Saturday, December 10, 2011

Has Our Work Ethic Changed?

I just can't help but respond to a rather silly post I saw on CNN.  Looking at aggregate data, I see absolutely no sign that Americans have lost their work ethic.  It is true that hours worked per worker have declined by about 100 hours since 1950, from around 1900 to around 1800, but the difference isn't that large and likely primarily reflects better labor conditions.  (OECD data, dangit, it doesn't retain the changes I made to the chart, you'll need to alter the fields yourself to see back to 1950)  Furthermore, labor participation peaked in the late 1990s, labor force participation data shows quite clearly that the state of the economy is the primary determinant of the work ethic, rather than the other way around.    Better economy, means more people work for longer hours.  The poor are particularly sensitive to this.

Looking at other data, it is complete bullshit that young people have lost their labor ethic compared to the past.  Labor force participation among the 16 to 24 year old age group has increased from 59.9% in 1950 (and 56.4% in 1960) to 65.9% in 1998 (these numbers fluctuate with opportunities for higher education as well, so are rather variable). (BLS data)

Now, it is probably true that poor kids have less opportunities to make money when young.  But this is largely because they're poor, I doubt kids in housing projects get much in the way of allowance so parents can hardly require them to do chores for money (they may of course still require you do chores, but historically, something that separates capitalist societies from pre-capitalist societies is that in capitalist societies you get something from your work, in pre-capitalist societies you work but get nothing, teaching kids to work for the sake of working, while perhaps good for teaching them to maintain a household, doesn't reinforce capitalistic market habits any more than did the labor requirements that many pre-capitalist societies that never developed capitalist markets did, there's a difference between forcing people to work for whatever you deign to give them and teaching them the benefits of work, a distinction that I think is often lost in debates regarding work ethic).  If you're in the projects, there isn't anyone with the cash to pay you 5 bucks to shovel or mow a lawn/driveway (or a yard or driveway in most cases).  So there's not much you can do to promote work unless you first raise incomes, which isn't what I think Gingrich is talking about.

Behind all this rhetoric, I see nothing but an elitist attitude that people should accept what we're damn well willing to give them. Statements like this:

Whenever I write about young people and the jobs they won't do, I hear from dozens of employers with stories of their own. The common theme in all those e-mails is that we've been too soft on our kids and haven't demanded enough from them, something we hardly notice because we've allowed illegal immigrants to pick up the slack.
Have been recorded in countless variations since Sumer.  They're all bullshit, kids these days are no worse than they were before, there are a lot of indications that they are better, harder working, and more entrepreneurial.  What has disappeared is the institutions that used to exist to justify bad behavior, 50 years ago a teenager that got knocked up would have simply been married off, today it's recognized as a social problem we won't paper over by marrying them.  Kids these days work, and work hard, kids in poor neighborhoods don't have the same good influences but they never did have them.  A kid living in a 1950s era poor rural village wouldn't have had any better influences than a kid in today's housing project, but out their in the sticks they would have been out of sight and out of mind.  The only thing that is different is poverty, and its work ethic crushing effects on people, is more visible than 50 years ago.  Moral exhortation won't do a damn thing, no matter how many anecdotes are collected advocating for firmness, because the reality isn't that things were once better, the reality is that we are more aware of the problems.  Gingrich's statements on the subject aren't some bold revelation, they're tired, worn statements of an out of touch elitist trying to dismiss real social problems as the flaws of individuals.  It's based on not understanding our history and glorifying a past that never happened while simultaneously denigrating our own times which have revealed the problem, not caused it.

There's nothing bold about these statements, they do nothing but reinforce people's prejudices while doing nothing to point towards a solution.  They distract us from the real problems we face and provide easy answers that require us to do nothing as individuals, it's all in the hands of someone else to change, usually the poor and politically weak, while justifying our own success as due to our own inner moral goodness (well, I don't hire illegal immigrants to rake my leaves, I make my kid mow the lawn for his allowance, etc. so I've already done my part and don't have to give a damn about those lazy poor kids whose parents have gone and ruined them).  The fact that variables such as work force participation can and do vary with the economy and that it differs with social programs does show that Gingrich's attitude is nothing but self-justifying.  We can do something to change these factors, they just involve us doing something rather than sitting on our hands because I have done what I could and leave it up to someone else to do the rest.


  1. I think you do a pretty good job of identifying and unpacking Gingrich's message (I once saw him say that one of his proposals called for teaching frugality to poor people). But I'm not so sure that the work ethic of someone in a rural 50's town is necessarily exposed to the same influences as a poor urban kid today. Your claim to that effect seems to be a deserved rejection of the idea that that is CERTAINLY untrue, but I think you take it too far in ignoring other cultural externalities, such as the level of hopelessness around him and a perception of his own chance of success. Let's be honest: if a white rural kid perceives that he can transcend his station easier than a poor black urban kid, ceteris parabus, he's right because he's already white. This discussion is tough to have without basing a lot off of empirical evidence, and that's mine.

  2. I'd certainly agree that there is an empirical question there. As a point of comparison though, I had a poor black farming village in the south in mind, not a poor white kid. I had in mind some poverty reading I had been doing a few months ago, black poverty used to be primarily concentrated in rural areas, particularly in the south, today it is concentrated in urban areas. The interesting thing is this was accomplished as part of a large emigration from rural areas, the people poor today are the children of individuals sufficiently motivated to uproot themselves and move into new areas to seek new opportunities. It's a strange story to claim it is a lack of a work ethic that condemns people to today's urban ghettos when they are the descendents of people that moved there seeking more rewarding employment.

    There still is an empirical question, but it gets muddied by the possibility of the cultural factor preventing employment being located in the employer rather than the employee. Today's urban ghettos are the result of people trying to work hard and failing, if the problem is cultural whose culture is it causing the problem? It may not be the culture of those in the ghetto.