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Home » To work or not is the question plaguing Hamlet today

To work or not is the question plaguing Hamlet today

by Neera Kuckreja Sohoni
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Hamlet today
Is work hailed for personal growth and societal progress or questioned and rejected? Are work ethics universal keys to advancement or relics of exploitative cultures?

The Covid-era lockdowns have eroded traditional workplace norms and dulled ambition and excellence in work and academic settings. The epidemic’s fear of illness and mortality shook people’s confidence in life’s certainties, especially affecting the young in risk-averse societies like America. The uncertainty led to questioning traditional norms, work ethics, and expectations of fulfillment.

In a 2022 study, the number of 18-year-olds willing to work overtime dropped significantly from 54% in 2020 to a record-low 36%. Additionally, young people were less inclined to prioritize work, indicating a perceived work ethic challenge among Gen Z.

The exploitative woke culture

The desire to perform and commitment to excel have been so basic to human progress and civilization that it is impossible to imagine human advancement could have occurred absent hard work, ambition, and a relatively stable social environment and family life, with faith playing its own cohesive and inspirational role. It is painful and disturbing then to see those systems and values disowned.

The traditional embrace of American capitalism now questions the reliance on profit and individual wealth. The Covid era and the rise of woke culture have devalued work and critiqued the Protestant work ethic as exploiting labor for colonialism and white supremacy.

In the denigration process, American passion (now decried as obsession) for wealth and pursuing the utopia of capitalism have come in for special opprobrium. As in communist China, wealth accumulated for some at the cost of many is being rejected by ‘influencers’ in America as being antithetical to democratic principles the nation committed in 1776.

Religion in the contemporary US, particularly among the woke, is likened to the opium that enslaved Black people, while the Protestant work ethic is viewed as a tool used by the wealthy to exploit the labor of the poor. This shift in perspective represents an unexpected challenge to America’s political and business leaders.

The alternative woke system views all performance from the lens of racism and inequity, both of which ‘wokesters’ feel have been blind spots in how performance, indeed one’s worth, is judged by imposing standards that have never been fair or realistic and which compel all – regardless of the starting line from where they may have started – solely from the point at which they finished their race.

Everyone on Phone

Young people were less inclined to prioritize work, indicating a perceived work ethic challenge among Gen Z.

The changing work ethics

The work ethic that guided individual and collective behavior since the age of Renaissance and Reformation and presented work as salvation now stand shredded among the younger generations, at least those who claim to be enlightened and can afford the luxury of enlightenment.

Why go to the office, they argue, when you can work from home resting in your pajamas and stretched out on the sofa, except when Zoom puts you in the frame of vision and requires you to be sober, focused, and sitting upright? Why a five-day week when three days of work will and should be done? Indeed – why work at all when by limiting one’s needs, one can manage to last on one’s savings from one’s sweat or parental inheritance?

Performance-led evaluations are now under fire. Why use SAT-test scores as a college admission criterion instead of personal narration of life stories of admission seekers? Why insist on correct additions (2+2=4), causing children learning math to feel inadequate and arithmetically challenged? In fact, why as a society or individual, achieve anything at all? Why not just experience life as something to live rather than to refine and replenish?

While something is to be said to favor work-life balance, it is difficult to argue against the seminal role that work plays in our lives individually or how work has figured in and shaped global development and universal thinking. The pursuit of capitalism or wealth-building, and advocacy of conscientious work ethics are hardly unique to America. In human history as in religious and secular discourse across nations, cultures, and faiths, none has upheld idleness or felt compelled to decry effort to improve one’s lot.

Different faiths and hard work

Islam presents the value of hard work and genuine work ethics when it asserts – “This life is but a tillage for the next… for striving is the ordinance of God, and whatever God has ordained can only be obtained by striving.” Elsewhere, a prayer beseeches God to “Teach me work, such that when I perform it, God and men will love me.” (p.85). Christianity likewise elevates seeking, endeavoring, and hard work as a path to fulfillment. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you.”

