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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
- get born
- go to school
- go to university
- get job
- get married
- have kids
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
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.