The Limits Of “Hard” Work

Hey everyone, I hope you’re doing great.  You might have heard someone say, “I got to where I am in life with a little hard work.”  Or “if someone wants to live a high-quality life, all they have to do is work hard for it.”

It sounds like the word “hard” should be objective here, it should mean the same thing to everyone.  Also “hard” sounds like a qualifier intended to separate “hard” workers from those who don’t work as “hard” and the unemployed.

But critical thinkers should be able to recognize this faulty type thinking.  Separating people from each other is the classic divide and conquer management strategy.  And “hard” work is mythical type thinking that seems Pollyanna to me at least; “hard” is subjective to individual interpretation, it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.

A job might be easier to learn for some workers and more difficult to learn for others.  And not all jobs are easy and not all workers are the same which partly explains why compensation might vary so much.

In fact, it seems like the “harder” a job is, the more likely it is to be replaced by automation since given “hard” implies it is difficult, the labor costs are expensive and there are probably few qualified employees willing and able to do it.  So let’s look at the status of jobs, income, hours worked and economic inequality in the U.S. to find out if “hard” work is really all that it’s cracked up to be.  Ready, go!

U.S. Job Status

The status of jobs in the U.S. isn’t great: overall jobs are limited and scarce.  The workforce participation was just 62.8 percent in June 2017, the same rate as it was in March 1978.  Workforce participation peaked at 67.3 percent in April 2000 during the dot-com boom.

To be fair, the population grew by 103 million people or 46 percent from 1978 to 2017.  But a growing population shouldn’t affect the decrease in workforce participation, the rate should remain the same if all factors remained same.  We don’t live in a vacuum however and the most likely culprit for the workforce participation decline is technology which regularly replaces labor expenses with automation.

Let’s note here that technology is a virtuous and good thing.  Technology makes us more productive and helps us live higher quality lives in the long term but it also displaces workers in the short term.  Technology presents a challenge for lawmakers and employers: workers who were displaced by innovation have to be retrained to re-enter the workforce.  Otherwise, workers displaced by technology could become discouraged or economic nationalists.

Furthermore, jobs are changing in the U.S.  Last year, economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research found a significant increase in alternative work arrangements from 2005 to 2015.

“The percentage of workers engaged in alternative work arrangements – defined as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers – rose from 10.1 percent in February 2005 to 15.8 percent in late 2015. The percentage of workers hired out through contract companies showed the sharpest rise increasing from 0.6 percent in 2005 to 3.1 percent in 2015. Workers who provide services through online intermediaries, such as Uber or Task Rabbit, accounted for 0.5 percent of all workers in 2015. About twice as many workers selling goods or services directly to customers reported finding customers through offline intermediaries than through online intermediaries.”

This means job growth has been a wash over the previous decade.  The economists found 94 percent of net job growth was in the alternative work category from 2005 to 2015 and more than 60 percent of the growth was due to the increase of “independent contractors, freelancers, and contract company workers.”

In so many words, almost all of the 10 million jobs created between 2005 and 2015 were in the alternative, contract, temporary or gig economy.  Take the 327,000 Uber drivers who are classified as independent contractors as examples of the new workforce.

U.S. Wage Status

The status of wages in the U.S. isn’t impressive: overall wages are low.  Sure, non-supervisory, non-agricultural wages nearly doubled from $12.27 to $21.23 per hour from 1947 to 1973, an average growth rate of 2.1 percent per year based on 2013 dollars.  But the average hourly wage was just $20.13 per hour in 2013, a 5 percent decrease from what it was in 1973.  Overall wage growth was slow or flat for this 40 year period which means workers can’t pay their bills and debts.

Who Are Low-Income Workers?

Researchers at the National Employment Law Project found 42 percent of U.S. workers were paid less than $15 per hour or $31,000 per year in 2015.  They also found women and minorities were overrepresented in jobs which pay less than a $15 per hour;

  • Female workers made up 54.7 percent of employees paid less than $15 per hour, they were 48.3 percent of the U.S. workforce.
  • African Americans made up 15 percent of employees paid less than $15 per hour, they were 12 percent of the workforce.
  • Latino Americans made up 23 percent of employees paid less than $15 per hour, they were 16.5 percent of the workforce.

This means more than half of African American workers and close to 60 percent of Latino workers were paid less than $15 per hour in 2015.  The researchers also noted how low wages weren’t just for young workers: 46.4 percent of U.S. workers who were paid less than $15 per hour were older than age 35.

Low-income jobs were overrepresented in retail and sales: nearly 3 million cashiers and sales associates were paid less than $15 per hour.  Foodservice and preparation jobs had the greatest concentration of employees paid less than a $15 per hour.

