The age of entitlement is over: A story of work ethic and generosity

Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey has declared that “the age of entitlement is over”, and most of us don’t like the sound of it.

And why should we, when some of us will receive youth allowance rather than Newstart for a few more years, some of us will no longer be eligible for the Family Tax Benefit Part B, and some of us might have to work until we’re eligible for the age pension at 70?

Over these past few weeks, as we have argued amongst ourselves about the fairness of these policies, one thing has become clear: a nation’s conversation about its welfare system reflects the ability of its citizens to be generous. And this is intrinsically linked with one’s view of oneself in relation to the world.

Let me explain.

Our response to the budget has starkly revealed how we view work. Hard work is difficult. But, for the majority of the population throughout history, it has been a necessary part of life. Thus, our philosophies regarding work have a large influence on the way we view life in general, and money in particular.

As an example of a philosophy of work, we may look at 17th century New England. The Puritan work ethic encouraged displaying the virtues of hard work, frugality and diligence to contribute to society. Thus, people approached their work with zeal. No matter who you were or what you did, you worked hard. The reasoning for this was tied up in a widespread Christian worldview that success in work was a sign of being one of God’s Elect (you may read more about the Puritan work ethic in Elijah Lim’s article). The Puritan work ethic has been claimed to have enabled the establishment of the prosperous capitalist economy of the United States, and has been cited as the reason that America has now outpaced Europe[1]. In this chapter in history, work was undertaken for its own pleasure.

In contrast, when work is approached with disdain, it is a force to be reckoned with. If we dread work, we focus more sharply on its reward—that is, our wages. We develop a heightened sense of entitlement to our money. And since we generally regard the government to be spending our money, we also become more critical of the way the government spends our money. This is most true of welfare programs, where we perceive recipients not to have earned the money they receive directly from the government. In other words, we become less generous. To the extent that recipients of welfare themselves also have this same view of work, they also develop the same attachment towards money. Perhaps this is how they come to be labelled as feeling a sense of entitlement to their welfare payments. Thus why retirees may feel short-changed when the pension age increases—the alternative is work, and work is despised.

Unfortunately, Australians are becoming known for their poor work ethic compared to foreigners[2]. Anecdotally, business owners are preferring to hire immigrants and backpackers who are more willing to learn and work hard. One entrepreneur’s experience with local and foreign worker leads her to muse that perhaps “the harder someone’s upbringing, the harder they’ll work”.

Could it be that Australians have had too easy an upbringing? We are richer than we have ever been—data from the World Bank shows that per capita GDP in Australia has been steadily on the rise[3]. We have even been named the richest in the world, with the highest level of adult median wealth[4]. Has our wealth (and the fact that, for the most part, we worked for it) engendered a sense of entitlement? Are we caught in a vicious cycle, where work is only undertaken for its reward, and we become complacent once that reward is obtained?

Source: World Bank
Source: World Bank

Joe Hockey hit the nail on the head, when in his post-budget address to the National Press Club, he said that “… last night’s Budget was forged on the values that modern Australia embodies. The values of enterprise, of hard work, of self-reliance, of control of your destiny, and the fact that we’ve got to move away from the culture of entitlement in some areas to a culture of opportunity and hope.”[5]

Welfare programs are not, and have never been, based on entitlement. Our attitudes towards work and money determine how we view welfare. Hockey reminds us that a budget and a welfare system are based on the values we hold, and challenges us to evaluate our views towards work.

So the age of entitlement is over. Rather than look inwards at ourselves and mourn the government transfers we may lose from a budget like this one, it’s time to lose our sense of entitlement.

The paradox is that as we do this, we become less begrudging about a welfare system that supports those who need it most.





[3] World bank