Has Britain lost the Protestant Work Ethic?

One of the more puzzling aspects of the Brexit debate I don’t understand (and I mean I genuinely can’t get my head round it) is the concern about the possibility of a shortage of workers after Brexit.

Only this week I heard that one in ten care home staff are from the EU and that there are major concerns for agriculture (especially fruit picking) and the NHS.   I don’t deny that these concerns are genuine – so what is my problem?

There are around 120,000 unemployed fit adults of working age in Scotland – 1.45 million in the whole UK.   According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation   17% of homes in England with working age population are ‘workless’.  In Scotland it is 21%. Over one in 5.   Given these figures why is it that the fruit farms are unable to find workers?

I don’t know the answer but let me put this out there to see if anyone else can come up with better answers. I will restrict this to Scotland but I suspect it may apply across the whole UK.

  1. Fit and able Scots don’t want to do the work. 

When I was growing up I was desperate to work in the ‘tattie’ holidays and earn some much-needed pocket-money.  I also worked on farms in the summer holidays.  How many teenagers are able and willing to do the same today?  As a student we had long holidays because we needed to spend the summer working to fund us during term time.  Why can’t students work on the farms during the summer?

download-1In Dundee we had the ‘berry’ buses which would come round the housing estates and pick people up to go out and work (and eat!) the strawberries and raspberries.  Would anyone be bothered to do that today?

I think another problem is that we have demeaned the notion of physical labour as though it was somehow beneath the now more than 50% of us who have been to University.   We think that dirty jobs, or poor jobs should be left to our imported wage slaves.  In other words we pay others to do the jobs we think are beneath us. And perhaps we have just become lazy?  I know of at least one agricultural business that really wants to hire Scots but almost exclusively employs Polish people because they are more reliable, honest and harder working.

2.  Employers don’t want them.

    It’s too simple to state that Scots can’t be bothered.  I know several young (and not so young people) who would love to work in the holidays and at weekends but they can’t get the jobs because the employers don’t want them.  Why would that be the case?   Because a lot of agri-business doesn’t employ individuals as such but gets ‘gang masters’ to recruit their workers.  It’s a lot cheaper to import cheap labour.  Yes we can kid ourselves that we pay the minimum wage – but there is a way round that.  I know of one firm which pays the minimum wage but then charges its ’employees’ £450 per month for their on site dormitory accommodation.  The working and Dk9OMpBXsAUhWq_living conditions are atrocious. I know of another health care business which has an ‘unofficial’ policy of just employing Eastern Europeans because they are cheaper and easier to fire.   “freedom of movement’ is a great thing for the middle classes and for those businesses which like the cheap labour.  I’m not so sure it is an overall good for the poor in this country.  (Incidentally that’s one of the reasons that the owner of Superdry is so keen to keep us in the EU – his fortune was made on the backs of poor people who because of ‘freedom of movement of capital and labour’ he could exploit – the system works for him and his fellow corporates – that’s why they want to keep it!)

3. We have lost the Protestant work ethic –

which used to be one of our greatest assets.  There used to be great pride in being working class.  Being a farm worker (my dad), a nurse (my mum), a miner, a docker, a bus driver were all seen as badges of honour.  Now, whilst they may be romanticised in the past and in middle class plays, it seems as though (often due to well-meaning middle class intervention) we have turned our working class into a benefits class.  A number of years ago a lady came to see me and told me that she was clearing £800 cash per month with housing benefit and other things being taken care of.  In order for her to get a job which would give her the same cash to spend she would have needed to earn £25,000 pa.  Given that she had been out of work for over three decades, had no experience and skills, that was just not going to happen.  I felt so sorry for her because her attitude (as is that of many others) is why should I work for something I can get for free?  And she didn’t know the answer – its called dignity and self-respect.  I recall my father being unemployed for a while after he lost his job as a farm labourer….although he had paid his national insurance and his taxes all his life, he did not want to sponge off the State (we pointed out that that is exactly what he would not be doing!).

 We have also turned disability into an opportunity to massage the unemployment figures.  There are some areas of Scotland where one in five people are on disability benefit.  I just don’t believe that we have that number of genuinely disabled people.   The tendency to call everything ‘disability’ does a great deal of harm – especially to those who are genuinely disabled.

