Americans revere the concept of “hard work.” Let’s celebrate work in all its forms.
With Labor Day weekend just behind us, it’s a good time to reflect on the role of work in American society.
American Aspirations research has found that work is an almost sacred concept in American life. In a national survey, we asked people to choose words that describe themselves. As the chart below shows, 9 out of 10 said that being “hardworking” is important to the way they want to be seen as people.
In interviews and focus groups with Americans of all walks of life, we asked what three words describe what Americans are like as people. “Hardworking” was the most common choice, with more than a dozen mentions, along with related terms like “ambitious” and “driven.”
To many Americans, work is a core value, which many see as part of their personal identity. William, an older man in Nashville, told us he retired after a long career of working with his hands—only to find himself itching to go back to work. “I didn’t need the money,” he said. “I just wanted to be out there, rather than sitting on the couch.”
However, we don’t all define “work” in the same ways:
“I’m a stay-at-home mom,” said Kristen, a 34-year-old mother from Seattle. “I work around the house.”
“I’m a single mom of two boys, and I’m finishing my master’s degree,” said Marissa, a young woman in Denver who said she spends every day working hard.
As seen from the examples above, so many Americans define work in ways that go beyond holding a 9-to-5 job. We also see the value of work as greater than a paycheck. For many of us, work brings a sense of purpose to life.
Given the sanctity of work in American life, most Americans respect others they see making an effort to build a good life or contribute to their community. This insight helped shape a new narrative about the government’s role in fighting poverty in America. According to an American Aspirations analysis of 40 social change organizations, when describing people who benefit from anti-poverty programs, experts and advocates often labeled them with terms such as “poor,” “vulnerable” or “marginalized.” Unfortunately, as we mentioned in our April post, according to the World Values Survey, nearly 6 out of 10 Americans associated the word “poor” with “lazy.” Many assume the “poor” weren’t making any effort to help themselves build a better life. That stereotype makes it harder for people to support government programs that help people get out of poverty.
The fact is, 9 out of 10 Americans who receive government benefits actually have jobs—or can’t work because they are too young, elderly or disabled. And many are working hard in other ways—raising their children, taking classes, or volunteering in their communities.
Research found that Americans were more willing to support government anti-poverty efforts when they perceived people benefiting from these programs as working, or otherwise taking initiative to change their lives—such as by taking classes, or opening a savings account. Describing people with action-oriented words and phrases like “working,” “striving” or “struggling to get ahead” led listeners to respect and empathize with people trying to lift their families out of poverty. Putting people in the picture this way persuaded 7 out of 10 respondents in a national survey to support government programs that help low-income Americans achieve financial security.
This kind of language appeals to many of us because as Americans, we’ve grown up with stories about how if you work hard and play by the rules, anyone can achieve the American Dream. But while our individual work ethic is an important part of success or failure, our life circumstances matter too. It can be hard to understand how the experiences, systems and institutions we face help or hinder us along the way, and to acknowledge that fortune has a lot to do with opportunities we receive in life. To help people better understand the factors that affect opportunity and inequality in our lives, the Ford Foundation partnered with Moving Up to develop an interactive tool called Your American Dream Score. Taking this quiz can help you, your coworkers, partners or audiences reflect on your own circumstances, cultivate empathy for others, and think and communicate honestly about the role that work plays in our lives.
No matter what issue you work on, you can use these insights about work to build support for your cause. Show how the people you serve are hardworking and you’ll help your audience see themselves in your message. If you draw on Americans’ inclusive definition of work, you can portray many different activities and lifestyles as worthy of respect and support. And if you put the focus on people’s circumstances, not their ability or work ethic—you help your audience reflect on the many different factors that determine success and failure, and motivate them to help out.
By celebrating all kinds of work, you can bring people together—by showing the common ground between Americans of many different backgrounds and beliefs, and the values and aspirations we share.