Listening to today’s political rhetoric, from the left, center or right, it would be easy to get the impression that there are only two types of Americans: those who are hardworking and those who are hardly working. On the one hand, the rhetoric implies, there is a large group of normal citizens who are by nature hardworking and motivated to move upward through the economic and social strata; while on the other hand, there is a group, not as large as the former, who are by nature not interested in working or spending much effort at all to move up the economic and social strata but are rather content to “leech off” hard workers and beat the system while at the same time burdening it with the cost of maintaining them.
The relative size of these two groups varies depending on where one stands on the political spectrum. In the political imagination of the left, the size of the group that is thought to be naturally adverse to work is relatively small. Most people, the left argues, want to work and contribute to their own betterment and to that of society at large. The vast majority of people, no matter their race, creed, gender or national origin, either already are or are, at least, willing to work hard. The social ascendancy of this group is limited or cut off completely by societal and economic structures. If these limiting structures were changed, those citizens currently held back by these structures would begin to prosper and achieve, what is rather loosely called, the American dream.
On the right side of the spectrum, the group of people not naturally inclined to work hard is thought of as rather large. Some exceptional and meritorious individuals are in fact naturally hardworking and by stint of that work succeed both economically and socially. These hard workers are the exception not the rule. In this view, the vast majority of people are assigned to a grey area in which the harsh conflictual realities of life force them to choose between working (sometimes very hard) in order not to be overcome by these conditions or collapsing in the face of reality, failing to work hard and ultimately simply depending on others.
In either view, work is meritorious and hard work is a virtue. In either view, hard work should yield positive economic results. If a person’s economic results are poor, they are either not working hard enough or the positive results of their hard work are not being realized because social/economic structures are preventing their labor from realizing its just reward.
Since hard work resides in such a central place in the national political imagination and working hard seems to stand with other virtues like integrity, honesty, fidelity etc., perhaps we should be clearer about what we mean by the term “hard” in relationship to work and whether the hardness of work is something to admire or avoid. Perhaps hard work is more social ill than social good?
There are a great many modifiers that can be applied to work. In addition to hard, work can be challenging, rewarding, interesting, exciting, dull, repetitive, meaningless, meaningful, difficult, easy and so forth. What exactly do we mean by “hard”?
The New Oxford American Dictionary (2005) defines “work” as “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” Work is activity that requires human effort of some sort. “Effort” is defined, by the same dictionary, as “a vigorous and determined attempt” and as “strenuous physical or mental exertion.” Hard” is defined as something “requiring a great deal of endurance or physical or mental effort.” Hardworking people are thus people who exert a great deal of effort in a way that challenges their ability to endure that level of exertion over time.
Strictly speaking work is a human activity and is not really done by machines like robots, assembly lines, laser cutters, CAD/CAM machines and so forth. Devices and systems like these have been developed by human beings in part to lessen the strenuous effort that we are required to exert in order to achieve our ends. We humans have applied our ingenuity BOTH to lessen the need to exert strenuous effort and to accomplish more simultaneously. From the first tool, to the lever, wheel, plow, boat, wagon, staircase, loom, mill, calculator, computer, MRI machine, we have sought to make life easier, safer and more productive.
We have not been about the business of making life harder and harder but rather easier and easier. We have had a good deal of success doing this over time. Life is easier today that it was for our forebears. Life may be more complicated in many ways, but from the point of view of strenuous, protracted exertion it is less hard and we in the developed (and many parts of the developing) world are not as hardworking as most of those who have gone before us. In the developed West and increasingly around the world our time and energy have been liberated to devote to things other than protracted strenuous exertion–to work as such.
For many today, the line between what we do because we have to in order to meet our basic needs and what we do because we find it interesting, engaging, challenging, rewarding or simply fun has begun to blur. Physically speaking, many of us do not exert ourselves strenuously enough and need to take up fitness activities.
By the standards of yesteryear, many of us could be said to be hardly working in the sense that we spend much less of our time strenuously exerting ourselves physically in order to provide, what we take to be, the necessities of life. Many of us do not live in a world where the application of individual strenuous energy in order to supply ourselves and our families like the hunter-gatherer or family farmer of the past is even a possibility.
“Hardworking” suggests a person who endlessly toils the majority of his/her time willingly and steadfastly in order to, at a minimum, sustain and maintain themselves and their families or, at a maximum, proceed inexorably upward economically. “Hardworking” is synonymous with “toiling.” “Hardworking” is simply a way of saying “toiling” more palatably.
There is an inescapable irony here. A good deal of human history is the story of lessening toil, increasing social goods and liberating time for other aspects of human life. Yet, today politicians hardly ever talk about virtuous Americans without the modifier “hardworking.” Put another way, “toiling” Americans are good Americans and should be rewarded. Those who do not “toil” are less meritorious and should not be rewarded for that lack of merit.
Would it not be a better thing if we were to reignite the human dream of rising above the need to toil rather than enshrining willingness to toil in the hall of virtues? Work itself can be so many good things that too ready a willingness to settle for toiling (being hardworking) can only impede capturing the sense of meaning, contribution, mastery, creativity, fellowship, purpose and joy work can provide in balance with family, friends and community.
Life without toil is perhaps a Utopian aspiration, but in the realm of aspiration and dream, realism may be much less important than an ideal which grasps the imagination penetrating more deeply into the nature of life and lifting us to an ever greater experience of meaning, purpose and fulfillment.