A Big Enough Why

Michael Metzger

Friedrich Nietzsche believed he who has a why can endure any how. Over the last half century, American industriousness – i.e., the ability to endure hard work – has declined. Most workers today lack a big enough why. Try this one on for size.

In his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray calls industriousness a founding virtue. The Founders believed “everyone involved in the creation of the United States knew that its success depended on virtue in its citizenry.”1 Benjamin Franklin felt that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” This included industriousness, which makes self-government easy to sustain. “A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed.”2 For two centuries there was a “bone-deep assumption that life is to be spent getting ahead through hard work” writes Murray.

This assumption is fading. Beginning in 1973, the General Social Survey (GSS) showed a card to interviewees asking them to indicate which one thing on the list (below) they would most prefer in a job:

* High income
* No danger of being fired
* Chances for advancement
* Working hours are short; lots of free time
* Work important and gives a feeling of accomplishment

Between 1973 and 1994, the results among prime-age whites remained remarkably consistent. The first choice was always work that “gives a feeling of accomplishment” (averaging 58 percent). The two least-chosen first choices were always short hours (4 percent) and no danger of being fired (6 percent). This remarkable consistency is why the GSS dropped the survey for the next twelve years.

In 2006, the GSS reinserted the question, and the results were startling. The 58 percent voting for work that “gives a feeling of accomplishment” was down to 43 percent. Short working hours more than doubled to 9 percent. “No danger of being fired” doubled to 12 percent, with another 13 percent ranking it in second place. Murray concludes that “during the last half of the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, whites by their own testimony became less interested in meaningful work and more interested in secure jobs with short working hours.” Americans looked “downright European.” Examples abound.

From 1960 to 2010, the percentage of people qualifying for federal disability benefits rose from 0.7 percent of labor force to 5.3 percent. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, only 10 percent of prime-age white males worked less than an average of 45 hours a week. Today it’s 20 percent. White-collar male executives are now less industrious, spending their extra time on long lunches or afternoon rounds of golf. Why is this happening? Why is industriousness in decline? Try this word: Management.

In the early 1900s, Frederick Winslow Taylor claimed to have found a way to increase worker productivity in the steel industry. Laborers should be managed. The practice of management undoubtedly preceded him, but it had only been applied to assets, animals, and appetites. Taylor sold the idea that workers are “mentally sluggish,” “very stupid,” or about as intelligent as an “ox.” Laborers are animals in need of management.

Taylor claimed this was all very “scientific.” In 1911, he published The Principles of Scientific Management. It became a phenomenon. Edwin Gay, an apostle of Taylor, was a professor of economics in charge of opening the Graduate School of Business at Harvard. Taylor got in and soon became “the father of scientific management.”

In short order, Taylor was exposed as a fraud. His “experiments” were quickly falsified. But as business schools began to open throughout the country, management continued to be treated as a “science.” The purpose of work was reduced to efficiency. “Taylor destroyed the romance of work,” writes Peter Drucker. “Instead of a noble ‘skill’ [work became] a series of simple notions.”3 There’s the why for work – romance.

Romance is love. Love is essentially why we work. It starts with God. God is love (I John 4:8). Love is the enjoyment of others as well as the desire to expand the circle of love.4 Enjoyment is wow. Expanding is work. God is love, so he works. God is eternal, so work didn’t begin at any time. It’s been around forever. In eternity past, the Father, Son, and Spirit worked, deciding to expand the circle of love by having the Son wed a bride. God created the entirety of humanity in his image to be the bride.

We’re made to enjoy others and expand the circle of love – to work. But our work requires bodily exertion. God doesn’t work this way. He has no body. He is Spirit (John 4:24). He speaks and it happens, like the State Farm commercial. In a fallen world, our work can be wearisome. Adding a layer of managers doesn’t help. In fact, managers make it worse. And that seems to explain the recent decline of industriousness in America.

In 1968, the nation’s universities awarded fewer than 18,000 master’s degrees in business. As of 2009, it has passed 168,000, more than one out of four master’s degrees of all types. Most MBA graduates have unwittingly bought into Taylor’s management myths. They suck the romance out of work. Of course, white-collar male executives can escape the pain they inflict on others. They go to lunch or play golf. Those on the lower rungs of the ladder aren’t so fortunate.

