scorecardAmericans don't value hard work like they used to. A Yale professor says it's because it doesn't pay any more.
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Americans don't value hard work like they used to. A Yale professor says it's because it doesn't pay any more.

Ethan Dodd   

Americans don't value hard work like they used to. A Yale professor says it's because it doesn't pay any more.
PolicyPolicy4 min read
  • A Wall Street Journal poll shows Americans value "hard work" less than they used to.
  • Hard work hasn't disappeared; it just pays less.

A poll by the Wall Street Journal that found Americans place less importance on patriotism, religion, and hard work than they once did set off Republican activists and politicians last week

In response to the poll, Vivek Ramaswamy, an "anti-woke" investor and presidential candidate, tweeted, "Faith, patriotism, family, and hard work have disappeared." Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Arkansas' governor and the former Trump White House press secretary, tweeted that's "the source of so many of our nation's problems."

Sixty-seven percent of the 1,019 American adults surveyed in March said hard work is "very important" to them, in a poll conducted by The Wall Street Journal with the nonpartisan research group NORC at the University of Chicago. That's down 16 percentage points from when WSJ first asked this question in 1998, when 83% said hard work was a very important part of the American character.

Whereas Americans used to believe "if you work hard, you can get ahead in America," Aaron Zitner, a WSJ editor, told the "What's New" podcast, "this poll found record pessimism that our children's generation can do better than our generation." Only 21% of Americans were confident their children's generation would have a better life, compared to 64% in 1998.

Values like hard work, patriotism, religion, and having children "have defined the American character for generations," Zitner told "What's New," but the new data suggests those values no longer unify us as a nation.

Fueling the pessimism about hard work might be that Americans have "been doing nothing but hard work for the last two decades," Jennifer Klein, a Yale labor historian, told Insider.

The problem isn't that Americans don't want to work hard, Klein said. Particularly with the rise of the gig economy, workers have lost stability, income, benefits, and social status, no matter how hard they've worked.

The problem is "the payoffs of hard work have been insecurity," Klein said.

Blame the rise of gig work for hard work not paying off

Though Americans work fewer hours now than they have in years past, they're working harder than ever.

Since the 1990s, businesses have outsourced labor to reduce their bottom lines, forcing workers to depend on insecure, irregular part-time work for wages, Klein said.

According to the worker-advocacy nonprofit National Employment Law Project, 10% to 30% of employers misclassify their employees as independent contractors, or gig workers, denying millions of workers compensation for workplace injuries, unemployment insurance, and other employee benefits.

The left-leaning think tank Economic Policy Institute estimates that a misclassified construction worker, for example, loses out on as much as $16,729 a year in income and job benefits. Misclassified home health aides lose $9,529. Landscapers, truck drivers, nail-salon workers, and janitors are also at high risk of wage theft.

Rather than provide workers flexibility and freedom — the optimistic promise of gig work — the system results in "perpetual work and yet not enough hours," Klein said. At least 17% of the workforce is assigned to unstable work schedules. These people tend to be lower-income and work in retail, hospitality and leisure, professional and business services, and health services.

"When people don't know what their work shift is going to be from week to week, they can't plan for childcare or they can't plan for education taking courses. They can't plan for more time with their family," Klein said.

As a result, "people have experienced hard work and intensified work, but in very, very unpleasant and not particularly rewarding terms," she added.

The pandemic ratcheted up the stakes for hard-working front-line workers

Since early 2020, nurses, bus drivers, meatpackers, and warehouse workers have put their lives on the line and not seen much of a reward.

"They could see the inequity of it" as "middle-class people and professionals were at home in a protected environment," Klein said. Naturally, Klein said, "people would be rather resentful about the terms of work."

These downgraded work conditions explain why WSJ found older Americans are more likely to value hard work than younger ones — a stunning gap of 14 percentage points. Protected by powerful unions and New Deal-era work laws, older people experienced hard work within the boundaries of the eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek, Klein said. Collective bargaining secured good wages, healthcare, paid time off, and pensions.

In years past, "hard work could be accompanied by security and was a social value," she said. There was "social pressure as well as real political and economic pressure placed on employers to fulfill that bargain."

However, deregulation of employment and the dismantling of the New Deal structures of fair work have decoupled hard work and security, Klein said. Real wages have barely budged in decades.

"And that's why for the first time in so many years, I think we've seen a whole new range of workers turning towards unionization, towards collective action," and striking, she said, including New York Times journalists, nurses, Amazon warehouse workers, Columbia graduate students, and Starbucks baristas.

"People are working hard, but they're actually not making a sufficient wage, and they're certainly not getting the kinds of benefits that an earlier generation got," she said. They "are saying how disrespected they feel at work."

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