We stopped in Lübeck for a day during our vacation. Imbued with the ambience of the city, I purchased local author and Nobel prize winner Thomas Mann's (1875-1955) book "Buddenbrooks". Buddenbrooks (1901) was his first book and Mann apparently used his own family of Lübeck traders as a template for the novel's Buddenbrook family in decline. The book tells the tale of four generations of the Lübeck trader/bourgeois/burgher Buddenbrooks family (from 1835 to 1875). I hoped to also learn something about the city of Lübeck through the book but that was not to happen.
I'll forego much of the content of the book (setting, characters, plot) and will instead here exclusively concentrate on the conception of work, duty and related topics in the book. These topics are the easiest to connect to my job as a teacher and educator and they give some perspectives on how much has happened in schooling, in work and in society during the last 150 years.
1) There is no doubt about what occupation the Buddenbrook sons will have. They are a family of merchants and at least one son in each new generation has to take charge of the firm. That is a given and alternatives are not even contemplated - no matter how unsuitable or unwilling a son might be. Will and want plays a limited role in the occupational choices - duty plays a much larger role in business as well as in marriage (see below).
2) Women don't work in the family firm. No woman (or child) ever has any idea whatsoever about the financial shape of the all-important family trading company. Women in fact don't work at all. Never. What they do all day long is actually hard for me to fathom. They don't cook or clean and they don't seem to take care of their children that much (they have servants and governesses for these tasks). They seem to live pampered but boring lives. Even social life is enclosed by different limitation (propriety, etiquette etc.). To socialize with people much below or above their own station in life is unimaginable. To socialize with people in the same station is necessary but oftentimes very formal - personal bonds of friendship seem to be hard to form. It easier for the men who at least have the choice to go the "club" to have a drink and meet "the boys".
3) There are so many people who do so very little in the book and even many men "in their prime" seem to live slothful lives. Both men and women young and old sometimes have "bad nerves" (or "indigestion" etc.) and need to go to a health resort for an extended period of time. They really do are lucky they are affluent since many are so frail. Or wait, perhaps "bad nerves" is an effect of affluence (boredom)? One character in the book seems to be able to go through life without hardly working at all and when working never accomplishes anything at all! The family ties and riches guarantees him a certain level of comfort. It would be shameful beyond imagination for the family to not support him. A scandal! The head of the family/firm is on the other hand under a lot of pressure to maintain the family fortunes that so many other people's wellbeing depend on.
4) Duty is big. And inheritances and dowries. And family. You marry strategically. You marry (also, or primarily) for the good of the family. Sometimes it goes wrong, but there is anyway little room for free will or love. The family has a semi-public "family diary" where important dates and events diligently are noted down over the decades and over the generations. This book is like the family bible. Even if you fight within the family (sometimes bitterly), you are still always family (i.e. always invited to the Thursday family dinners and to Christmas celebrations).
5) Even those who work diligently seem to be remarkably uneducated, uncurious and unintellectual. Or perhaps that is an effect of working diligently but within a very practical and limited field? An ambitions merchant son needs to have a lot of hands-on training and knowledge about the family's ships, warehouses and business associates and he needs to know how to talk to workers, clerks and lawyers, but he doesn't seem to need to know much else (and no-one else seems to live an intellectually stimulating life either). The local newspaper holds only gossip about "important" marriages and local events. Hardly anyone in the book seems to read books or enter into an discussion about something that demands hard thinking. Much is dictated by tradition and etiquette (what would the other leading burghers think?); "everybody knows that...", "it is obvious that..." or "never in the history of our family has it happened that... [...] and you are not allowed to...". Music is to some extent present though (playing yourself or listening to others).
Much has happened since, but will the pendulum swing back at some point? I can imagine that hard times by necessity brings family and perhaps neighbors together. Instead of buying professional services to the extent that we do today, you will need to rely more on family, friends and neighbors.