Speaking of benefits – I do think the whole system needs reformed.  There are people who can ‘play’ it very well.  They are dishonest and manipulative.  Often middle class people know how to use benefits well.   And the rich know how to get their tax breaks.  But others genuinely struggle and need food banks!   I think of the woman in Brora who when she became a Christian told the benefits people that she was earning 50p per hour cleaning a wealthy woman’s home – and she was penalised.  Meanwhile every week a man who was on disability benefit and was given a disability car used to come and park it outside the Manse, before literally jogging down to the pub!

Another factor may be that in turning Universities into businesses which provide a product for its consumers, rather than primarily being about education we have made a big mistake.  We have demeaned the trades and slowly destroyed manufacturing.  Somehow we have sent out the message that getting a degree in social studies from a former Polytec is more valuable than doing an apprenticeship in plumbing.  In Scotland we have undermined colleges whilst promoting Universities – which in turn now have a cap on Scottish students and are desperate to improve their business by getting more English and overseas.  As a result this week we have ended up with the bizarre situation of Scottish Universities having spaces in ‘clearing’ which are not available to Scottish students.

IN that regard at what some term the higher end of the scale we face a skills shortage because our governments don’t do long-term thinking and have not invested in enough training – again preferring to rely on the short-term fix of recruiting such as doctors and nurses from overseas.  Don’t get me wrong I love the fact that our NHS is multi-national in its employment – but I think its wrong for us to take much-needed nurses from Zimbabwe, or dentists from Rumania, because we can’t be bothered training enough of our own citizens.

The Protestant Work Ethic was not the view, as is often so erroneously taught, that you proved you were one of the Elect by working hard.   It was rather the view that as a human being made in the image of the Creator you were here on this earth to create, to steward and to provide for your family and society.  If a man shall not work he shall not eat.  It was a view which regarded manual labour as a creative gift from God.  It taught that we were dependent on God, not on the State. And it applied an equality and dignity in this to all human beings.  In forgetting that, we have turned human beings from glorious independent creative responsible creatures, into pathetic beings dependent on the State forgetting who and whose we really are.

Thats why we can’t and won’t pick berries.  We have lost our dignity and self-respect and live in a fantasy land where everyone is owed a living and few make one.

This country was built on the Protestant work ethic, not the liberal shirk one.  Perhaps its time for us to regain our dignity and self-respect and stop whining that other people won’t come and do our work for us?

27 thoughts on “Has Britain lost the Protestant Work Ethic?

  1. The Protestant Work Ethic is an old myth.
    Social scientist Rodney Stark points out that “during their critical period of economic development, these northern centres of capitalism were Catholic, not Protestant — the Reformation still lay well into the future.”
    British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper has said, “The idea that large-scale industrial capitalism was ideologically impossible before the Reformation is exploded by the simple fact that it existed.”
    Historian Fernand Braudel wrote “all historians have opposed this tenuous theory [the Protestant Ethic], although they have not managed to be rid of it once and for all. Yet it is clearly false. The northern countries took over the place that earlier had been so long and brilliantly been occupied by the old capitalist centres of the Mediterranean. They invented nothing, either in technology or business management.”

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    1. No – the Protestant work ethic is not a myth. Max Weber’s interpretation of it may be wrong – but it did exist. It does not explain everything and it does not deny other cultural and social factors – or that there was a Catholic work ethic…but it did exist.

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  2. All of the problems with the Protestant work ethic that you describe are also prevalent in the USA. Cheap labor is one of the reasons that some are so vocal about allowing illegal immigrants into the country. Having lost our moral compass, we flounder around without the Protestant ethics that we were taught from our youth. Those with that ethic to work in order to eat are in the minority these days, sad to say.

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  3. Good post. I can only give insight from a while back. I was speaking to the Finance Director of a local fish factory whilst having a pint. I asked him the question ‘why do you employ predominantly EU (non-British) staff.
    He said they worked hard, did not repeatedly check their phones all day, rarely called in sick and local people were not applying.
    Like I say, that is not empirical evidence at all, and I have to add, that over the years I have got to know some of the EU workers. They tell me that they have no basic rights, work zero hour contracts and experience bullying. Yet they are unable to leave as it ‘pays the rent’.

    I think your post addresses most of these issues and adds more as well. I like it when the church speaks about these issues of society. Thanks.

