The Changing Value of Hard Work

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I received a very thought-provoking email from Elizabeth recently:

I think you’re spot on about hard work, and it’s too often overlooked. But I also think about the changing value of hard work, too. Is hard work worth less now than it used to be? The amount of work we ‘have’ to do to get by or do well is always fascinating to me. On one hand I feel that people don’t look at their ‘needs’ in a realistic way, but at the same time there seem to be many more pitfalls associated with the basics (housing and health care, primarily).

This started off as a long email back to Elizabeth, but there are enough points in here worth sharing that I thought it might make for an interesting post. Beware that I get rather philosophical here, and if you’re just looking for advice, you might want to skip to the bottom.

First of all, there has never been a society on Earth that hasn’t rewarded hard work in some way or another. From farmers in Mesopotamia who would get ahead by having larger farms that required more work to individuals striving to build their own businesses or succeed in their career path today. Simply put, the more hard work you put in, the more you’ll get out of it.

Of course, at the same time, the exact nature of hard work has changed over time. Physical labor was once highly valued, but has dropped somewhat in value in recent years simply because many physical jobs are now completed by machinery. Today, intellectual work is much more highly valued, particularly in the first world, because there is incredible value in figuring out innovative uses of resources.

Whenever I see the phrase, “Work smarter, not harder,” I cringe. I agree with the first part – working smarter is certainly worthwhile. However, if you merely work smarter to accomplish what you were already doing, you’re going to eventually fall behind those who actually work harder, too. The key to success is to work smart and work hard.

So, whenever I see someone working two jobs to make ends meet, I respect them for working hard, but I wonder if they’re actually working smart. A smarter route might be to take out some student loans and go back to school for a while or focus intensely on advancement at one job or the other.

On the other hand, when I see someone with a job that they’ve made so efficient that they have time to surf the internet most of the day, I see someone who works smart but not hard. If their job is really that efficient, why wouldn’t a boss combine two jobs that involve someone working smart in that regard, and why would a boss promote someone who seems to be just sitting around a lot?

Success involves hard work, but it also involves working smart, too.

Another interesting point that Elizabeth brings up is pitfalls associated with basic needs. Whenever I see statements like this, I almost always think of the standard hierarchy of needs as stated by Abraham Maslow:

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid, with the largest and most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom, and the need for self-actualization at the top.

The most fundamental and basic four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs” or “d-needs”: esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs. With the exception of the most fundamental (physiological) needs, if these “deficiency needs” are not met, the body gives no physical indication but the individual feels anxious and tense. Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs. Maslow also coined the term Metamotivation to describe the motivation of people who go beyond the scope of the basic needs and strive for constant betterment. Metamotivated people are driven by B-needs (Being Needs), instead of deficiency needs (D-Needs).

For almost all of us in the first world, our basic physiological needs are met almost all of the time. We have food to eat, water to drink, adequate clothes to wear, and available shelter. Most of our stresses in life come from things like esteem, morality, security, friendship, love, and other such things.

In essence, the better the foundation of our life is, the more our worries focus on other things. If our basic physiological needs are met (breathing, food, wather, the ability to go to the bathroom), we worry about basic safety (health, our family, our property, our employment). If those are largely met, we focus on things such as love and belonging, including friends and family. When those are in good shape, our concerns are often esteem-related, including self-confidence, respect, and achievement. Beyond that, we begin to worry about social concerns, education, problem solving, and other things – called self-actualization as a whole. This is the level when you begin to worry about external things.

In our day-to-day life, we often just assume that many lower levels of our needs are taken care of, even if they’re not. If we feel good, we largely don’t worry about our health. If we have food and a house, we don’t worry about it too much on a day-to-day basis. Instead, we focus on relationships and self-esteem and things like politics.

The problem is – and it’s something that’s always existed for humans – that reality can often knock out the things we rely on. Our health can fail. We can lose our job and potentially our shelter and food and water sources.

