By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of Global Economic Attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.
Add faith in the work ethic and in capitalism to the lengthening list of casualties from the Great Recession. Four years after the Lehman Brothers’ fiasco and the ensuing global economic downturn, the idea that effort in a competitive economy can lead to success is seriously questioned in a number of major economies, including Japan, Russia and Greece, especially among those who have suffered the most.
In eight of 21 countries recently surveyed by the Pew Research Center, fewer than half believe hard work is a guarantee of success for most people. And in 11 of the 16 nations for which there is trend data since 2007, before the financial crisis began, support for capitalism is down. A notable exception is the United States, where 77 percent of the public still thinks that effort leads to accomplishment and 67 percent have confidence in free markets.
With worries mounting about a double dip global recession, attention has rightly focused on the potential human cost of such a renewed slump. But the low levels of belief that work leads to economic success, especially in a competitive economy, could imperil the rebound from any economic slowdown.
Faith in work is particularly weak in Lebanon, where only 32 percent of the public anticipates rewards from hard work, and in Russia (35 percent), Japan (40 percent), Italy (43 percent), and Greece (43 percent), all countries that have suffered greatly in recent years.
Victims of recent hard times in Europe and Japan are especially skeptical of the work ethic. Half or more of those who say their personal economic situation isn’t good also think hard work is no guarantee of economic achievement in Japan, France, Germany, Britain, Greece, Poland and the Czech Republic.
However, such pessimism may be a first world disease. In Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, India, Pakistan, Brazil and Mexico, half or more of those who say their personal finances aren’t faring well still believe that hard work can bring economic rewards. Moreover, the work ethic is no longer, if it ever was, a uniquely Western value. It’s a widely held tenet in the Middle East, on the Indian subcontinent and in Latin America.
The global economic crisis has eroded support for capitalism. Such disenchantment is particularly acute in Italy (where support for a free market economy is down 23 percentage points since 2007), Spain (down 20 points) and Poland (down 15 points). Similarly, such belief is down 10 points in China and Mexico since 2010 and down nine points in the United States since 2009. The biggest skeptics of the free market can be found in Mexico, where only 34 percent believe in capitalism, and in Japan, just 38 percent. Support for free markets is greatest in Brazil (75 percent), China (74 percent) and Germany (69 percent) (although East Germans are less supportive than West Germans).
In most countries, people’s personal economic experience shapes their view of a competitive economy. Those who are suffering are far less likely to think people are better off under capitalism than are those who are well off. This is particularly the case in Russia, Poland, China and Japan.
The link between the work ethic and support for capitalism, first discussed by German sociologist Max Weber, is borne out by the survey. In 14 of 21 countries, those who have faith that hard work leads to economic success are also more likely to think people are better off in a market economy even though some are rich and some are poor. This linkage is most clear in China, Russia, the U.S. and Britain.
Skepticism about the benefits of hard work and the backlash against capitalism might be subject to quick reversal once economic fortunes turn around. But there’s no evidence that the world economy will be picking up any time soon, according to the International Monetary Fund. In fact, the clear downside risk in the months ahead is that global economic conditions will worsen before they get better, possibly further undermining many peoples’ commitment to hard work and support for capitalism, making recovery all the more difficult.
The full Pew Research Center report, Pervasive Gloom About the World Economy, is available here.