This article originally appeared in Real Clear Markets on November 5, 2018.
The lead-up to the midterms is gripping the nation, but so is the lottery. The Mega Millions jackpot was in record territory last month—reaching $1.6 billion. Many Americans asked themselves, “what would I do with all that money?”
Such a large sum makes work unnecessary. So, it may be reasonable to assume that most would quit their jobs.
Survey data show otherwise. The General Social Survey, a nationally-representative survey from the University of Chicago, asks respondents, “if you were to get enough money to live as comfortably as you would like for the rest of your life, would you continue to work or would you stop working?” In other words, if you won the lottery would you quit your job?
Seventy percent of Americans reported that they would continue to work. This strong majority holds across Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. No matter one’s political stripes, people value work beyond its direct economic benefits.
The American Belief in Work is Unique
Americans especially value work compared with those in other countries. Data from the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes survey show that 73 percent of Americans think that hard work is very important for getting ahead. In comparison, other advanced economies, such as Germany and France, have a much lower percentage of people who think hard work is very important for getting ahead.
Our colleague, Carol Graham, has shown that the belief in hard work is positively correlated with one’s income in the U.S. as one might expect; but more surprisingly, she finds that the poor in the U.S. have stronger beliefs in the efficacy of work than even the rich in Europe.
Why Work is So Important
Despite the value Americans place on work, we have seen a long decline in labor force attachment among men in the U.S. Studies of this trend have not come to any consensus about whether it is due to lack of demand and stagnant wages or to supply-side factors such as incarceration and the availability of disability or other benefits. Perhaps a decline in the work ethic among young men, who are reportedly spending increasing amounts of time playing video games, plays a role too. In any case, the trend is correlated with rising rates of early death, less marriage, and a multitude of other social problems, ranging from depression to addiction. It’s hard to separate out cause and effect, but lack of work likely leads to social isolation, diminished self-worth, and too much unstructured time. In short, work provides more than income. It provides self-respect, a sense of contributing, an identity, and connection to others.
Some psychologists who have studied the experiences people find most satisfying emphasize those that have an element of “flow.” Flow involves active engagement and attention to achieving a set of goals well aligned with one’s skills. People were more likely to experience flow while working than they were during periods of so-called leisure, a finding that surprised the scholars doing this work – especially since it held true for a broad range of occupations, not just the highest-skilled ones. Of course, not all work is created equal. Some work can be boring, disagreeable, demeaning, or even injurious but for many, perhaps most, people it seems to bring a sense of purpose and satisfaction because it is goal-oriented and involves a challenge. Passive activities, such as watching television, in contrast, do not correlate as strongly with a sense of well-being.
Philosophers from Aristotle to Adam Smith have viewed work as a means to an end – with the end being more material well-being, income, and consumption. Perhaps it’s time to give greater recognition to the satisfactions people get from being producers not just consumers.
Redirecting Public Policy to Focus on Work
The above facts suggest that, as we think about public policy, work should have a more central role.
Many thought leaders from across the ideological spectrum seem to agree. Arthur Brooks, president of the center-right American Enterprise Institute, and The Dalai Lama have called for a society that provides opportunities for meaningful work. The center-left think tank, Third Way, has begun talking about “restoring the opportunity to earn a good life.” Earning the good life and living the good life are related but distinct concepts. Oren Cass of the free-market Manhattan Institute in his new book, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, believes that a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities should be the central focus of public policy. The Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, has documented slow and unequal wage growth and for years has been calling for economic policy focused on low- and middle-income workers.
In a new book, The Forgotten Americans: An Economic Agenda for A Divided Nation, one of us (Isabel Sawhill), calls for a policy agenda centered on the value of work that includes increased funding for career and technical education, an effective elimination of taxes for most low- and middle-wage workers, and tax incentives that encourage corporations to provide more training and offer more profit sharing and more ownership opportunities to their employees.
In short, there appears to be broad agreement that work is a core American value. America’s divisions are frighteningly large. In a search for common ground, we would do well to focus on the unifying potential of people’s desire to work and the need to assure that everyone who wants to contribute has an opportunity to do so and is fairly rewarded in the process.