More than 50 percent of all workers were paid less than $15 per hour in the following sectors; farming, fishing, forestry, personal care services, building, custodial and maintenance, home health care, sales and transportation and moving.  60 percent of service workers in restaurants and bars, private households, agriculture, personal-laundry, hospitality, retail, and administration were paid less than $15 per hour.

Notice, workers in retail, food service and preparation, laborers and movers, custodians, nursing assistants and personal health aides had median wages less than $15.  Curiously, jobs in these sectors will be some of the fastest growing in the near future.

But to be fair, incomes have slightly grown in the U.S. since 2015.  “Real median household income was $56,500 in 2015…up from $53,700 in 2014.  That 5.2 percent increase was the largest, in percentage terms, recorded by the bureau since it began tracking median income statistics in the 1960s.”  Growing incomes reduced the U.S. poverty rate by 1.2 percentage points in 2015 which was the steepest decline since 1968.

U.S. Work Hour Status

The status of work hours in the U.S. is exhausting.  To put it more bluntly, employees are working a lot of hours.  In 2014, researchers at Gallup found 50 percent of all employees reported working more than 40 hours per week.  39 percent said they worked more than 50 hours per week and 18 percent said they worked more than 60 hours per week.

A recent poll by Marketplace found that the top concern for half of all hourly workers isn’t that they work too much but that they work too little and need the income to pay their bills.  Researchers at the Economic Policy Institute found the average worker worked 1,687 hours in 1979 and 1,868 hours in 2007, almost an 11 percent increase or an additional 4.5 work weeks per year.  Work hours grew 20.3 percent for female workers while work hours grew by 4.4 percent for male workers over the same period.

Hours worked grew fastest among workers in the bottom fifth of income earners, 22 percent from 1979 to 2007.  Middle-income employee hours worked increased by 10.9 percent over the same period.

To be fair, the top 5 percent of income earners are working more hours too.  This groups’ hours worked grew by 7.6 percent and their wages grew by 30.2 percent from 1979 to 2007.  Real hourly grew by 14.8 percent if the dot-com boom years of 1995 to 2000 were excluded.

The top 5 percent of income earners took home $110,000 in 2014 but these employees don’t work for the same reason working class and middle-class employees do. The top 5 percent of income earners don’t work out of necessity, to pay their bills or support families, they work for pleasure, powerconspicuous consumption or production or as one writer bluntly put it “because they can.”

What Do Managers Think Of Employees Who Work So Many Hours?  

Professor Erin Reid of Boston University’s Questrom School of Business found managers couldn’t tell the difference between employees who worked 80 hours per week and those who just pretended to work “hard.”  Reid found managers reprimanded employees who were transparent about working fewer hours but she didn’t find any evidence that these employees were any less productive or any sign that the employees who worked more hours were any more productive.

Take the legal system as an example of “hard” work, workaholism.  Let’s assume going to court is very expensive and also acknowledge the fact lawyers at large law firms frequently complain about the number of hours they work each week.  Given these details, one could believe reaching a resolution via arbitration or deposition is the function of the legal system.  But in reality, we find this system is a “socially unnecessary arms race, wherein lawyers subject each other to torturous amounts of labor just because they can.”  Technology and professionalism used to limit arms races in the past but these factors have actually increased competition and productivity which means both sides work more hours today.

U.S. Economic Inequality Status

The status of income inequality in the U.S. is infamous: economic gains aren’t being shared equally and most U.S. workers are too poor to work fewer hours.  For some historical context, the U.S. experienced great economic inequality from the beginning of the 20th century until 1929 when the Great Depression happened.

The New Deal was implemented which reduced economic inequality and the middle class grew until about 1978 when the top 0.1 percent’s share of income began to increase from 7 percent in 1979 to 22 percent in 2012, a level nearly as high as the economic inequality experienced in 1929.  The bottom 90 percent of income earners’ wealth, however, began to fall in the 1980s.

The top one percent of income earners brought home $393,941 per year in 2014.  Keep in mind, not only did this group earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, they also earned millions and billions of dollars per year.  For some context, 15,656,000 millionaires or 46 percent of the world’s millionaires lived in the U.S. in 2015.  Notice how this group believes they work “harder” than low-income earners.

Furthermore, the U.S. had the third worst GINI coefficient in the world among OECD countries in 2014 behind Mexico but ahead of Turkey and the U.S. was second only to Israel in terms of worst relative poverty rates among OECD countries.  1.5 million families and 3 million children had incomes of less than $2 per person per day in the U.S. in 2015.  A third world population lives in the U.S.