My impression is that there are three groups of people with regards to this fragile base. There are people, mostly in the third world, who focus most of their energy on shoring up basic things such as food, water, shelter, and health. There are other people who focus on establishing areas of esteem and love and belonging, which is where I think a significant part of the first world finds themselves. There are yet others who feel fairly established in those areas, look at issues of self-actualization, and realize that their control in some of the base areas are pretty limited.

In other words, I think personal finance is the result of a realization that the things you view as secure really aren’t all that secure. It’s a realization that some people haven’t reached because they don’t feel that their state of love and belonging and of esteem and respect are where they want to be. They dump their time and money and energy into keeping up with the Joneses in order to secure family relationships and friendships and self-esteem and respect from others.

When does that realization happen? I think, for some people, it never happens, because they never reach a point where they’re satisfied with their internal world. Some are hedonistic, meaning their main focus is to seek pleasure for themselves. Others lack confidence and so they focus on earning the respect of others. We’re all wired differently.

I think that the people who worry about their finances are the people who feel generally confident about the state of their lives, from basic things like food and water to their level of self-esteem and their relationships. At that point, they feel good about what they have, but they see it as fragile. Bringing it back to Elizabeth’s point, they begin to really see the pitfalls out there, both for themselves and for others.

Most of the people reading this site, I think, have reached that point. If you’re worried about your debt load, you’ve probably reached that point. If you’re worried about securing health care for the future, you’ve probably reached that point.

This brings us to a very fundamental political question. If you know that basic elements of the lives of most people in your society are fragile, does society need to shore up those elements? Do we need to make sure everyone has food and water? Do we need to make sure everyone has health care? Do we need to ensure that everyone has employment? Does society have a responsibility to take care of these basic needs for all members of that society?

I don’t have an answer to that, and we could debate all day about it. My feeling is that we should ultimately be able to cover these things as a species, but we’re simply not there yet. Our society isn’t efficient enough to be able to do it quite yet. So, is it the right thing to do to try to cover these things as best we can for now, or should we focus on building up innovations so that we can actually reach that level sooner rather than later?

To me, that really is the fundamental political question of our times. It’s one that underlines almost every public debate we have, from national health care to the death penalty to fiscal issues like bank bailouts. It all comes back to that basic question of society’s responsiblity for its members.

So, how does this tie back into hard work? It is only through hard work – and smart work – that we’re going to be able to shore up our own basic needs, let alone anyone else’s. Ensuring that you’ll have health care in the future requires hard work – and smart work. Ensuring that you’ll be able to survive a period without a steady income requires hard work – and smart work.

In other words, the more secure you are, the less you have to rely on a relatively unstable set of society’s resources to help you out. Beyond that, the more secure you are, the more ability you have to use your energy and time and resources to secure the safety of those you care about and, eventually, those of the greater society, whether it be through charity or political action or something else.

If you want a better world, one with fewer basic traps for yourself and your loved ones to fall into, the best thing you can do is work harder and work smarter. What are you going to do about it, starting today?

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26 thoughts on “The Changing Value of Hard Work

  1. I am the poster boy for working hard and smart. I achieved financial freedom at 38 years old and that was 26 years ago. I have enjoyed doing what I like to do for most of my life free of debt. I am working on the next phase of my life which is retirement in 5.5 years again. I enjoy my career (teaching, last 10 years) so much, I am reluctantly retireing.

  2. Too bad you don’t read the comments because that’s exactly what many of us said. We could’ve saved you from writing an extra post!

    Was there more to Elizabeth’s email? I’d like to know what she meant by “…pitfalls associated with the basics…” I don’t understand how the Maslow stuff relates.

    I think that the people who worry about their finances are the people who feel generally confident about the state of their lives, from basic things like food and water to their level of self-esteem and their relationships. At that point, they feel good about what they have, but they see it as fragile.

    If you see what you have as fragile, how can you be confident about it? I would think the poor worry the most about their finances because they are least confident about the basics.

  3. Too bad you don’t read the comments because that’s exactly what many of us said. We could’ve saved you from writing an extra post!

    ^I was referring to the “work hard and smart” part of the post!

