November 22, 2010

Hard Work Has Its Limits

todd_S_2010a By Todd Schoepflin

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? imageHow 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.


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Hi Mr. Schoepflin,

I really enjoyed your article and I think being a freshman in university this sad moral of the story really irks me, academically and professionally. However, I have another point of view.

You said that hard work has its limits is a "cold economic fact". I'm in first year economics and we just finished our midterm which is probably why I remember this: we basically spent this entire semester learning about labor productivity.

There is this equation: y=aL + Bk +TFP where y is output, aL is the contribution of labor, Bk is the contribution of capital, and TFP is the contribution of the advancement of technology. I would like to solve the equation but I doubt anyone would care. What the bottom line is that, y, our output or GDP, will go up if we have more labor, capital, or technological advancement. However, the contribution of TFP to total output is 46 percent. It's more than either labor or capital individually. Moreover, when solving how much of labor productivity [output/worker] is made out of technological advancement/innovation, we find the answer to be 80%. 80% of more output per worker rests on better technology. And if we look at this equation closely we realize that hard work is indeed at play: more labor and capital are quantitative, whereas technological advancement is only possible when people work hard to innovate. I have a feeling that this is why, the US, has historically supported entrepreneurs.

I have hated the discipline of economics my entire life but this must be the most important equation of my academic career. Krugman listed numerous ways we can improve our output, but the only longterm solution is innovation. The golden age of capitalism [1950-1973] was a testament to this notion.

I know what I'm saying isn't probably exactly related to unemployment but I feel as long as there are people innovating, there will be the creation of new "basic industries" and thus more opportunities for work. And what fuels innovation? Education, for the most part, since it's obvious there are those few outliers who, by a sudden stroke of creativity, created innovations that have helped shape society. Since economics is based on the fundamental concept of resource scarcity, I hope that states around the world can focus on innovation: there is never a limit to humankind's intellectual capacity. Intellectual poverty is the only form of poverty that can be completely eradicated. I hope this, in turn, can translate to more funding and sponsorship of education.

From a sociological perspective, I completely agree with the fact that hard work, unfortunately, can only take you so far. I believe there's still hope for hard work in economics and I truly hope people take that seriously.

Just an opinion from a severely sleep deprived first-year student!

Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts,



I understand what you are saying, but I think that would only apply to when capitalism was in it's "Golden Age". Whose to say that if we do increase innovation that jobs will not be set overseas, or to another country like Maytag. Assuming that most of the workers in this clip lived in Newton, 5,000 jobs of the total 16,000 population were sent to Mexico. That's almost a third of the jobs lost in Newton.

I think capitalism is the problem. It might have worked well years ago, when mom and pop stores were competing with each other, but with larger corporations merging together, they are controlling supply and demand and thus the competition.

Increasing innovation is key in helping create new industries that lead to more jobs, but it must be supplemented with policy that keeps the jobs in the US. Otherwise, the power elite will stay wealthy by moving jobs to another country where work is cheap and exploitation is easy.

Mr. Schoepflin,
I enjoyed your post and agree that hard work is not always enough to ensure success. In fact, I think that rarely is sufficient.

I have to ask, do we want a country in which Newton, Iowa citizens can depend on just hard work? What would it take to ensure that putting in a hard day's work at Maytag will result in success? It sounds a bit contrived to me.

I find it interesting that society looks for the results of a free market to be coupled with the safety net of socialism. I don't think America ever had its success handed to it by an economic policy. I have always thought that America's economic strength was the result of its citizens' individual efforts to succeed. The best policy was to not get in their way and foster as much competition as possible. I do believe that the way to grow a strong economy is to decrease government interference and make room for more personal freedom.

I can't say that pure capitalism is acceptable to our nation today. In order to really allow someone to succeed, we have to also allow that person to fail. The social disparity may be too much for our social conscience.

Therefore, the problem I see for our country's economy is finding a balance between not letting people fall down too hard while they find a way to personally succeed. We obviously can't trust Maytag, and the like, to always provide for our way of life.

Wynne Schniper

I think that the author has a very valid point here. I'm from a very small town such as Newton, Iowa, where there is pretty much one big business that employs many of our citizens. If that business were to get shut down, hundreds of people would be out of work. There are many other towns like this all across the country. Also, there are often reasons for being unemployed, such as a business shutting down. Like the author said, when there is only one person unemployed out of many, we blame the person and their character or work ethic. When it is a whole town, however, it is much easier to just blame it on the closing of a business or factory.

Mr. Schoepflin,
I enjoyed reading your article and agree with you one hundred percent. I like that you go straight through all the layers to the cold hard facts. THe lfact you just came out and said it leads me to admire you even more. Hard work however, may not always be financially benficial, but it is always self beneficial. No matter if you become some big shot rich will know that you did what you could.

I believe that the author has a very good point. In a town if one person becomes unemployed many may say that it is his work ethics that got himself in the place he is in right now. But, say a big company employing many people were to shut down then the people would blame the company. The guy who got unemployed before would have thought that it is easier to blame one person when something little happens, But as son as something big happens then it is automatically the big corporations problem.

good point about the one umployed lead straight to the point.

I enjoyed this article. However sad but iit is our country's reality. The hopes and ecomomic dreams of a town such as Newton rested on the promises of politiacla campaigners who have won their races through their hard work and faux promise. Now they are losing hope daily and I agree with the citizens that it does not matter who controls the house the republicans or he democrats, what matters is that they work hard for the people of this country and work on re-establishing jobs and boosting the economy instead of allowing companies to pack up and go to another country where they will benefit because they don't have to pay a fair and competitive wage to its workers. Yes minorities may work hard for their money, but so do Americans. Politicians only avail themselves tot he public during election time, after that you don't see or hear form them until the next four years. lately the prharase hard work equals success now means hard work equals survival. The 60 minutes story is an eye opener for those who don't pay attention to what this countyr is going through, but it is mostly infuriating becuase its our ouwn politicians that cause us to suffer, they need to remember without the people they don't have a job so they need to put aside the political affliations and party divides and look at the bitg picture and come up with some realistic and wrkable solutions for our failing economy or the entire working class of America is going to end up on welfare.

