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AI and Technology Will Kill the Protestant Work Ethic

Updated on January 16, 2017

The Protestant Work Ethic considers hard work valuable in itself, ignoring work performed for evil ends such as Soviet and Nazi concentration and death camps and the hard work death squads devoted to their work in Pinochet’s Argentina. The Work Ethic has become a cultural norm with work equated to employment, i.e wage labour. Capitalism used the Protestant Work Ethic to deceive workers into enriching Capitalists and by governments to deprive workers of time to engage in politics.

Technology has dramatically reduced the amount of Labour Business needs and it is not clear how long before the labour market will rebound or whether it will ever rebound. Some possible ways to deal with the problem this causes are given but each has flaws as well as advantages.

What Is the Work Ethic

Work, especially hard work, is valuable in itself. Work is more important than anything else. You must be diligent, punctual and ready to wait for the rewards of your hard work, preferably for ever, and must not enjoy the fruits of your labour.

This work ethic, The Protestant Work Ethic, has embedded itself deeply into western and global culture and was used by Capitalists as a way to delude the working class, those who work for wages and rely only on those wages [1], into creating more wealth for the rich then adopted by the Soviet Union where the Heroic Soviet Worker was an ideal for which to strive and unemployment and self employment were both crimes.

The working class includes salaried knowledge workers and white collar workers, who often regard themselves as superior to the self employed. It has created mental disorders like workaholism, and unemployment, lack of independent means of generating an income and a lack of wage-labour employment, has led to many suicides worldwide.

In the United Kingdom the work ethic is effectively religious dogma [6] . This is less so in the USA where nominally Christianity still reigns supreme. For many work is synonymous with unemployment with self employed being asked “why don’t you get a real job”.

The Soviet Union embraced the Work Ethic and made unemployment and self employment crimes
The Soviet Union embraced the Work Ethic and made unemployment and self employment crimes

What Is A Work Ethic

Work Ethic can also apply to individual attitudes to work. The definition of a work ethic differs between the employed and the self employed but the two cases overlap.

For the self employed a good work ethic is professionalism: delivering good work on time and in budget, reliability, honesty, integrity and respect for the client.

For employees a good work ethic includes reliability, dedication, productivity, cooperation and character [2,3].

The main differences between these cases work are that the self-employed must satisfy customers while employees must satisfy apparently arbitrary rules, unwritten workplace conventions and idiosyncratic managers.

What Does "Work" Mean?

Gorz [4] distinguishes three types of work.

  1. Work done for economic ends: to earn a living. Satisfaction or pleasure gained from this is a bonus.

  2. Work done to achieve a result: Necessary unpaid work such as housework. This can be made fulfilling and sometimes can be used as a form of meditation when it may become

  3. Autonomous work: something done freely as an end in itself. Financial reward is a bonus. This kind of work that makes you free, builds character and is fulfilling.

Since the rise of Capitalism work for economic ends, in particular wage-labour has been perceived as the dominant form of work with self-employment regarded as an aberration or self-indulgence till recently. Employment is morally neutral but has been abused by employers for example in the scrip system, where workers are paid in tokens redeemable only at a company store as described by Tennessee Ernie Ford in his song Sixteen Tons, in the pressurising of white collar workers to work unpaid overtime, and in IT where employer demands for “Passion” translate as a willingness to overwork. Today it is safe to say most workers dread Monday and look forward to Friday. For those who have to work evenings and weekends their days off replace the weekend.

What Does "Hard Work" mean

Hard work is not the same thing for employed and self employed and employed and is the same thing it was before Capitalism. Before Capitalism work was often episodic. The pace of life and work was slower and early capitalists found it hard to get workers to adjust to the treadmill of the 72 hour week week in and week out [4].

Today hard work is, for employees, keeping your nose to the grindstone and your shoulder to the wheel for five days out of seven (sometimes more), total fixation on employer dictated tasks and complying with rules that often make it hard to complete those tasks. The self employed work harder than the employed but in bursts, can choose their hours and, unlike employees, working smart is rewarded with time not more work.

The Impact of AI and Technology

AI and Technology have dramatically reduced and will continue to reduce, the amount of wage labour needed by today’s corporations. Some 15 million jobs in the UK alone could be eliminated by automation.

At the same time the work worshipping elite, many of whom have never done a manual or menial job insist there are enough jobs for all and the unemployed are lazy and unemployed by choice. This has come full cycle from the origins of the Protestant Work Ethic: once again there is not enough work for everyone and a belief that those without work are lazy or trying to skive off the work of others. Hack theologians created a theology that favours big business and today hack economists promote the religion of neoliberal austerity.

AI, Technology and Automation could reduce the working week without loss of productivity or income and replacing the work-hard ethic with a work-smart ethic with time available to do a job well or increase the wealth of the machine owners to the point where it threatens society itself.

Possible Solutions for a Workless World

Jobs are vanishing as a result of new technology. Self employment will be tougher as machines take over work formerly done by humans. Robot house painters or electricians will need significant advances in AI but driverless cars are here already and will eliminate many jobs. Chatbots already perform basic customer support services and soon, when contacting a large business by phone you will hear “Sorry, the humans have all gone home, how may I help you”

One solution is the Universal Basic Income. This has two major flaws. Unless it is high enough to make working optional it will basically be a top up to income gained by wage-labour. Employers will be able to drop wages and force self employed rates down, but keep prices stable. If the basic income is high enough to make work optional for everyone but low enough that working is worthwhile it will be unaffordable unless the machines that take over the jobs are taxed. Business owners would need convincing that the tax would come back to them as the now jobless public consume their products.

Another option is to reduce the working week with no drop in income. Gorz suggests a 1,000 hour year, which would be insignificant in say Germany where the average is a 1300 hour year. Initially however reducing the working week to 4 days and a total of 30 hours would have a significant impact. A five day week of 30 hours would have much less impact as it would not free up leisure time in a way that could be properly enjoyed. One day a week is worth more, in this context, than a two hour reduction in the working day. This would, at least temporarily, create wage-labour jobs delaying a social crisis. Further reductions to the working week could be made later.

Or there could be a guaranteed job for everyone at a sensible wage. This would mean a lot of unneeded jobs would be created and be highly inefficient.

These approaches do not challenge the dominance of work. A basic income is effectively a handout to business. A reduced working week wont prevent the amount of labour needed shrinking, merely delay the crunch point and guaranteed employment will create fake jobs.

If however everyone had access to basic needs, which must be defined by public debate, created and maintained by robots an informal economy would arise. The medium of exchange is unpredictable, though Ian Banks’ gas giant dwellers who used “Kudos”, and supplying goods and services to high kudos individuals attracted kudos to the supplier may hint at one possible future.


Technology and AI mean the job market will decrease for the foreseeable future as will work to achieve a result. The remaining work will be that which requires human-human interaction. Currently proposed solutions to the problems this raises do not challenge the dominance of work and only delay things. The idealistic end goal of a world where work is optional, with, for example socially useful or popular autonomous work generating “Kudos” that rubs off seems the only desirable goal.


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