In the closing chapter of his book The Management Myth: Why The Experts Keep Getting It Wrong, Matthew Stewart makes a provocative point. Since academic business research isn’t readable or usable by actual executives, we should study the liberal arts instead of business. The upside of this is the original liberal arts curriculum treated theology as the “queen science.” That’s why the founders felt religion was indispensable for virtue. If more CEOs studied the liberal arts instead of business, they’d likely dismantle a great deal of their management structure. They’d learn to love their workers. It might sound corny, but it’s true. Love is the big enough why that enables us to endure any how.

1 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), loc. 128.
2 Benjamin Franklin to William Strahan, February 16, 1784, in Murphy, 1906, Google Books.
3 Peter F. Drucker, Management Practices for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Harper Business, 1999), p. 138.
4 C.f., Christopher West, At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization (New York: Image Book, 2012)


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  1. Mike,

    Good writing. I love my workers. I love work . Being industrious is critical to every organization and each worker much be industrious to acheive the best outcomes. That is why I can have 15 people effectively reporting to me because I hold them to a standard of self-actualization in being not only industrious, but also accountable to me, themselves and the rest of the workforce for contributing heavily to the growth and prosperity of the organization .

    I do however, take some exception to the broad brush approach that an executive who plays golf in the afternoon must be doing a disservice to the rest of his colleagues and the industriousness, or capacity to be industrious in the business.

    I would agree with you in early stage business development that golf in the afternoon is forbidden if you want to get something good accomplished. That’s why I did not play more than 3 times per year for the first 25 years of my work life.

    If an executive grooms his people proeprly, then by succession the next layer of developed colleagues can take the mantle and gradually continue the spectrum of industriuosness and creativity within the ranks . Maybe this notion applies more to owners than executives who have to be avaialble all day to their co-workers.

    Harold Geneen who ran ITT Corporation in its hey-day from 1959 through 1979 wrote a little paperback book I purchased many years ago entitled, “Managing” . He had several chapters I thoroughly modeled myself after, or at least tried to. One thing he did point out was that the executive needed to be avaialble to his employess all day long. That’s why he worked late into the night many days( which I did for 20 years as well) , so that he could do the creative side of his work uninterrupted . He made himself available to his people during the day.

    I see your point . Owners need to be avaialble too but at some point in time, others have to step up and carry the load. If not , the organization will eventually die. All companys either are growing or dying. I intend to keep Dynasplint growing–and if our work is God honoring–I think He will help me do that.

  2. Mike, I would like to humbly offer this quote from the esteemed theologian (and Negro Leagues great) Buck O’Neil:

    “Love what you do. Uh-huh. Simple as that. Love what you do in life, whether that be shoemaking, lawyering, writing, waiting tables, selling, doctoring, dishwashing, teaching, playing ball, mothering, fathering, policing, engineering, truckdriving, searching for the cure to cancer, firefighting, scouting, tailoring, filmmaking, etcetera, etcetera. Doesn’t matter how much money you make. Doesn’t matter the per capita income of your neighborhood. I have known bellhops who were happier and a lot better off than chairmen of the board. Love what you do. Take pride in it, take joy in it, and you’ll live longer.”

  3. Mike, I don’t know how you have something to make us think to put on here week after week, but it’s great 🙂 Thanks for posting!

    Dan 🙂

  4. David: Thank you. Love really does make the world go ’round.

    George: You might be the exception that proves the rule. Charles Murray cites studies showing how successful white collar workers feel entitled after a certain age – so they play afternoon golf and take extended vacations. Blue collar can’t afford this, so they seek an escape from their toils. Murray says they watch TV. Entitlement and escape both indicate a loss of industriousness.

    This topic of industriousness raises a few more questions, especially for Christians. They are questions that I’m not well prepared to answer. For instance, for believers who claim to follow the Bible, how many work six days a week and sabbath for only one day? That’s what God commanded. And look the trend. For most of human history people worked seven days a week. Only with Constantine’s conversion to Christ did he introduce a six-day workweek, making Sunday a day for sabbath. Still, up until the 1800s most workers worldwide worked seven days a week – and never retired. What are Christians to make of the recent idea of retirement (an idea seemingly at odds with scripture and industriousness) as well as the American introduction of the five-day workweek in the 20th century? If we are to love work, and be industrious, what is the present toward toward fewer working hours – a trend affecting even Christians – telling us?

  5. Romance is key, and the term also connotes “adventure,” as in the bildungsroman (adventure in culture or coming of age through apprenticeship). As someone who works with urban youth, this sense of adventure and accomplishment is the primary impetus for industriousness.

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