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The Ethics of Success

Svenja Üing (ncy)January 30, 2006

Business people and church leaders met in Bonn to discuss work ethics in today's achievement-oriented society at a time when increasing numbers of Germans feel like failures or have low esteem because they're unemployed.

Workers and the unemployed should be made to feel like more than just cattleImage: AP

The German economy has been struggling through several tough years now, but experts are now starting to talk about a light at the end of the tunnel. If you talk to people on the street, though, it's a very different story. Many still can't seem to imagine that things will improve any time soon. And the main reason for this skepticism is Germany's ailing job market.

More than 4.5 million Germans are unemployed. Others only have temporary jobs or work for little or no money. And the result is not only that increasing numbers of people feel like failures or have low self-esteem, but that those lucky enough to be employed are under greater pressure than ever before.

"What counts today is how you assert yourself, how you're able compete on the market, how loud you are," said Anke Patt, a journalist who has recently started her own business. "And sometimes it counts how good you are at fitting in and swimming with the current."

After World War II, and especially during the 1960s and 1970s, having a job in Germany usually meant that you would start working for a certain company in your late teens or 20s, that you climbed up the career ladder step by step, and that you stayed with that same company throughout your working life. It was a time of growing social and job security. But all this has changed dramatically and irreversibly.

As a result, many Germans feel insecure and fear they will be failures in life. A major German Protestant think tank recently invited a group of business people and church leaders to take a deeper look at the problem and discuss the necessity of work ethics in today's working environment.

Profession vs. job

"We've realized that we aren't in touch with business people anymore," said Protestant theologian Peter Mörbel, the conference's host. "We don't know enough about the new working world, about the service society, for example. The church's idea of the business world is still strongly influenced by the ideas of industry and agriculture. We now have to get to know the new branches. That's why we get together and talk about topics that are important to both, the business world and the church."

Jobgipfel Griff nach dem Job
Aiming for a job -- or for a profession?Image: dpa Zentralbild

At the heart of the round-table discussions were two words: beruf, or "profession," and "job."

"Germans understand the term 'job' simply as an opportunity to earn a living, something you do for a short while, without having any ties and maybe even without having to take any responsibility," explained Manfred Kock, former head of the German Protestant Church. "In contrast to that, a profession is something that has to do with your talents and interests that you have either through fate, genes, parents or God. What can I do with these gifts? How can I use them to serve a good purpose?"

Instead, Kock said, most people today just go to work so that they can pay their rent, food and holiday expenses -- they have a job, not a profession. And this is totally understandable, he said: At a time when employees seem little more than statistics or another cost to companies and when hundreds or thousands of people at the same company regularly lose their jobs, people are no longer willing to put their heart and soul into their work. This creates a lack of commitment and solidarity from both the company and their employees.

It's part of the church's responsibility to confront and discuss these sore points, according to Kock.

"I believe the economy needs to be tamed by what we call duty and responsibility," he said. "The economy only works well when it's standing on both legs: when companies make enough money, and when they are, at the same time, committed to the people for whom they are doing the business."

Success is more than money

For Andreas Rohde, a young lawyer and spokesman for Wirtschaftsjunioren Bonn, the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Bonn, this kind of work ethic has a clear and direct impact on the work he does himself.

"I see my clients and my employees as human beings and not just as a work force or as someone who will pay me a fee for the work I do," said Rohde "Of course, there's always the dilemma of how to deal with certain financial rules and expectations, which I -- as a Christian -- don't like. Sometimes I have to just bite the bullet and refuse certain orders."

Charity begins at home, he said. But it shouldn't end at the door to your office. So for Rohde, there's a lot more to success than just making a lot of money. And although much of the business world probably wouldn't share this point of view, his fellow conference participants agreed with him.

Massage im Massagestuhl
The workplace has become ever more stressful

A more diverse group of participants, more young people or those in favor of tighter market competition would no doubt have extolled the benefits of flexible employment terms, for example, or the importance of profits and shareholder value above all else. But the choice of participants was a deliberate one, said conference host Mörbel.

Changing words into deeds

"We chose certain topics to get the dialogue started in the first place," he said. "If you want to include too many contrasting viewpoints, you can easily overload such a meeting. Therefore, I tried to be careful when I planned the conference. But maybe I was too careful."

For Mörbel, the conference was a starting point. Several more round-table discussions of this kind will follow in Bonn, he said. And it's hoped that as the discussions develop, the participants will start being able to turn their words into deeds, wherever they work and whatever they do.

"To meet like-minded people merely makes me all the more determined to stay on the same path and to encourage others to support work ethics which imply reliability and a sense of responsibility instead of a craving for power or money," Patt concluded.