeeze me out after having said he’d back me to retrain earlier on, before the credit crunch. It was at this point that I realised working for someone else, particularly in an office, is bad for you. D’oh…. So along the same lines as ‘if thy mortgage offends thee, pay the damned thing down or don’t take it out in the first place’, I realised that my office job was beginning to offend me.

Enter the PF blogosphere. I had failed to think independently and PF blogs made me realise that with grit and determination you can save enough to retire early, particularly if you spin off alternative income sources. I can only do the preparatory work  and learning with alternative income while I am still working as I’m bloody well not going to pay 42% tax on any alternative income streams, sod that for a game of tin soldiers.

I managed to get one final, and pretty high-profile project in an unusual area for which I happen to have the right skills, which is due to complete in 2012.  I have screwed down my outgoings to less than what I would retire on, and save well over half my earnings to the end of retiring early.

So I don’t get the Calvinist angle one bit. Work is not good for you per se. If you’re the sort that needs work to give you meaning, as I was to stage 4 of the list above, then yes, it is good for you. One you have individuated, you can make your own decisions. Work may be good for you, it may not. I’m with Max Weber, when he says

the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

Work isn’t good for me. What’s wrong with enough? Meaning in life can also come from who you are and who you relate to, not just what you do and what you own. To paraphrase the words of a song

I don’t need no stinkin’ iron cage…

Calvinist work ethic be damned. Freedom for self-determination is my birthright, and I’m going to claim it in the second half of life and continue the Jungian path to individuation. Know thyself…

A ropey copy of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism can be read free on archive.org. Go for the PDF, the text version is rough as guts

Page 2 of the Foreword lends credence to my viewpoint that for modern Westerners this work ethic is an atavistic echo of a religious nature. Like any element of the psyche that is part of an unconscious archetype, challenging the concept that work is an inherent good is met with fierce resistance and rejection. We had it right as part of the 1970s ideal of greater leisure, but urged onwards by those who could not brook the repudiation of such an archetype, we are unable to say enough is enough. We are still paralysed by monetary systems that require a long-term increase in GDP, despite the consequent environmental despoliation that is becoming increasingly clear.

The central idea to which Weber appeals in confirmation of his theory is expressed in the characteristic phrase “a calling.” For Luther, as for most mediaeval theologians, it had normally meant the state of life in which the individual had been set by Heaven, and against which it was impious to rebel. To the Calvinist, Weber argues, the calling is not a condition in which the individual is born, but a strenuous and exacting enterprise to be chosen by himself, and to be pursued with a sense of religious responsibility. Baptized in the bracing, if icy, waters of Calvinist theology, the life of business, once regarded as perilous to the soul

summe periculosa est emptionis et venditionis negotiatio

acquires a new sanctity. Labour is not merely an economic means : it is a spiritual end. Covetousness, if a danger to the soul, is a less formidable menace than sloth.

Another thing that runs deep in the world is groupthink. It does its damndest to suppress individuation. The most famous example is the Asch experiment which showed that 75% of Swarthmore students would agree on the wrong choice of which of four sticks was the shortest if the consensus was there. One can only suspect that students from other universities are have no more spine/thought. These are the people than run society. Examples of groupthink in governments abound. Few people think for themselves; everybody else just parrot intelligently.

Another post from the heart, from where I’m sitting. I’m enjoying this evolving story (appreciate it’s your life, not a fiction for entertainment!)

Some alternative income streams, particularly silly ones like blogging, take years to get going. You may not need to worry about income tax for a few years on that score! In fact, you could be glad to get the lean years out of the way while you still have a wage.

Alternatively, you could look at setting up a Limited company and putting the costs through there, and the income. The latter may be outweighed by the former for a while, again getting around the tax issue.

@ERE Fascinating, I’d like to say that I were immune from the Asch effect, but I can recall too many meetings where bad ideas prevailed because none of us challenged the majority view. At least it’s easier to cause trouble when the end is in sight now :) Though the implication of that experiment is that people’s internal values became synchronized, now that is scary!

@Monevator, thanks for your kind words. I did have a limited company in my multimedia software on the side days, and loved the accounting separation that gave, but never had the cojones to jump. Which probably was no bad thing, that sort of stuff is done cheaper in India now I’d imagine, and good luck to ‘em :)

I don’t currently have ambitions for a blogging career, this is more a way to get a handle and straighten my head out from things that happened by expressing them. I don’t have your deep understanding of PF so I can’t really add much value, and I’m not going to tell people to clip coupons when there’s 10001 other people saying that. OTOH I do love to learn!

However, I have accumulated stories from the trenches over time. It’s good to share some of them, hopefully some readers may take hope that a mortgage (should that be relevant to their life aims) and a credit card isn’t for life :)

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30 Jun 2010, 10:22pm
by Santiago


I, deeply, thank you for this entry.

Since I’m a kid, I’ve always been told to be the best. To work and work and work endlessly, like all there is to life is work like there is no tomorrow.

Lately (I’m 23 years old) I’m finding myself that work is such a terrible thing that it has to be paid. If we really do enjoy what we do, then it’s not work anymore. You don’t “work” on what you enjoy. You just…enjoy.

Again, I thank you deeply. And forgive my spelling mistakes, english is not my primary language.

Best wishes,

Santiago

Santiago, your English is fine. And you’ve got the essentials right – life is about enjoyment, not work!

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