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    1. “They tell me that they have no basic rights, work zero hour contracts and experience bullying. Yet they are unable to leave as it ‘pays the rent’.”
      The conditions the employers would like us all to work under: and fund our own transport too, since providing “berry buses” would eat into their profits. Keeping your workforce isolated in camps and under your control is just as convenient for a ruthless business as for any one-party communist State.
      And the problem goes farther back, and deeper, than that: the contempt in high society for those making money from “trade”, rather than land ownership and rents, was ingrained before England and Scotland were even in a Union. It’s the reason the English school system after the war never really worked: the grammar schools were indeed successful, but no similar resources were given to the secondary moderns where non-academic talents and potential skills, instead of being encouraged, were merely dumped.
      The pseudo-religious idea that financial success is evidence of one’s moral superiority (and the even more pernicious obverse) is pretty well addressed in today’s set readings for the liturgical Churches: Ezekiel 28 and Matthew 19.
      https://livingspace.sacredspace.ie/o2203G/

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  4. Well I can comment on two of these. I live in Perthshire so there is lots of berry fields about and during summer holidays at uni I would have loved the opportunity to at least have a go at berry picking. But I couldn’t drive at the time and accomodation was on site which seemed a bit intimidating! I got the impression they weren’t looking for local young people and I never heard of any buses picking local people up.

    I think the assumption that everybody should go to uni if their grades are good enough is also damaging. I think the only useful things I learnt in an arts degree (apart from the actual experience of living away from home and meeting new people) were things I could have learnt at school if the focus hadn’t been so much on how to pass exams. But if myself and others I’ve met my age are anything to go by, a lot of young people are coming out of uni wanting to work hard, but not sure what value their skill set has, and want a job that is actually useful. I ended up in hospitality (another area which would apparently struggle with less people from the EU). I think if there was less potential employees in hospitality the best eployers could do would be to offer employees a vision (i.e. making food that is just good or environmentally friendly, or actually serving locals and helping a community) – because that’s the kind of thing those of us with arts degrees actually care about! I don’t think I’ve met any people my age who just don’t want to work. But I think they do want to feel like they’re contributing something real and not just being a cog in a machine.

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  5. You raise some interesting points but I think there are some omissions from your piece.

    The minimum wage. You picked fruit when the minimum wage did not exist. As I understand it, pickers were paid on amount picked regardless of hours worked? Which made cheap labour even then. Now the minimum wage affects the cost of fruit and veg. The problem is that supermarkets have set the price at which crops will be bought and if the farmers costs are higher then tough. And this is driven by consumers as well who dont want to pay more for food. So the entire chain looks for cheapest labour and thus thinks become exploitative. Perhaps if we can get consumers to be willing to pay more we can use proper labour costs when pricing fruit and veg. Related to this is your comment about gangs. Who wants to try and get a job on the farm prior if the work gangs control things? Relatedly though is how bureaucratic employment now is. You cant just rock up at the gate a get a job. Remember, employers are part of the immigration system now. They need to check all paperwork to ensure that the person getting a job is allowed to do so. Cant go on name or colour of a person – immigration has been multi-generational now. Legit Brits have to be asked for all their paperwork. But that means things like bank statements, passports, rental agreements, utility bills. A person might only have one of those. The cost of all the checks also impacts on the cost of fruit and veg.

    Timing is an issue as well. You mention students – they often have summer jobs or year round jobs that they cant leave to pick fruit. And the main picking season is actually university term time. Fruit picking is not a full time permanent job. Who wants seasonal work – especially if it affects benefit payments when unemployed.

    I am not surprised that there are people who game the benefits system whilst others struggle to get a referral to the foodbank. The problem is that these people are not targeted by those who run the system. It is the actual disabled that are targeted. It is the actual disabled that are told they are healthier than they are. I mean, if you want to see a miracle factory in operation, just sit outside a disability assessment office. People go in with lifelong or sometimes terminal conditions only be told that they are very fit for work. I actually think that the one in five figure is accurate but also includes disabilities that would not stop people working on farms. The guy with car and going to the pub should be reported. Not for the car which is a massive boost to a disabled person but for drink driving!

    I also dont think you have considered transport. These fruit picking places tend to be away from public transport routes. And the cost of public transport is massive these days. If you grew up rurally and live rurally then local farms will be known to you. If you grew up on an estate at the edge of Dundee for example, do you even know these farms are looking for workers?