Hinduism is wedded to Karma or action and deeds as the sole determinant of happiness and fulfillment in the present and future life after one’s death. In the Bhagavad Gita, action remains the core message. To act and to approach work as one’s duty- oblivious to any gain or loss accrued from one’s duty to act – is Lord Krishna’s message to the warrior Arjun. Krishna asserts that if “I did not continue ever in action unwearied, men all around would have followed my way.” “If I were not to work,” Krishna continues, “all these worlds would have perished. I would have been the cause of confusion among men and of their ultimate destruction.”

Assembly line

The desire to perform and commitment to excel has been so basic to human progress and civilization that it is impossible to imagine human advancement could have occurred absent hard work and ambition

The message common to all faiths is to perform and to grow life rather than allow it and oneself to stagnate and fossilize.

All faiths and the leading lesson of evolution share the emphasis on performance and excellence. That the fittest survive is the common experience of all species, and the struggle to ensure one survives is observed across and within all species. It does not require a scientist or a Darwin to steer us to that conclusion.

Consequently, favoring a social order that appears to no longer value endeavor or aspiration and has no use for performing and doing one’s tasks well should shock us out of our mental stupor because it questions and strikes at the root of our very perception of reality and the world as we have known it. America increasingly seems to be confronting exactly that crisis of conscience.

American immigrants

As the country loses its seniors – the warriors and veterans of two world wars and the builders and partakers of post-war reconstruction and prosperity, as well as the cross-bearers of postwar depression and dismemberment, it is difficult to swallow a wholesale rejection of their legacy by the up-and-coming generations.

The forces provoking apathy among our young are easily gauged. In contrast to other cultures and economies, the persistence of plenty over several generations spawns in Americans a sense of security and smugness. Relative to other deprived nations and poverty-stricken people, poverty in America decidedly is a far more benign experience.

In the 1960s, touring poverty in Harlem amused and shocked Indian visitors accustomed to a lack of basic amenities like hot water, electricity, heating, and air conditioning back home. Owning a home or even affording such luxuries as TVs and phones was a distant dream in India. Immigrants saw America as an opportunity to build wealth and support their families abroad.

Our next generation – similar to other immigrant ethnic groups – carried forward the commitment to work and save and build on the previous generation’s achievements. By the third generation, however, complaisance would appear to have set in – corrupting the youngest immigrant brood to turn inward and give up on climbing higher in favor of being laid back and taking time off to pursue erratic personal whims. Adding to that malaise, woke ideology and surge of support for egalitarian communal and communist values as preconditions to ensuring equality, liberty, and justice for all rather than for a few appear to have dealt a death blow to ambition.

Work is god

According to the philosophy of Karam Yoga in Hinduism, work is seen as a form of worship, emphasizing selfless action, dedication, and the pursuit of excellence.

Final words

As the focus shifts from work-centric to life-centric ideals, there’s concern that it could weaken American prosperity, social unity, and political stability. Recent studies, including one showing the highest-earning 10 percent of men working 77 fewer hours a month in 2022 than in 2019 (equivalent to 1.5 hours less per week), reflect a decline in the hard-working attitude fueled by chronic issues like inequality and racism, leading to increased cynicism about the value of work.

The top-earning women cut back by 29 hours. Interestingly, despite that reduction, according to the study, rich people still worked longer hours overall.

Taking heart from the last finding, one can hope the pendulum will swing and ‘Work Ethic’ will be embraced by the rich and the population. Further, it will overcome the Catholic-Protestant divide, which perceives Catholics as people who work to live and Protestants as those who live to work.

Poverty itself may undergo a definitional change from the Protestant viewpoint that sees poverty as a symbol of sloth, sinful, and representative of a flawed character, and Catholics who perceive poverty as a badge of piety. Finally, one can hope that the emphasis on hard work, diligence, frugality, and deferment of gratification, along with primacy of ethics and efficiency in whatever work one chooses to perform, will remain, as will the love of labor.

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