The Supposed Virtue of Hard Work

Even since childhood, I have been indoctrinated that being hardworking is a virtue. Since I didn’t grow up in a religious household, I wasn’t exactly told that sloth is a sin. Nonetheless, people kept reminding me that being lazy is very bad. Yet they failed to explain why exactly it is bad for people to take things easy and enjoy life. Nor could they prove that I would benefit from all my hard work.

What’s up with all this indoctrination? Why other members of the society even care whether I am lazy or hardworking?

Here are some potential scenarios:

1. A hardworking person spends a lot of time and effort into building a nice house. Afterwards they get to live there.

2. A lazy person makes a shabby home from cheap materials and spends most of their days lazily lounging on the porch.

Both lifestyle choices concern only the person who has made these decisions. Other people shouldn’t even care how somebody wants to live. You can live as you want and leave others alone to do as they please.

Yet the indoctrination persists. How come? People don’t want others who are lazier than they to unfairly piggyback off their hard work and leech various benefits from them? Fair enough. Yet that’s not how societies work. In a society without unemployment benefits, people who don’t work don’t get any free goods either. In a society with guaranteed minimum income, lazy people will get the same free money regardless of whether they work or no. In a society in which people get unemployment benefits only for a couple of months after having lost their job, it is highly impractical for a person to choose long-term unemployment.

You would actually need a society in which unemployed people receive free money for their entire lifetime while employed people get no guaranteed minimum income before it even makes sense to accuse lazy people of freeloading. And most societies don’t have such laws.

But wait, the poorest people usually get free food from charity donations. Again: so what? If a person with spare income chooses to voluntarily donate some of this income to charities that provide free food for the poorest members of the society, where’s the problem? After all, those are voluntary donations, and nobody is forced to support freeloaders against their will.

But let’s be realistic—most “lazy” people (and I consider myself lazy, so I am speaking about those who share my lifestyle ideals) do work. They fully support themselves and don’t rely on welfare or charity donations; they merely work less than average. What was the problem with such lifestyle choices?

Here are three examples of Latvian folk songs, the stuff my teachers ordered me to learn by heart as a child:

Acis darba izbijās,
Rokas darba nebijās,
Rokas darba nebijās,
Zinajās padarīt.
Laba tēva meita biju,
Labi sevi turējos;
Neturēju melna galda,
Ne gružainas istabiņas.
Kūtrajam, lēnajam
Ar maniem nedzīvot:
Drīzi gāju, drīz darīju,
Drīz lēno nicināju.

Eyes got scared from work,
But hands didn’t fear work,
Not only hands didn’t fear work,
They knew how to do it.
I was a good father’s daughter,
I worked well;
I didn’t keep a dirty table cloth,
Nor a messy room.
The one who is lazy and slow
Will not live with me:
I quickly went, I quickly worked,
I quickly despised the slow one.



Latvian folk songs were created back when serfdom was a thing. For my readers who are less familiar with European history, here’s a short summary from Wikipedia:

Unlike slaves, serfs could not be bought, sold, or traded individually though they could, depending on the area, be sold together with land. The kholops in Russia and villeins in gross in England, in contrast, could be traded like regular slaves, could be abused with no rights over their own bodies, could not leave the land they were bound to, and could marry only with their lord’s permission. Serfs who occupied a plot of land were required to work for the lord of the manor who owned that land. In return, they were entitled to protection, justice, and the right to cultivate certain fields within the manor to maintain their own subsistence. Serfs were often required not only to work on the lord’s fields, but also in his mines and forests and to labour to maintain roads.

To nobody’s surprise, people whose legal status was suspiciously similar to that of slaves were indoctrinated that they ought to work hard. Even after serfdom was abolished in 1861, these people’s material wellbeing didn’t improve much for many more decades, and they spent their lives as servants who owned almost nothing and cultivated other people’s land.

Why would a rational person choose to work hard when they do not get to keep the fruits of their work? Answer: there was no reason. Thus people got whipped as punishments for laziness and indoctrinated that being hardworking is a virtue and God will reward their hard work in the afterlife. Meanwhile, lords and landowners benefited from all those perpetually poor people working hard for them.

Incidentally, when I was a child, my mother taught me that I must learn to cook tasty food and diligently do all the housekeeping chores like cleaning in order to find a good husband. That was, well, odd. Why would any parent want their child to get exploited by a lazy future spouse who cannot even cook their own meals or wash their clothes? Answer: My mother, who was born in 1950ties in a rural community, was taught that men get to be picky and choose the best wife who is hardworking, keeps the house clean and neat, cooks tasty food, looks pretty, and has a pleasant personality. Meanwhile, women have to settle for any man they can find. After all, during her youth, male bachelors could have nice lives while female old maids were ridiculed by the entire community.

Only when I was already much older, I finally got exposed to literature that didn’t take for granted the idea that hard work is virtuous. Here’s an example: Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral, a short story by German author Heinrich Böll.

Of course, there is a problem with this German short story—it is too optimistic. It assumes that with hard work it is possible to earn a lot of money. More often than not that is not how capitalism works.

capitalism meme

Only a minority of people, namely those who were already born privileged, have opportunities to choose careers where they get to keep the fruits of their hard work. In addition, often success in business depends on luck, and rewards aren’t proportional to how much effort a person invests in their business. More often than not, hard work does not lead to great wealth for the worker.