    I even agree with you on the issue of training doctors, nurses, dentists etc. It strikes me as perverse that the government does not invest in training in these areas and instead limits learning places. Although it should be noted that places like the middle east and Australia take our trained doctors and nurses so the global system is in play here. We take some and we lose some. We take those looking for better and lose those looking for something better.

    “It was a view which regarded manual labour as a creative gift from God. ”

    I do find this an interesting point. For much nearly all of the time we have had Protestantism we have had exploited workforces (and technically still do when they are shipped in from abroad or are men abused due to low intellect or other mental health conditions). Toiling on a farm for a rich landowner for pennies or 12+hours a day in dangerous factories is not something to be romanticized or considered superior to what we have today. Perhaps a balance needs to be struck – a fair days pay for a fair days work. Of course, who decides what is fair is a difficult question.

    With the rise of those who feel exploited and shut out by capitalism I have seen in the US a rise in the number of blogs from evangelicals about the dangers of any economic system other than unbridled capitalism. But I do think its important to acknowledge that people are suffering, not because they dont want to work but that the costs of living are so much higher now.

    If we want a work ethic then surely we also need a system where work is rewarded or at least pays enough to meet basic human needs. Like food and healthcare. There is no dignity in being homeless, there is no dignity in being ill, there is no dignity in living with the capricious whims of landlords who dont care about the property, just about the income. There is no self-respect when working for employers and being underpaid. There is no self-respect when all the hours you work cannot put food on the table for your children. So you go without.

    You think it is bad to be dependent on the state? Who else is going to look after everyone equally? Employers dont. Landlords dont. Churches dont (different churches do a lot for their own and limited ranges of others). Whilst God maybe in whose image we are created but a look around the planet shows that He isnt for direct intervention and humans exploit other humans. In the short term, we only have friends, family and the state to rely on to make an immediate difference.

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    1. Thanks Exiled….a few quick responses to your helpful post.

      No – the State is not going to look after everyone equally. Never has done. Never will

      A fair days work for a fair days pay is the Protestant work ethic!

      If doctors are trained here – they should pay back the cost of their training if they go to paid employment elsewhere.

      Yes – it is relatively easy to get from Dundee to the Carse of Gowrie and the other major fruit picking areas. But as explained the farmers want dormitory accomodation – much easier to control the workers.

      Your point about benefits being affected by work is of course true and part of the problem.

      The point about the car is that he was not disabled.

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  6. Hear, hear David. You have outlined the situation very accurately and it echoes my own thoughts- the distortion of attitudes toward work is depressing, unemployment is a dreadful sentence on a person and as I know from recent personal experience, it eats into confidence and hope. I got to the point of emotional breakdown in one job interview because I was feeling already it was a “hiding to nothing “ and that isn’t healthy. Regardless of the money I cannot understand people not wanting to work. The upbuilding of a person is achieved in part by family and work, in whole by faith. Man was set to work in Eden and it was not grievous to him. We see the destruction of man’s estate in full view, in this respect at least, with the perverted normalising of dog eat dog principles in commerce, a defacement of Government duty of care to citizens by ill thought out and poorly implemented welfare, political indifference and an absent message of spiritual strength from the church to a citizenship groaning under so many secular opinions, which all fail and are seen to fail in the way you have elaborated.

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  7. Consider companies like Rowntrees, Cadburys, M&S, who unlike places like Superdry, took pride in the fact they paid their staff well, looked after them, and still made a profit.
    Not only do we have staff who will not work, we have companies who will not share the benefits their staff generate, with their staff.
    The current benefits system cannot be compared to the Dole. Today those on benefits have all the perks most working families have, the latest phones gadgets and clothes, and they dont have to work for them. To deny them these is to harm their mental health, our culture is one of entitlement, and its a false gravy train the state has pandered to for too long.

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  8. I don’t think that there is anything exclusively Protestant about ‘the view that as a human being made in the image of the Creator you were here on this earth to create, to steward and to provide for your family and society’ although I think we will agree that that is not the primary reason that God created us. As the ‘Penny Catechism’’, from which Catholics successfully learned their faith until the 1960s, says, “God made me to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him for ever in the next’.