  4. As many have discovered, intellectual work has been outsourced even easier than industrial labor. It’s considerably harder to outsource your auto mechanic, electrician or plumber. And taking out loans for iffy college degrees doesn’t guarantee any return on that investment.

  5. I love mowing the lawn, digging in the dirt, and at times even shoveling horse manure. To me that was working harder AND smarter for I could wake up in the morning and be excited about what I would be doing, go work up a sweat, and then have a good cup of coffee and enjoy the yard and the horses.

  6. I think that you are missing something here in your analysis of hard work. As individuals, yes we have some choices in terms of how we balance working hard and working smart, but in the overal picture we also need to think about what we as a society need in order to function now and in the future? For example, we no longer “need” blacksmiths to shoe our horses, but we do need people to work on the highways if we are going to drive around in cars. We need people who are willing to build our houses, pick our vegetables, fix our plumbing, work on our cars, run into burning buildings to save our children. All of these jobs require hard work, and most of them are jobs that require harder physical labor than most of us are capable of doing. If we want our society to have the benefits of this type of hard work than we need to figure out a way that people who are willing to do this hard work can feed their own kids and take them to the doctor when they are sick. To me that is what it means to value hard work.

  7. “First of all, there has never been a society on Earth that hasn’t rewarded hard work in some way or another” Sorry, I have to take exception to this. Hard, manual labor has never been particularly rewarded and has often been next to slavery in many societies. What I believe you are trying to imply is “skilled” labor, like blacksmiths, woodworkers, etc. For them often the more work they put in did result in greater gains because production and quality was directly tied to their own effort and skills. Those jobs required training and teaching and were not general labor.

  8. Yeah, those slaves who picked cotton all day and built the pyramids by tugging tons of rock until they died were rewarded just great.

    Good point #7…unskilled manual labour hasn’t really been rewarded throughout history at ALL until labour unions in the 20th century made factory work a middle class thing (and then bankrupted most of them). And it’s not very valued today in the 21st Century (asian factory workers anyone? child labour? etc)

    Skilled hard work probably has always been though, and hopefully always will be.

  9. This post is built on a shocking lack of understanding of both history and economics.

    “Physical labor was once highly valued, but has dropped somewhat in value in recent years simply because many physical jobs are now completed by machinery. ”

    Highly valued? Only for an extremely small (unionized) portion of history. For much of it, physical labor was highly important but also highly exploited. Farm workers (slaves, sharecroppers, serfs, and all the iterations) worked *extremely* hard and were paid extremely little, if they were paid anything other than food. The bulk of what they produced didn’t belong to them. Factory workers during the industrial revolution worked hours that seem unbelievable today (or would seem unbelievable except for the multitude of people being forced to work two and three low paying jobs today to survive) in exchange for bare wages. Or how about the plight of miners and company stores? Maybe Trent remembers that from his apparently-failed history class?

    Trent’s ‘hard work has paid off through history’ is a naive and ridiculous myth.

    Money and power through history has historically (hah!) been accumulated through either war and the spoils-of or by the exploitation of OTHER people’s hard work. And yes, that happens to include ‘farmers in Mesopotamia’ *rolls eyes*

    “What are you going to do about it, starting today?”

    Ugh, I HATE these faux-motivational posts in general but this one is worse than usual.

  10. Yeah, I do think it’s kind of funny to imagine that people with bigger farms just worked harder, as if for most of human history the barrier to having your own farm has been how much land you’re willing to work.

  11. “First of all, there has never been a society on Earth that hasn’t rewarded hard work in some way or another.”

    Yep. That’s why “working class” is synonymous with “rich.”

  12. I think that Trent’s comment “First of all, there has never been a society on Earth that hasn’t rewarded hard work in some way or another.” is being misunderstood.

    I don’t think that Trent is suggesting that physical laborers have always been paid highly. Money isn’t the only unit of value. In fact, I would argue that money as a unit of value is a relatively recent (few hundred years) thing.

    In societies where hunting was a major food source those hunters who worked hardest, became the best hunters, and brought in the most meat ate better. They also were able to trade excess for other goods.