Moreover, economic mobility in the U.S. is declining.  Researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research found absolute income mobility rates, the fraction of children born in the U.S. who will earn more than their parents fell from nearly 90 percent for children born in 1940 to just 50 percent for children born in the 1980s.

What is behind the economic inequality?  Economists found 19 percent of income inequality was correlated to a person’s race, gender, and parents’ income.  Also, the neighborhood a child grows up in could affect their incomes into adult life.  “The outcomes of children whose families move to a better neighborhood – as measured by the outcomes of children already living there – improve linearly in proportion to the amount of time they spend growing up in that area, at a rate of approximately 4 percent per year of exposure.”

What Effect Does “Hard” Work Have On The Middle Class?

It appears high-income earners benefit from “hard” work the most in the U.S.: less than half of the share of wealth went to the middle classes in the U.S. in 2015, the lowest share when compared to the rest of the developed world.

Furthermore, the U.S. is experiencing economic polarization as the middle class is being hollowed out.  Experts at Pew Research found the share of adults in the U.S. living in middle-income households fell from 61 percent in 1971 to 50 percent in 2015.  The share living in the upper-income tier grew from 14 percent to 21 percent over the same period.  And the share living in the lower-income tier grew from 25 percent to 29 percent.  Notice how the 7 percent increase in the share at the top was almost double that of the lowest share.

Finally, the middle class has been stuck recently: the middle class was 25 percent more likely to stay in the middle class from 1996 to 2006 than they were from 1976 to 1986.  The Pew Research Center reported in August that 71 percent of middle-class adults say it’s harder to get ahead now than 10 years ago, an increase 9 percent since the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009.  Economists found Americans in the highest and lowest income quintiles were far more likely to remain in these quintiles than people in the three middle quintiles.

Do People Think A Poor Person Can Become Wealthy With “Hard” Work?

The number of people who believe it’s possible to be born poor and become rich with “hard” work has steadily declined over the last decade.  80 percent of survey respondents said it was possible in March 2005, 75 percent said it was possible in October 2011.  71 percent said it was possible in July 2012 and just 64 percent of survey respondents said it was possible in 2014, the lowest proportion since January 1983 when the New York Times began asking this question.

The Pew Charitable Trusts ran a similar survey and found more than 40 percent of Americans believed “hard” work, ambition and drive were the most important factors to improve someone’s economic condition.  However, a little more than 10 percent believed that coming from a wealthy family was a more likely determinant of success.

Big Picture

Given the information above, it seems like job growth has been slow, jobs are scarce, wages are low and employees are working a lot of hours.  The qualifying condition here is someone has to be hired by someone else in the first place.  Fewer jobs in proportion to the population, low wages and long work hours have exacerbated economic inequality.  And it seems like race and gender is having an effect on workers: female minority workers are getting shorted the most in this economy.

Furthermore, while wages have stagnated overall and people are working more hours each week, the costs of living have increased.  Essential life expenses like health care, housing, and higher education used to be 25 percent of gross domestic spending in 1980.  However, the costs of these three factors grew to 36 percent of spending in 2015.

It seems like “hard” work won’t reduce economic inequality or make employees wealthy.  In fact, researchers found “hard” workers, or workaholics tend to be less efficient than their coworkers because it might be difficult for them to play as part of a team.  They might also struggle to delegate work to their co-workers and take on so much extra work that they become unorganized.  Researchers found four distinct workaholics “working styles;”

  • Bulimic workaholics feel the job must be done perfectly or not at all, they fail to even start a project and rush to complete it by the deadline.  They often frantically work to the point of exhaustion with sloppy results.
  • Relentless workaholics often take on more work than can possibly be done.  They balance too many projects, work too fast or are too busy to pay attention to details.
  • Attention-deficit workaholics starts with great intensity but lose interest and fail to complete their projects.
  • Savoring workaholics are slow, methodical and overly scrupulous.  They often have trouble letting go of projects and don’t work well with others.  They’re perfectionists and frequently miss deadlines.

In many ways, “hard” work harms workers and their employers.  One study found “hard” workers who put in 55 hours per week experienced greater stress than employees who worked 40 hours per week.  This stress was correlated to lower scores in “vocabulary tests,” “fluid intelligence” and “cognitive function.”

Moreover, employees who also worked “hard” were about 12 percent “more likely to become heavy drinkers”, experience greater sleeplessness, depression, diabetes, heart disease, increased absenteeism, turnover and higher health insurance premiums than those who didn’t.

