Capitalism and the Decline of the Protestant Work Ethic

June 10, 2003

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of Max Weber's essay, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," we are witnessing the decline and fall of the Protestant work ethic in Europe. This represents the stunning triumph of secularization in Western Europe, and the simultaneous decline of both Protestantism and its unique work ethic, says professor Niall Ferguson.

According to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development:

  • The average working American spends 1,976 hours a year on the job.
  • The average German works just 1,535 -- 22 percent less.
  • The Dutch and Norwegians put in even fewer hours.
  • Even the British do 10 percent less work than their trans-Atlantic cousins.

What clinches the Weber thesis is that Northern Europe's declines in working hours coincide almost exactly with steep declines in religious observance.

  • In the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, less than 10 percent of the population now attend church at least once a month, a dramatic decline since the 1960s.
  • Only in Catholic Italy and Ireland do more than a third of the population go to church on a monthly basis.
  • In the recent Gallup Millennium Survey of religious attitudes, 49 percent of Danes, 52 percent of Norwegians and 55 percent of Swedes said God did not matter to them.
  • In North America, by comparison, 82 percent of respondents said God was "very important."

So the decline of work in Northern Europe has occurred more or less simultaneously with the decline of Protestantism.

Weber's vindication has profound implications for the next year's enlargement of the European Union, when the Baltic States, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and the Czech and Slovak Republics will become full European Union members.

Source: Niall Ferguson, "Why America Outpaces Europe (Clue: The God Factor)," New York Times, June 8, 2003.

 

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