    In agriculture societies those who worked hardest at learning and then applying farming skills either ate better or traded excess for other goods.

    Slavery has been referenced a few times. Do you not think that the hardest working slaves likely were treated somewhat better than slaves who were lazy or got less done than the others? I’m not suggesting that slaves were well treated, but I’m sure that slave owners valued the harder working slaves more, even if they only showed it by beating them less.

    Back to Trent’s quote. I think the key phrase is “…in some way…”. Given two people in exactly the same situation, do you believe that throughout history the one who worked harder did not get some value or advantage through the hard work? Sure, a serf worked harder than a king, but that is an apples and oranges comparison. Do you believe that the hard working serfs received not benefits over their less hardworking neighbors?

  13. Jonathan, “Do you not think that the hardest working slaves likely were treated somewhat better than slaves who were lazy or got less done than the others? I’m not suggesting that slaves were well treated, but I’m sure that slave owners valued the harder working slaves more, even if they only showed it by beating them less.” is one of the most APPALLING things I have ever read.

    And no, I don’t think we’re misunderstanding Trent’s point – it’s a direct follow-up to his previous (also wrong) post on hard work.

    Also, it’s very clear from your statement that you also haven’t studied anthropology and are just making guesses on how you ‘think’ those societies would work.

  14. “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

    Ecclesiastes 9:11

    These aren’t new concepts. We want the world to be fair, and we should work to make it as such, but we also shouldn’t let that blind us to the reality of the situation. And no, preferential treatment to slaves was probably not usually meted out based on how hard the slave worked.

  15. I don’t fully understand Elizabeth’s e-mail, but I’m going to try and give my take on history, hard work, and social safety nets.

    In the not so distant past, middle class Americans could afford to have a servant (live-in or daily) and meet basic needs on ONE income. Now that is no longer true. To meet basic needs for a family takes TWO incomes, and I don’t know many middle class homes with servants. Though dishwashers, laundry machines, etc. take over some of that labor.

    The expenses that have made the two income family necessary are not disposable consumer goods, they are big ticket items like child care, college, and housing. For example housing has completely outstripped inflation, even adjusting for square footage and the recent down-turn. In part this has been due to a competition for good school districts (education.) Job income has not kept up with these big ticket items.

    (iPods, designer jeans, etc – expenses like this has not changed over the past 100 years for families because consumer goods used to be really, really expensive. They were hand made, with different materials, we had different standards for dress, etc.)

    Another problem with the two family income home is that if something happens to one income (job loss, health problems) the other parent cannot then take a job to buffer the family income. Now BOTH jobs are required for a middle class standard of living (more often than not.) So the family suffers from more inherent RISK than families used to under a one income scenario.

    Given that families are facing more risk in the past, I think if the country wants things to be “as good as they were in our parent’s generation” then we need to make policies that mitigate that risk. IMHO.

    - I got this info above from several sources, including one by Elizabeth Warren and a series of LA Times articles by Peter Gosselin

  16. Heather, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with your larger point, but let’s remember that the servants were also Americans trying to make ends meet and who didn’t exactly have a lot of stability or luxury.

  17. What Katie said.

    Also, to add clarity to my “you also haven’t studied anthropology and are just making guesses on how you ‘think’ those societies would work.”

    Your statement “In societies where hunting was a major food source those hunters who worked hardest, became the best hunters, and brought in the most meat ate better.” is just not reflective of reality of hunting-based cultures. Hunting in those cultures is really the equivalent of Trent’s “someone with a job that they’ve made so efficient that they have time to surf the internet most of the day, I see someone who works smart but not hard” – that’s just the reality.

  18. Tracy #9
    You just wrote what I wanted to say.
    Sigh……. every day I wonder why I continue to read those ridiculous posts from a clueless guy in his ivory tower…..
    (why ? I used to find some value, even if not entertainement…….. now I am just irritated. But I enjoy the comments!)