The economy of the United States is changing as society changes. The roles of many Americans are changing due to the conditions of the economy. How one gets a job has changed from just hard work to mostly jobs in the service industry.

The sociological view provided in this article is one that most of this blog's readers can understand and even relate to. It gives us a view that makes us question, "Does working hard translate to success?"

It gives us fine examples of microsociology and qualitive research, while still bestowing us with macro sociological and quantitve research practices. The use of both sides of the spectrum of sociology applied in this blog makes it easier for readers to understand what the writer is explaining. Provided I believe that most of the research topic leans toward understanding macrosociology, which would help us understand how he reached his conclusion.

Thinking more on the topic, "Does hard work lea d translate to success?" I am reminded of my father's experience; a 55 year old farmer who has worked hard for his entire life. Coming from generations of farmers, he was not unaccustomed to the common fact of having to help out on his father's farm at an early age. My father was the eldest of four children; his brother Don, and his two sisters Ann and Pam (the latter being the youngest and was born with several mental and physical related issues).

Due to the low income from the farm and the high costs of the Medicare needed to care for Pam, my grandfather had to get two full time jobs elsewhere. Which in turn required my father (who was 14 years old) to take on full responsibility of running the needs of the farm, with the assistance of his younger brother and one hired-hand.

Still a child, my father and his brother milked over 200 dairy cattle twice a day; plowed, planted, and harvested over 60 acres; and were still full attending school. My father's mother and his sister (Ann) maintained the house, feed the calves and chickens, and looked after Pam. This kept up for several years even after my father graduated high school.
After a while, my father decided that he wanted further his education in engineering. Which he studied and graduated at UW-Madison, and made plans to soon move on in an engineering career with his degree. But he met and fell in love with my mother and, after marrying, decided to start his family.

Now my father was having some trouble finding work in his degree field that would be close to home, so he decided to take out a loan and purchase a small farm out near his father's land. The property held little in usable building and equipment, so he asked for a bigger loan to refurbish the farm and buy livestock. Within the year my parents started to think of having kids, which my father wanted boys who would share in his experience and maybe take over the farm.

My father held the social cultural belief that boys were to disciplined and molded into hard-working men, where girls were to take on more of the house-n-home care giver. But he ended up with five daughters and only one son (me being the fourth kid in order of oldest to youngest), so this concept was slowly given way to that both females and males are able to do the same work and should be given the same opportunities.

Prices of seed (which we bought to plant), and milk and corn (which we sold for profit) were going through a "rollercoaster" effect, leaving my father's wallet a little bare after trying to pay off both his school and business loans. My family was never really poor but was never really making more than "ends' meet", while I was growing up.

My mother, my sisters, and I each had do take on more work on the farm and also find additional work off the farm to support the family. When I was about thirteen my father rented another farm to house our increased livestock, and had me (with the assistance of one hired hand) and one of my sister take over operations. My other sisters and my mother ran operations on the other farm, while my father oversaw all operations and tended the fields, feeding, and bills.

Only after my three elder sisters, my twin-sister, and I graduated high school did my father's farm and school loans finally get paid off. My family farm was making enough income that my parents bought another small farm. And within a year a foreign company, who wanted to build a new style of milking parlors in the United States, offered my parents a proposal to build them a new parlor. My parents would not have to repay the costs as long as they allowed the company to showcase the parlor to other potential clients, being it was only 1 of 4 in the United States at the time. Now my eldest sister and her husband are partners with my parents, and they again have increased their profit margins, property, and livestock.

So in my example, hard work was able to translate to success, due to the amount of worker hours (which was approximately averaged between 100-118 hrs/wk during the summer and 84-96 hrs/wk during the winter). If there were more people with a story like this then the larger social group, known as economy, would change and could possibly change for the better. I hope that anyone who reads this can get a sense of microsociology while I try to use it to explain how "Hard work translate to success" in my eyes.

But if the situation had been different, where the economy had caused the prices of the farm (mortgage rates), seeds and tractors repairs, or the prices of milk and corn to change. This story could have been far worse, or a lot better.

If a larger sociological institution such as the economy had gone into recession, then farmers with stories similar to my father's could have had to file for bankruptcy. And it would disprove my example of how sometimes working hard can lead to success. But I will also state this: that I agree that hard work does have its limitations, especially considering the influences of larger social groups, and is not guaranteed to give us results that we want. So to ensure a better chance at achieving success, we must broaden our sociological imagination to become aware when larger social institutions experience changes.

We need to practice the “beginner’s mind” idea so we are more able to perceive who the economy can change down the road. Once we understand this we can make a few predictions about how these changes can affect us, and then ready ourselves and/or make changes ourselves to provide means that can guide us towards success. Even though my father had graduated with a degree in engineering, he came across a lack of means to use it. He decided to fall back onto his experience growing up and became a farmer, which eventually was successful. So to me as long as you make and plan for more than one overall career/life goal, and if you can become aware of the changes of the economy, you can work hard and still reach success. Yes, I am aware that this would not work for everyone. But if enough people can accomplish this and change with the larger changes of society, then the smaller individuals could change and possibly improve the economy.

I love this article and the responses because I truly believe that hard work can lead to success. Whether it be true success with money and a thriving business or success that you feel in your body and mind. Its your take on success that shows if you are really successful.

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