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Agricultural Returns to Labor and the Origins of Work Ethics

Fouka, Vasiliki and Schlaepfer, Alain (2017): Agricultural Returns to Labor and the Origins of Work Ethics.

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Abstract

We examine the historical determinants of differences in preferences for work across societies today. Our hypothesis is that a society’s work ethic depends on the role that labor has played in it historically, as an input in agricultural production: societies that have for centuries depended on the cultivation of crops with high returns to labor effort will work longer hours and develop a preference for working hard. We formalize this prediction in the context of a model of endogenous preference formation, with altruistic parents that can invest in reducing their offsprings’ disutility from work. To empirically found our model, we construct an index of potential agricultural labor intensity, that captures the suitability of a location for the cultivation of crops with high estimated returns to labor in their production. We find that this index positively predicts work hours and attitudes towards work in contemporary European regions. We find support for the hypothesis of cultural transmission, by examining the correlation between potential labor intensity in the parents’ country of origin and hours worked by children of European immigrants in the US.

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