Is Hard Work Still a Virtue?

It used to be known as the American way: those who work hard get ahead in life. Those who didn’t work hard would be stuck at the bottom of the economic heap, and, so the story goes, it was their own fault. Now, the American workplace has begun a transformation where those who work the hardest are still often trapped at the bottom, and have increasingly fewer options for advancing to a point where the work will not be so difficult.

Beth Shulman, author of The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans and Their Families, calls it “The Oprah Society.” She describes it as follows:

It’s inspiring to watch someone beat the odds. If you see the deck is stacked, their triumph is especially sweet. Day after day, in our made-for-TV society, that’s what we’re shown: inspiring exceptions—women and men who, by some miracle, overcome insurmountable barriers. They often weep as we do when we hear their tales of woe. Indeed, whether it’s addiction or affliction, layoffs or payoffs, their stories are meant to convince us “Hey, they made it, why can’t we?”

(See article.) It all plays into the credo that “a few are chosen, and the rest of us are made to feel like we failed. If only we had tried harder, worked smarter, learned more, invested better, we’d be on TV for all to envy.” But the problem with that is that we’re creating very few avenues for folks to get ahead by working hard.

First, you have to be working period, and that can’t be taken for granted any more. It was reported last year that the unemployment rate for college graduates has now surpassed the rate for high-school dropouts. (See EPI Economic Snapshot.) So one of the most traditional means of dragging oneself up by the bootstraps — an education — is increasingly becoming meaningless.

Then, whether you have an education or not, you have to start somewhere: the entry-level job. Entry-level jobs used to be just that: primarily occupied by teenagers, part-time workers, or those with marginal job skills. We didn’t worry so much about the minimum wage, because those who were earning it weren’t relying on it to survive. That’s no longer true either: 72 % of workers who earn the minimum wage are age 20 or older, 10% of them are single mothers, and close to half work full time. (See EPI Minimum Wage Issue Guide.)

And despite their low wages, few can deny that most of the work is hard work. So much that doesn’t require hands-on physical labor is being outsourced or automated. And some of it, we’re now being asked to do ourselves, as consumers.

Ordinary people, it seemed, could operate gas pumps without causing explosions. They could check their own oil. They could fill their tires. They could then be persuaded to complete their purchases with the swipe of a card and be quickly out of the way with no help from any human being at all….Consumers were found to be more medically skilled than anyone had given them credit for. They could take their own blood pressure, give themselves injections and enemas, and starve themselves before surgery. Then they could find someone to drive them to the hospital at 6 a.m., wait, and then take their tottering bodies, still exhaling anesthesia, back to their beds at home where another friend could care for them. In short, they could do what nurses had once done, allowing hospitals to concentrate on investing more heavily in machines to do what doctors once did.

(See New York Times article.) Under the guise of being nice people, and helping out those with minimum wage jobs, we haven’t done them any favors: we’ve eliminated the low-paying jobs that weren’t so difficult after all, leaving the most difficult ones at the bottom of the wage spectrum. The wages are so low not because the work is much less demanding, but because it’s left to desperate people who haven’t been able to advance any other way. We’re not making that advancement terribly easy, either, with our societal assumption that it only happens to those who deserve it, rather than saying that all workers deserve the following, as Shulman points out:

These conditions are not an act of nature. We can make different choices. We could offer quality child care to give all our kids a fair start. We could insist our jobs provide at least a week of paid sick leave. We could raise the federal minimum wage—as a start to $7.25 an hour, an option our Congress just turned down last month. We could insist every American have affordable health care. We could ensure that every qualified young man and woman can afford to attend college and graduate without mortgaging their future. And at the end of one’s work life, we could make sure that all Americans have enough to support themselves.

And regardless of where you’re at on the economic spectrum, working hard isn’t leading to higher pay, either. It was just announced that for the first time in 14 years, wage growth is being outpaced by inflation: all the health care premiums workers are being forced to assume, and those out-of-control gas prices all mean that even the workers getting raises aren’t getting ahead — they’re merely treading water. (See Los Angeles Times article.)

A solution is not going to be easy, but when as fundamental an ideal as the American dream is being eroded, let’s hope that someone sits up and takes notice. No one argues with the premise that hard work should entitle workers to something more than stagnant wages at poverty level in this so-called “meritocracy” of ours, so our policy makers should be doing something about it soon. Otherwise, they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do to those who have been working non-stop, hoping that some day, they’ll be able to move beyond basic survival.

More Information:

Workplace Fairness: Short-Changed: The Income Gap
Blog: The Frontline Trench: The Meritocracy Myth
New York Times article: Falling Fortunes of Wage Earners

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.