The Meaning Of “Hard” Work

“Hard” work is a meaningless, self-congratulating label, a pat on the back for those who believe they worked “hard” given their income.  But I think the role technology plays in the economy proves the point, we work to live, not live to work.  More concisely, the point of work is to not have to work so “hard” to live a high-quality life, to earn wages great enough to not have to struggle.  Otherwise, why work at all?

Furthermore, getting a job in the first place requires a lot of work.  And to claim someone works “hard” is to assert bourgeois privilege over other employees and the unemployed.

Ironically, it seems like we confuse effort with worry.  “We don’t correlate our sense of responsibility with what we are actually producing. We correlate it with how hard we are being on ourselves,” wrote Dan Pallotta for the Harvard Business Review blog post. “I can hunch over my computer screen for half the day churning frenetically through emails without getting much of substance done, all the while telling myself what a loser I am, and leave at 6pm feeling like I put in a full day. And given my level of mental fatigue, I did!”

The Limits Of “Hard” Work

We know there are limits to “hard” work given the consequences that “hard” work has on our leisure time, personal relationships and quality of life.  John Maynard Keynes wrote the “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” in 1928 in which he imagined what the world would look like in a hundred years.  He predicted the “standard of life” in Europe and the U.S. would improve so much, no one would work more than 15 hours per week.

Economists at the New Economics Foundation put forth a proposal of “21 Hours” worked per week in 2010 to reduce “widening inequalities, a failing global economy, critically depleted natural resources and accelerating climate change pose grave threats to the future of human civilisation.”

Their plan would tax high-income earners more progressively and address critical issues facing the 21st-century workforce, issues like”overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.”  The plan calls for increasing the minimum wage and reducing hours worked per week so workers can maintain their current incomes.  With this plan, the overall workforce participation rate which is low should increase.

Keynes would probably uphold European countries as a model of planning for the next workforce if he were alive today.  Sweden, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom are 6 of the top 10 most competitive countries in the world.  And lawmakers in each of these countries prohibited employers from scheduling employees to work more than 48 hours per week.

Employers could also take the initiative to reduce employee work hours and in doing so they might get healthier and more productive employees.  When hospital administrators reduced nurses daily hours worked from 8 to 6, they found “The nurses working six hours took 4.7 percent fewer sick days and fewer work absences than when they worked eight-hour days.”  And “A comparative group of nurses working eight hour days actually increased the number of sick days during the trial by more than 60 percent.”

Essentially, we need to increase labor’s share of the economy: workers’ earnings as a share of the gross domestic product must be more equitable.  Labor’s share of the economy fell from 63 percent to 57 percent of GDP between 2000 and 2012.  And even though it recently grew to 58 percent, this is still inadequate.

Planning For The Next Workforce

We know there are diminishing returns to “hard” work.  I suggest we stop working “harder” and instead work “smarter” using technology and public policy.  Social change happens slowly, so let’s think about who are the people most likely to need reform for the next workforce.

It seems like minority female workers who are paid less than $15 per hour would benefit the most from public policy reform.  Lawmakers would be smart to craft public policy around their general needs like access to high-quality jobs that pay more than $15 per hour, decreasing poverty and encouraging economic upward mobility.  Specifically, lawmakers should focus on a $15 per hour minimum wage, shorter work weeks, affordable or public housing, public higher education, single-payer healthcare planpublic daycare and paid family medical leave.

Let’s say a minority female restaurant server lives in the Washington D.C area, one of the most expensive cities in the U.S.  Let’s also assume she is single, is younger than age 35 and has a 3-year-old child and doesn’t utilize the Head Start program.  She has two jobs both of which pay $13 per hour and she works 60 hours per week combined.  Her gross annual income is $40,560 per year, her net income is $31,371 and she isn’t entitled to overtime compensation because she doesn’t work more than 40 hours per week for either employer.

Her paid hours worked end when she leaves her job but her unpaid hours worked never actually stop at home.  Lawmakers would be smart to recognize how interconnected affordable and public housing and daycare costs are.  The absence of a federally funded public daycare program means this worker might have to spend up to $22,631 in daycare expenses each year which is more than “three times what it costs for a year at a public college” in Washington, D.C.

Furthermore, affordable or public housing is scarce in Washington, D.C. with “more than 70,000 people waiting for one of 8,000 units.”  The scarce amount of affordable, public housing means she might consider moving to the suburbs where rent is cheaper than in the city but requires more time to commute to and from work each day.  The tradeoff is, by moving to the suburbs, she will spend fewer hours with her child and will need a public daycare program.