    As to this country being built on the Protestant work ethic, we should not forget the immense contribution made to Scotland’s economic development by Irish labourers, most of whom were Catholic. There are many parallels between the causes, treatment and consequences of Irish and East European immigration. However, the attitude of the native Scots to Irish immigrants (and their descendants) was far worse than anything meted out to East Europeans today. You certainly won’t find any reports being submitted to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland bemoaning East European immigration and demanding strict limits be put on the number.

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  9. I did leave a reply to the post but it was censored.I hope people are allowed to disagree with you. I am unemployed and have been for several years and I have tried without success to get a job. I have a problem with EU migration and employment because I feel British workers are tarred with the same brush that they dont want to work this is simply not the case. I strongly feel that in a time of recession and high unemployment priority should be given to British workers to stimulate the local economy and reduce unemployment locally. I have applied for numerous posts and been unsuccesful only to find the post has gone to an Eastern European, many posts including clerical, catering, hotel receptionists posts. I would pick fruit but I have a really bad back doing normal everyday things and I know it would flare up if I took this kind of work. I feel that this government are committing sin by crushing the dreams of unemployed people who want to work by continously allowing free movement, I voted Leave and I would do so again. If wanting jobs to go to my fellow unemployed British people is considered racist then I am.

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    1. No – no post was censored (I do wish people would stop being so sensitive about their post not being approved immediately!).. I am currently in the US and do not spend 24 hours per day on the Internet. The only reason I don’t allow automatic posting is bitter experience! I want this blog to be a place for civilised discussion not internet ranting. Disagreeing with me is not a reason for exclusion!

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  10. I would love a job that gave me a fair days pay for a fair days work it has never happened I have always taken on voluntary work and the managers giving me orders have most of the time not been experienced or as good as I would be in that position. I worked for the council for 12 weeks on a work placement they were going to offer me a job but no funding was available. I was asked to volunteer in the team 2 days a week for a while in the hope that something might come up and I would be known. I said no because I would be doing the same job as everyone else but not getting paid for it. I felt very let down by the council and by God. As a Christian I feel God should provide work for his children as Adam and Eve were meant to work in the garden. I think unemployment is a consequence of the fall. As Christians we are supposed to have favour in the eyes of God so why are some Christians unemployed? Does God have favourites, I am struggling with my faith at the moment. Just being honest

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  11. “Noble, upright, self-relying Toil! Who that knows thy solid worth and value would be ashamed of thy hard hands, and thy soiled vestments, and thy obscure tasks – thy humble cottage, and hard couch, and homely fare! Save for thee and thy lessons, man in society would everywhere sink into a sad compound of the fiend and the wild beast; and this fallen world would be as certainly a moral as a natural wilderness.”

    Quote from Hugh Miller’s “My Schools and Schoolmasters”.

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  12. The Protestant Work Ethic is an old myth, I know facts and evidence and academia are inconvenient for your arguments but facts are facts whether you try to censor me or not.

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  13. David,
    Read Rodney Stark’s Reformation Myths: Five Centuries of Misconceptions and (some) Misfortunes. Don’t worry Stark is a Protestant and very pro-Christians so you don’t need to worry about your readers learning about any new or ‘heretical ideas’. Stark points out that the state forced people to become Protestants as in Sweden (how ironic when some Protestants claim to be anti-state!).

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  14. Gordon – unemployment is a terrible thing no matter what we believe but the world has, to mirror a little of what you say, brought this on itself. We live in cheap times, in terms of our value to one another, yet the cost to ourselves of that cheapening is terribly costly, in so many ways. I think if your faith is being tested, then surely that is a good thing as it will test your mettle and if your faith has strength at all, it will shape you up far more than the days – which I trust will come to you as they have, for now, to me – when you see a half decent wage coming in again. We all do well when the times are good. But for you, as a Christian, “seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you”,
    “That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ…” A gospel of prosperity is something to be reviled and has no place in the Christian life. We must take the blows that everyone else does but react differently by remembering “He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust”. You are favoured because you are a child of His. Believe it and deepen your faith, read and digest your bible, pray and get others to pray. What sort of work is it you are looking for?

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  15. I’m so grateful to you for writing this. As others have pointed out, these thoughts are point-for -point applicable in the US.

    I heard this podcast last year, and it encouraged me and reinforced my ideas about work. It’s such a good lesson, and it has shaped the way I talk to others about work, the way I consider my own work, and the way I present work to my kid.

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/exploring-my-strange-bible/id1271147429?mt=2&i=1000391632457

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