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From Madoff to Murdoch: the demise of the work ethic

By Sam Vaknin - posted Wednesday, 27 July 2011

"When work is a pleasure, life is a joy! When work is a duty, life is  slavery." Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), Russian novelist, author, and playwright

The former head of the biggest stock exchange in the world swindles his  clients. The editors and journalists of Britain's largest paper hack the  phone of the victims of crime and terrorism. Greek workers paralyze the  country, refusing to give up early and costly pensions. American congressmen  say that defaulting on the country's debts wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Airplanes, missiles, and space shuttles crash due to lack of maintenance,  absent-mindedness, and pure ignorance. Software support personnel, aided and  abetted by Customer Relationship Management application suites, are curt  (when reachable) and unhelpful. Despite expensive, state of the art supply  chain management systems, retailers, suppliers, and manufacturers habitually  run out of stocks of finished and semi-finished products and raw materials.  People from all walks of life and at all levels of the corporate ladder  skirt their responsibilities and neglect their duties.


Whatever happened to the work ethic? Where is the pride in the immaculate  quality of one's labor and produce? Both dead in the water. A series of earth-shattering social, economic, and  technological trends converged to render their jobs loathsome to many - a  tedious nuisance best avoided.

1. Job security is a thing of the past. Itinerancy in various McJobs reduces  the incentive to invest time, effort, and resources into a position that may  not be yours next week. Brutal layoffs and downsizing traumatized the  workforce and produced in the typical workplace a culture of obsequiousness,  blind obeisance, the suppression of independent thought and speech, and  avoidance of initiative and innovation. Many offices and shop floors now  resemble prisons.

2. Outsourcing and offshoring of back office (and, more recently, customer  relations and research and development) functions sharply and adversely  effected the quality of services from helpdesks to airline ticketing and  from insurance claims processing to remote maintenance. Cultural mismatches  between the (typically Western) client base and the offshore service  department (usually in a developing country where labor is cheap and plenty)  only exacerbated the breakdown of trust between customer and provider or  supplier.

3. The populace in developed countries are addicted to leisure time. Most  people regard their jobs as a necessary evil, best avoided whenever  possible. Hence phenomena like the permanent temp - employees who prefer a  succession of temporary assignments to holding a proper job. The media and  the arts contribute to this perception of work as a drag - or a potentially  dangerous addiction (when they portray raging and abusive workaholics).

4. The other side of this dismal coin is workaholism - the addiction to  work. Far from valuing it, these addicts resent their dependence. The job  performance of the typical workaholic leaves a lot to be desired.  Workaholics are fatigued, suffer from ancillary addictions, and short  attention spans. They frequently abuse substances, are narcissistic and  destructively competitive (being driven, they are incapable of team work).

5. The depersonalization of manufacturing - the intermediated divorce  between the artisan/worker and his client - contributed a lot to the  indifference and alienation of the common industrial worker, the veritable  "anonymous cog in the machine".


Not only was the link between worker and product broken - but the bond  between artisan and client was severed as well. Few employees know their  customers or patrons first hand. It is hard to empathize with and care about  a statistic, a buyer whom you have never met and never likely to encounter.  It is easy in such circumstances to feel immune to the consequences of one's  negligence and apathy at work. It is impossible to be proud of what you do  and to be committed to your work - if you never set eyes on either the final  product or the customer! Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece, "Modern Times"  captured this estrangement brilliantly.

6. Many former employees of mega-corporations abandon the rat race and  establish their own businesses - small and home enterprises.  Undercapitalized, understaffed, and outperformed by the competition, these  fledging and amateurish outfits usually spew out shoddy products and  lamentable services - only to expire within the first year of business.

7. Despite decades of advanced notice, globalization caught most firms the  world over by utter surprise. Ill-prepared and fearful of the onslaught of  foreign competition, companies big and small grapple with logistical  nightmares, supply chain calamities, culture shocks and conflicts, and  rapacious competitors. Mere survival (and opportunistic managerial plunder)  replaced client satisfaction as the prime value.

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About the Author

Sam Vaknin ( ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, and international affairs. He served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, Global Politician, PopMatters, eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101. Visit Sam's Web site at

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