Hard Work Has Its Limits
Americans like to think that hard work always translates to success. In the American social class system, the sky’s the limit, right? If we just work hard enough, we can move right up the class ladder, correct?
I have no doubt that hard work matters a lot but I also believe hard work has its limits. What happens when the economy is lousy and you live in a community where thousands of jobs have been lost? It’s tough to work hard when you can’t find a job.
A recent 60 Minutes segment entitled “Anger in the Land” focuses on the bleak economic situation in Newton, Iowa. If you have twelve minutes to spare, I highly recommend that you watch it in order to see the sociological point that hard work sometimes only gets you so far.
We learn that a Maytag appliance factory that once employed 5,000 people closed in 2007 (many of the jobs went to Mexico). Hit extremely hard by the recession, business in Newton has suffered and layoffs have occurred at a variety of places: an advertising company, furniture sales store, website design business, and telecommunications company. The Chrysler and Chevrolet dealerships have closed, and so have a tractor supply company and jewelry store.
It’s even hard to sell pizzas. A 52-year-old Domino’s franchise owner talks about working an 82 hour week, and it might not be long before he’s eligible to file for food stamps. One family describes their struggle to keep their daughter in college. Several residents indicate they don’t think their children will be able to enjoy the same standard of living as they have. And they don’t think politicians are working on their behalf. Watch people on the verge of tears (and a few men who do shed tears) as they talk about their struggles. Do these seem like people who just need to try harder?
I think a passage from The Sociological Imagination, written by C. Wright Mills and published in 1959, is relevant to understanding the difficulties faced by the Newton community, which has a population of approximately 16,000 people:
When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.
Let’s apply the excerpt to the people in Newton, Iowa: if the economy were thriving and the Maytag appliance factory still employed 5,000 people and was hiring, and only a hundred people in the city were unemployed, we might rightfully question their work ethic and their character. But what really seems to be going on with the people in this community is that the structure of opportunities has collapsed around them. It’s not the people who are at fault, so finger-pointing at the unemployed won’t do. Rather, something is wrong with societal institutions, namely the economy.
For the record, according to a recent Department of Labor report, the unemployment rate in the United States currently is 9.6% with 14.8 million people unemployed. We can safely assume that some of these folks are lazy, but does anyone think most or all of the unemployed are lazy and have character flaws? How many communities are like Newton, Iowa but weren’t profiled on 60 Minutes? My guess is more than most of us think.
In this context I like to think about the Horatio Alger myth. Horatio Alger was a 19th century author who wrote rags to riches stories. Alger’s message was “strive and succeed.” Alger optimistically promoted the view that people raised in poor circumstances could rise up the social class ladder to obtain the American Dream.
Not a bad message to send, to some extent. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong about inspiring readers to work hard in order to achieve success. But sociologists have to be the realists in the room. We’re sorry to deliver the bad news that hard work only goes so far when there’s an economic recession or when society slowly recovers from one. And so we think it’s a myth that if people just try harder they will automatically find success. How much does work ethic matter when people don’t have job opportunities?
It’s disturbing to think that the American Dream isn’t available to everyone all of the time. It’s frustrating to consider that hard work gets some people nowhere. I’m not suggesting that we start reading books with titles like “Failure is Inevitable” and “Laziness is a Virtue.” And I don’t expect to see an author on Oprah Winfrey’s show promoting a book called “Stop Trying.” Hard work and achievement will probably always be core American values. I just want to acknowledge what I think is a cold economic fact: hard work has its limits.