Guest Blogger Mike Brown shares:
“Work hard and you’ll be successful.”
We’ve all heard it from well meaning parents, coaches and mentors since we were kids. This idea is woven into the very fabric of our national psyche; if you just follow the rules, check the right boxes and put in the hours, you will emerge a recipient of the American Dream. It’s part of our founding story — hardworking immigrants venturing to a new land seeking opportunity. Ever heard of the Puritan work ethic? Hard work is as American as SUVs, Happy Meals and reality TV.
The problem is that hard work is a lie. Ask the billions of people on the planet, and yes, even here in America, who are engaged in daily back-breaking labor how successful they feel. While many who are successful have had to work hard at some point, it is hardly the only ingredient, and certainly not the most important. Luck, risk, privilege, timing — the list is endless when dissecting factors that determine wealth in this country.
The current civil unrest and protests are certainly not just about police violence. Our nation is a powder keg of people of color who have been working hard for generations, only to find themselves perpetually on the bottom rung of the ladder. The situation is exacerbated by whites who have been told that everyone has an equal chance since their earliest indoctrination to American exceptionalism in public schools. “They should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, just as my ancestors did!”
Of course, if we aren’t afraid to look a little deeper, we can see that the game has been rigged. From slavery to sharecropping to redlining, government policy has been engineered to keep a class of cheap labor easily accessible so that our economy can continue to enjoy its place at the head of the world’s table. Our hegemony was literally built on the backs of the disenfranchised.
The hard work problem is not merely an American invention. Yuval Noah Harari posits in Sapiens that the Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud, and that wheat domesticated us. Our primal ancestors had spent their resources wisely, hunting when necessary, but according to anthropologists, most likely had significantly more leisure time than modern humans.
Nor does the false god of hard work belong exclusively to the poor. The wealthiest Americans tend to work longer hours than their middle class counterparts. The treadmill of conspicuous consumerism keeps wealthy doctors, lawyers, and bankers working ever increasing hours — sometimes more than double the 40 hour standard. With the rise of cell phones, executives (and hence their employees) have adopted an ethos of 24 hour availability, and even stranger, wear it like a badge of honor. Investment banks, startups and law firms all pride themselves on cultures where employees sleep under their desks so that they can work longer hours, but to what end?
It has been well documented and should be plain to see that we are producing more and living better than we ever have before as a species. So why then are we also working harder? Why is the standard answer when someone asks how one is doing a single word — “busy”?
If the rise of technology allows us to produce at ever increasing efficiency, why hasn’t our leisure time risen with it? Perhaps the answer lies in our collective attitude regarding hard work. Recently I was speaking to a founder of a well-known brand who had just sold his company for $300 million, and when I inquired how we was spending his days, he told me proudly that he was still going in to the office every day because he didn’t want his kids to think he was lazy. This brilliant business owner had achieved the highest level of the American Dream, and yet wouldn’t even allow himself to enjoy it because of his fear around the perceptions we place on hard work. Wouldn’t it be better to teach our children that if you have a great idea, take some risk, blend it with a little luck, that maybe you won’t have to work?
Indeed, as we step into the future, we must find a way to divorce ourselves from the idea of work as a virtue. Machines are replacing jobs faster than ever before — as well they should. In the next century, humanity may face a world for the first time in which none of us needs to work. It is feasible, even plausible, that our ingenuity will finally put us out of a job. So how will we tackle such a challenge?
When the COVID-19 pandemic ground the economy to a shuddering halt, our government moved with record speed to produce a $6 trillion aid package — with more likely on the horizon. Part of this package included a $1200 check to help the staggering amount of newly unemployed. Another $250 billion was set aside for struggling small business to continue to pay their employees, and was subsequently overwhelmed with applications and out of money mere minutes after it opened.
But where is the rest of this money? If the government can create $6T that didn’t exist before, why do the American people get such a paltry amount? Between the stimulus check and the PPP, money sent to the average person is insulting compared to that doled out to our corporate overlords. We ensure the survival of the incumbents and stifle innovation and competition when we guarantee that the stock prices of large companies never go down.
Imagine for a minute if the tables were turned. Imagine if the $6T of our money was returned to the citizens from whom it was borrowed. There are roughly 128 million households in the US. When you divide the astronomical sum of six thousand billion ($6T) by the number of households in this country, you get $46,663. When the median liquid net worth of the average American is between $3–5k , an injection of $46k would without a doubt instantly and dramatically change the lives of a vast majority of our population.
Why then do we allow our politicians to line the pockets of corporations and huge banks while simultaneously telling us the best they can do for us is a measly $1200? Why is every citizen not protesting in the streets of this historic pillaging of the American people? If we can afford this massive wealth transfer to corporate interests, why are the people not demanding equal treatment?
One the key factors in starting a new business is the ability to take a risk. Imagine all of the new and innovative business that would emerge with a collective safety net of $46,000. Or perhaps, maybe instead of a one time injection, we could create a Universal Basic Income like that called for by Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, which decouples the virtue of work from the reward of money. He is one of the lone voices asking what we’ll do when the working class has been replaced by machines. If we could put a system in place that allows us to replace low wage jobs with technology, the great coronavirus pandemic of 2020 could be remembered as a time of rapid innovation rather than destruction. Already we are seeing the innovation across industries, including food and beverage. Historically reliant on cheap labor, we could replace more and more low paying jobs with technology with having to worry about how these displaced workers would eat. As we watched the US Postal Service teeter on the brink of solvency, one of the most common questions was what about all of those jobs? Why not instead ask why we are still propping up a dinosaur institution that provides an archaic service. Is it really for the jobs?
Perhaps the greatest mistake we can make in this unprecedented time is clinging to the idea of a return to the way things were. We have an opportunity to rethink the way our society functions — and we should be making the most of it by pulling the future forward and innovating at the same speed at which the world has changed. But our American ideal of hard work is standing in the way of progress. If we do not use this time to restructure and use our collective ingenuity to reimagine our relationship to work, we have missed a generational moment that we may not see again in our lifetime. Let’s not squander it by clinging to the way we have always done things. Now is the time for the conversation — but it requires us to take a step back and maybe not work quite so hard.
About the Author:
Mike Brown is a former Navy fighter pilot-turned-entrepreneur. When he's not dreaming up his next entrepreneurial endeavor or telling Navy stories, you will usually find him riding mountain bikes in the foothills of Golden, CO.