The Protestant work ethic, the Calvinist work ethic or the Puritan work ethic is a concept in theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasizes that hard work, discipline and frugality are a result of a person’s subscription to the values espoused by the Protestant faith, particularly Calvinism.
This contrasts with the focus upon religious attendance, confession, and ceremonial sacrament in the Roman Catholic tradition. A person does not need to be a religious Calvinist in order to follow the Protestant work ethic, as it is a part of certain cultures impacted by the Protestant Reformation.
The concept is often credited with helping to define the societies of Northern, Central and Western Europe such as in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom (except England), Germany and Switzerland. Even though some of these countries were more affected by Lutheranism or Anglicanism than Calvinism, local Protestants nevertheless were influenced by these ideas to a varying degree. As penal law was enacted to uphold the uniform teachings of the Church of England in England, only various English dissenters held to those values. Among them were the Puritans who emigrated to New England, bringing the work ethic with them and helping define the culture of what would become the United States of America. Germanic immigrants brought their work ethic to the United States of America, Canada, South Africa and other European colonies.
Protestants, beginning with Martin Luther, reconceptualized worldly work as a duty which benefits both the individual and society as a whole. Thus, the Catholic idea of good works was transformed into an obligation to consistently work diligently as a sign of grace. Whereas Catholicism teaches that good works are required of Catholics as a necessary manifestation of the faith they received, and that faith apart from works is dead (James 2:14–26) and barren, the Calvinist theologians taught that only those who were predestined (cf. the Calvinist concept of double predestination) to be saved would be saved.
Since it was impossible to know who was predestined, the notion developed that it might be possible to discern that a person was elect (predestined) by observing their way of life. Hard work and frugality were thought to be two important consequences of being one of the elect. Protestants were thus attracted to these qualities and supposed to strive for reaching them.
Writer Frank Chodorov argued that the Protestant ethic was long considered indispensable for American political figures:
There was a time, in these United States, when a candidate for public office could qualify with the electorate only by fixing his birthplace in or near the “log cabin.” He may have acquired a competence, or even a fortune, since then, but it was in the tradition that he must have been born of poor parents and made his way up the ladder by sheer ability, self-reliance, and perseverance in the face of hardship. In short, he had to be “self made.” The so-called Protestant Ethic then prevalent held that man was a sturdy and responsible individual, responsible to himself, his society, and his God. Anybody who could not measure up to that standard could not qualify for public office or even popular respect. One who was born “with a silver spoon in his mouth” might be envied, but he could not aspire to public acclaim; he had to live out his life in the seclusion of his own class.
There has been a revitalization of Weber’s interest, including the work of Lawrence Harrison, Samuel P. Huntington, and David Landes. In a New York Times article, published in June 8, 2003, Niall Ferguson pointed that data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) seems to confirm that “the experience of Western Europe in the past quarter-century offers an unexpected confirmation of the Protestant ethic. To put it bluntly, we are witnessing the decline and fall of the Protestant work ethic in Europe. This represents the stunning triumph of secularization in Western Europe—the simultaneous decline of both Protestantism and its unique work ethic.”
It is common for those in a Protestant work culture to skip lunch (traditionally being sustained from a large breakfast) or to eat lunch while doing their job. This is in contrast to Catholic cultures which practice siesta at lunch time, and neo-Confucianist cultures such as China, Korea, and Japan which have a one- or two-hour lunch break. Some countries such as Spain have experimented with banning siesta in order to try to adopt the Protestant work ethic, with hopes of reducing their financial debt via hard-working and efficient employees. In Italy, many shops now remain open during siesta, while in China, companies are encouraging employees to give up their traditional break time.
The economist Joseph Schumpeter (a Catholic) argues that capitalism began in Italy in the 14th century, not in the Protestant areas of Europe. Other factors that further developed the European market economy included the strengthening of property rights and lowering of transaction costs with the decline and monetization of feudalism, and the increase in real wages following the epidemics of bubonic plague.
Becker and Wossmann at the University of Munich have written a discussion paper describing an alternate theory. The abstract to this states that the literacy gap between Protestants (as a result of the Reformation) and Catholics sufficiently explains the economic gaps, and that the “[r]esults hold when we exploit the initial concentric dispersion of the Reformation to use distance to Wittenberg as an instrument for Protestantism.” However, they also note that, between Luther (1500) and 1871 Prussia, the limited data available has meant that the period in question is regarded as a “black box” and that only “some cursory discussion and analysis” is possible.