Degraded Work, Declining Community, Rising Inequality, and the Transformation of the Protestant Ethic in America: 1870-1930
The Protestant ethic has been depicted as declining in America between 1870 and 1930, due to new affordable consumer durables and less rewarding industrial work. This article re-examines this period and finds that the Protestant ethic did not so much decline as become transformed. The work ethic component remained in force, while abstemious consumer behavior weakened. This transformation is traced to three dynamic social forces of the period: Degradation in the quality of work, the decline of community, and a dramatic increase in inequality. Industrialization degraded work as craft industries and independent farming waned, thereby making it more difficult for others to know the quality and intensity of ones work. However, the amount one consumed could serve as a proxy for hard work. Consequently, social respect and social standing came increasingly to be sought through consumption. Industrialization-driven urbanization also made it more difficult to find social certification not only in work but also in community. Growing inequality over this period prompted individuals to save less and become more indebted so as to be able to consume at the higher level necessary for maintaining their relative social standing. The durable goods revolution, although technologically driven, was also fueled by the degradation of labor, the decline of community, and rising inequality.
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