  19. Tracy, I have not studied anthropology. Most of my knowledge regarding such societies is limited to Native American societies. Primarily those living in and around the Ohio Valley, with some lesser knowledge of other tribes. I realize that other cultures throughout the world worked very differently. Care to educate us on those those societies really worked? Are you suggesting that the best hunters received no value? No excess to trade or share with others? No elevated position in the society because of their prowess? No extra time to focus on other areas (assuming they only hunted to get the minimum required food which I think is what you’re saying).

  20. Jonathan,

    I’m not sure if you replied before or after I clarified my answer that hunters in hunting society work ‘smart, not hard’ – and yes, that includes Native American societies.

    But, simply put, best =/= hardest working.

  21. @Katie – my comment was limited to middle class Americans. That’s what I’ve tried to learn about because that’s what I am.

    Servants, I’d categorize them as “the poor”. Servants were doing difficult work, no question. Are the poor better off as you go through the 19th century? Yes, but I don’t really know enough about it, especially from the 50′s on.

  22. Tracy,

    I believe that they worked both harder and smarter. It takes a lot of hard work to become a skilled and efficient hunter. That hard work allowed them to work smarter.

  23. Heather @15,

    I think your discussion of then-versus-now middle class lifestyles suffers from the fact that the definitions of “middle-class” and “basic needs” have changed a lot in the last 60 years.

    The kind of middle-class worker who could afford to support a family AND have a servant on one income was a professional person (doctor, lawyer, CPA), moderate-sized business owner, or middle to upper management level white collar worker. Those kinds of people today are more likely to be considered “rich” and can still afford to support a family’s basic needs and keep a servant on one income.

    A factory line worker (even union), postal worker, skilled tradesperson, or lower-level white collar worker could support a family on one income then only because the stay-at-home wife performed many duties that today are outsourced and the standard of living was more modest, and he sure couldn’t afford a servant or college for the kids (unless they could earn scholarships) or often, even a car. Those people were called working class back then, but today often are considered and consider themselves middle class.

    My uncle was the classic “working class” man – worked in a pulp-mill as a factory worker for 40 years before he retired at age 65. They owned their own home (1000 square feet that last sold in 2006 for $79,000). My aunt never worked outside the home, they bought their first car when they were in their mid-50s, and they raised two children who both obtained advanced degrees on full scholarships. (Actually, they could have afforded a servant, since on my aunt’s death it turned out they had saved up some $250,000 in CDs – what would today be about $500,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars from when she died.)

    Clearly they met their basic needs, but very few people today would consider their lifestyle tolerable. Their vacations were spent roofing the house, cutting wood for the wood furnace that heated the house and for the wood cookstove, or maybe taking a short drive to the beach to go clamming or fishing. I doubt they went out to dinner or a movie more than once or twice a year; recreation was the weekly dance and pot-luck at the Polish Hall. My aunt sewed all their clothes, packed everybody’s lunch boxes every day, canned fruits, vegetables, clams and fish, etc.

    Someone earning today’s equivalent of my uncle’s wage could probably afford to live much as he did; they just wouldn’t want to, and they sure wouldn’t want to work at pretty hard labor for 40 years to do it. His house is still affordable, full scholarships can still be obtained, you can still get a permit to cut wood. The only inescapable expense that would have increased in real terms is taxes – FICA/Medicare, property and sales tax rates all have tripled or quadrupled.

    I think your argument that housing has outstripped inflation is location-dependent. It is not true in many locales, at least not adjusted for square footage.

  24. @Heather #15. As a child raised in the 50′s and 60′s I can definately state that what was considered “the basics” and supported by one income is not what people now consider the basics. I was raised in a well off suburb and most of the families had one car, 1 b/w tv, no computers, no clothes dryers, did not drive the kids all around because we were expected to walk or ride our bikes. We watched a movie as a treat maybe once every 1-3 months. We reused our lunch sacks, had one phone, and long distance calls were for emergencies (like deaths) only. The “need” to have two people working to support a home was created primarily by my own generation who wanted and expected it all the day they moved away from home and wanted even bigger, better, and faster – even if it meant going into debt to get it. That is one of the major reasons we are now dealing with what is called the “American Economic Crisis”.

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