In addition, infinite growth and accumulation of more and more material goods is impossible on a planet with finite resources.

Some jobs can be done for as long as humans want to do them. For example, we can always create more art, write more literature. But the amount of some material goods humans can produce is limited. Natural resources are finite, and we cannot keep on building larger and larger homes with heating and air conditioning. Nor can we drive gas-guzzlers forever.

Besides, why must everybody even desire more stuff, more wealth, more material goods, a larger house, a newer car? In some hunter-gatherer societies people work for less than 20 hours per week. They spend all their free time on socializing, taking naps, singing and dancing, and just having fun. Of course, by modern standards, these people are very poor, haven’t accumulated any material wealth, even their homes are hastily made temporary constructions, but who cares as long as they are happy.

In modern society, a person is supposed to work for at least 40 hours per week. But what would happen if you decided to work for 20 hours and live with 50% less income? It can be done. Cook your own food (no, cooking is not that time-consuming), buy your clothes, electronics, and furniture in second-hand stores. If you own your home (no rent), have no loans (no interest payments), and no children, your need for money goes down immensely.

If you have a yard, expenses can be further decreased by growing part of your food. Fruit trees and berry bushes require only a few hours to plant and very little maintenance (just some light pruning in spring and mowing the lawn around them during summer). Personally, I also like to gather wild food. In my opinion, picking mushrooms is an enjoyable pastime, so I don’t count that as work.

Of course, the obvious drawback of the lifestyle I am describing is that it requires having some money as the initial investment (things get expensive quickly when you don’t already have a place to live).

Still, it is perfectly possible to comfortably get away with working much less than 40 hours per week. Since I am lazy, I have optimized my lifestyle so as to work as little as possible. For me free time for my hobbies brings more joy than owning the latest smartphone model and having lots of stuff.

So again, why was it virtuous to work hard? What’s up with this hard-work fetish some people, especially those who are religious, appear to have? And why did God aka religious authorities tell all the rubes, peasants, servants, and slaves to work hard? So that their hard work could be exploited by the wealthy elites, that’s why.


  1. Ice Swimmer says

    There was a time when I worked about 24 – 30 hours a week and was able to live in an rented apartment fairly comfortably, but didn’t have much savings. I may have been entitled to housing benefits, but I didn’t apply for them. I did the job for 7 years and about the 3 – 4 first years the pay was ok. The job was delivering newspapers in the night time/early morning to subscribers, but as newspapers were becoming obsolete and the number of subscriptions was sinking, the pay also sank. I was in a fairly good physical shape, going up and down stairs a few hours a day (though I was overweight, but less so than now).

    If it weren’t for the cheap internet, free health care and public libraries, the wages may not have made it possible to live comfortably. I studied (for free) the last 3 years and left the job to do my Bachelor’s Thesis in electronics engineering. The computers I used then were surplus school computers (which they sold to students for something like 40 €).

    While I used the services that the state and the municipality provided, I also paid taxes, state health insurance and pension fund payments. The sum that went both indirectly (the pension fund contribution of the employer, which is something like 24 % of the wages paid) and directly to municipality (most of the income tax), state (mostly VAT) and the pension system was probably more than half of what I got as net income.

    So yes, it was possible to live working less than 40 hours a week, at least a decade ago here. I did it with a good conscience. It’s just that the job I had was about the least futureproof job there was.

  2. says

    “Hard work” dogma is very similar to religious dogma. It isn’t about better work, it’s about keeping people occupied, much like constant “required” prayer and low wage, long hours jobs.

    Efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth Sr. realized during his studies that hiring a lazy person was better because they’ll find the most efficient and least laborious way to complete a task. The hardest working people were often inefficient and tired. I’m like that in my own work or other things like doing makeup. I want it done well, but I’m not going to spend an inordinate amount of time on it.

    Acquired skill and knowledge also plays into it. I have the know how and materials to improvise my job 90% of the time, so I do very little preparation. But that does not mean the quality of my work is poor, it means I have the time to spend on tasks when I need it.

  3. John Morales says

    I like your attitude, Andreas. I share it.

    That’s always been my dictum: I work to live, not live to work.

    Intransitive, you make a good point.


    Ice Swimmer, back in the early 1980s, I got a gig doing programming work for what was at the time rather good pay — A$50/hr. Thing is, I worked maybe 20 hours a week and then I was happy about it, but they expected me to work at least 40-60 hours. Needless to say, my contract was not renewed (not because my work was bad).

    And, in the last 15 years of my working life, I worked 3 days per week. It was brilliant; only 60% of the pay, but I effectively got two weekends/week, and the stress I’d had in my previous job disappeared.

    Of course, such shenanigans can only work out if one lives within one’s means, the which includes not taking on needless responsibilities. For example, no children! 😉

  4. Trickster Goddess says

    I have always been aware that there is often a dichotomy between what you do for a living, and what you do to pay the rent.

  5. rwiess says

    My two-part test for a life well-lived:
    1. Are you happy?
    2. Do you carry your own weight in so far as you are able?
    The fisherman above clearly says yes to both. Nothing prevents you from doing more than a minimum of work, but nothing compels you to do so either. See question 1 for an informed decision on doing more.

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