Lawmakers would also be smart to further subsidize public higher education to the point it is affordable or free.  This could be done by taxing Wall Street transactions one cent each, millions of which happen every day.  With affordable or free public higher education, this worker could get the education and skills necessary to be competitive in the next workforce and work one full-time job.

But a single-payer healthcare plan would benefit this employee the most.  The single-payer healthcare plan also known as “Medicare For All” is a system in where “a single public or quasi-public agency organizes health care financing, but the delivery of care remains largely in private hands. Under a single-payer system, all residents of the U.S. would be covered for all medically necessary services, including doctor, hospital, preventive, long-term care, mental health, reproductive health care, dental, vision, prescription drug and medical supply costs.

At the moment, the U.S. spends “more than twice as much as the rest of the industrialized nations.”  This is the equivalent of $8,160 per person.  Notice, the U.S. healthcare system underperforms in terms of life expectancy, infant mortality and immunization rates when compared to other developed countries which already provide comprehensive coverage to their populations.

In fact, the U.S. spends more on health care and provides less coverage than other developed countries because of its patchwork system of for-profit payers.  Overhead, underwriting, billing, sales and marketing departments, profit-seeking motivation exorbitant executive pay are behind these costs.  Doctors, staff, and administrative costs make up 31 percent of total U.S. healthcare expenses.

A single-payer health care plan could save the U.S. more than $400 billion per year, enough to provide comprehensive coverage to everyone without paying any more than we already do.  The single-payer plan would make premiums disappear and 95 percent of all households would save money on their healthcare expenses each month.

Lawmakers should introduce a single-payer healthcare plan.  It would be funded by the savings derived from replacing our inefficient, profit-oriented, multi-payer insurance system with a single streamlined, nonprofit, public payer plan.  Sure, this will mean increasing taxes on millionaires and billionaires but the U.S. already has millions of them.  H.R. 676 also know as the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act is based on the Physicians For A National Health Program’s Physicians’ Proposal to establish a national single-payer health insurance system.

Critical Analysis Of “Hard” Work

Hard” work dates back to the Protestant Work Ethic, it’s an antiquated term which seems to be most applicable when describing work performed on the farm when concentration, efficiency, and timeliness affected harvests.  Work used to be where one “learned discipline, initiative, honesty, and self-reliance—in a word, character.”  However, this is no longer the case: technology made society exponentially more productive which negated the necessity to work “hard” and to just work.  Technology is behind our increased quality of life.  And let’s be honest, a lot of jobs are bullshit anyway.

But the tradeoff of improved technology is more workers are subject to their supervisors today.  Managers determine whether an employee works “hard” or not and who gets hired or fired.  Supervisors have so much discretion over the workforce, they could keep a reserve workforce waiting if they wanted to, in theory.  However, this is unlikely given firms have to run at maximum productivity and new employees are usually only hired after current employees have achieved maximum productivity.

We should note here that workers don’t just work for the sake of work alone which is what “hard” work seems to also imply.  Workers work for wages, high wages and we have a problem if wages don’t pay the bills commensurate with the cost of living.  This means employers should offer more competitive compensation and benefit plans to employees so they become more productive given firms might lose their best workers to companies that do.

Furthermore, each employee has different strengths, weaknesses, different experiences, education and skills.  Maximizing the productivity of each worker with their experience, education, and skills in mind is, of course, the job of the supervisor.  Therefore, if an employee isn’t working “hard,” it isn’t the fault of the employee, it’s the supervisor’s fault: they could fire an employee who doesn’t work “hard” and hire someone else.

But the more important qualifying condition and argument behind “hard” work is whether someone is employed in the first place.  It seems like “hard” workers have a confirmation bias and use the unemployed as examples of what workers shouldn’t be to distinguish themselves from non “hard” workers and the unemployed.  The rhetoric sounds something like this, “the unemployed didn’t work “hard” and if you want to keep your job, you better be a “hard” worker too, or else you’ll end up just like them.”

But anyone trained in class solidarity, us versus them psychology and critical theory knows separating workers is how management creates class conflict.  Therefore, it’s in every employee’s interest to avoid being separated and reject “hard” work: everyone works “hard” or no one works “hard.”


Workers would be smart to recognize “hard” work is a hollow label and instead focus on achieving a higher quality of life with better wages, benefits and a better work-life balance.  We should demand our lawmakers pass legislation for $15 per hour minimum wage, shorter work weekspublic housing, public higher education, single-payer healthcare planpublic daycare and paid family medical leave.  And if we don’t get what we want, let’s re-organize and try, try again.


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I want to write about new experiences, the people I meet and the things I learn. I moved from Tempe, AZ to Arlington, VA with my dog 5 years ago. We love it here.

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