Working Hard or Hardly Working: Do We Care?

So what do you do for a living?”

I hate this question. Not just when I am asked. I hate the deeply embedded need we have in this country to begin conversations in this manner. The reason I hate it is that the question is indicative of a certain hypocrisy. 

Let’s keep in mind the difference between working hard and making a living. Let’s also remember its twin distinction: the difference between being lazy and not making a living.

There are plenty of people out there who work hard at something. And for whatever reason are unable to make a living directly through that hard work. Or they make less of a living than they need. Sometimes this is because their job doesn’t pay enough. Sometimes it is because that despite of all of their hard work, they cannot get hired at all no matter what they do.

And at what do people work hard if they are not making a living? It depends of course. Some work hard at trying to find employment. Driving and walking around until they are exhausted trying to scrape something together. Others who are not making a living work hard each day at domestic chores. Cleaning, cooking. Sometimes child rearing. Some unemployed expel a great deal of energy volunteering. In many cases, volunteering to take on some rather labor intensive projects which in a just world, they would be paid to do.

Let’s not forget those who create. Artists. Musicians. Writers. If they are serious about their craft, they are working hard at the act of creation each day, whether or not they have found a way to make a living off of it.

Then there are those that are “making a living” who wouldn’t choose to break a sweat in fear of staining their shirt or hurting themselves. Some of the laziest people I have ever met are those lucky enough to find a job.

Let’s look at two people.

The first guy makes no money and lives in the proverbial “mother’s basement”, but spends all morning mowing her lawn, tending her garden and cleaning her house before driving 30 minutes to the local shelter where he spends the next four hours in a hot soup kitchen serving meals to the hungry and homeless. (Those also not making a living, but not lucky enough to have family with whom to live.) In the evening he blogs of his experience at the soup kitchen as he does each night, meticulously editing his content before publishing. Before bed he spends an hour with his guitar, both to unwind, and to stay in practice for the band with whom he sometimes gets to perform for peanuts at local dives. These are his days.

The second guy loves to talk. He’s got some funny jokes and stories, and doesn’t mind sharing them with anyone. One such time of story telling was with an older gentleman at Starbucks. The subject? The internet. This lands him a job with the stranger’s company as a community manager. A job which gives him a desk, an office, and a secretary. A job which is safe for him so long as he appears busy because the company is so far behind on social media practices they will believe whatever he says.

Once an hour or so he’ll send an official company Tweet out to Twitter with some half-assed question he got from someone else. Between hours-long sessions of World of Warcraft on company time he will put together a few emails and send them out, and cut and paste blog content from his own abandoned personal blog, and edit them just enough to put on the company blog. Anytime he hears of an after hours meeting that somebody needs to have with him, he finds a way to be “out on call” that day, and leaves the office an hour early. For this, he pulls down 60K a year.

Now answer this question honestly: On which of these people does society tend to place more value? The hardworking jobless man contributing to the world, or the clod with the office?

It’s the clod, and we all know it.

In our society we pay a lot of lip service to the idea of rewarding hard work, and looking up to those who put in a day’s worth of labor. We claim to abhor laziness and group think. Yet in many cases as a collective we don’t actually seem to be admiring the level of labor and creativity a person displays. What we are in reality admiring is the amount of money they have found a way to be given, and what material possessions they can obtain with same.

My question is, if we value people who work hard and try their best to be creative and solve problems and move and influence for the better, what’s it to us what they are paid, or even if they are paid? Why should we care if that guy lives in his mother’s basement? Isn’t that between him and his mother? We know the effort he puts into service to others and into creating things.  Why is he less deserving of admiration, or friendship, or a woman’s love?

Can’t we all just respect hard work and concentrated effort when we see it? Whether that’s in a corner office, a McDonald’s kitchen, or a mother’s basement. If hard work were the positive character attribute we claim it is in this country, far more people would earn respect and admiration, (and perhaps even a job) than currently do.

What is hard work to you? Do you value anyone who works hard at something positive, or do you value those who make a living only?


  1. Hmmm, interesting. I guess I would argue that what we value in this country is not hard work itself, but hard work to make a living. So in your example, the royal “we” would value the clod with the office more because he's making a living, even if he's not working that hard. If the first guy's day also included time to job-hunt, I think people would value that more. But I'm more inclined to like the first guy anyway.

    Of course there are bigger, deeper aspects to consider here. It's difficult to reduce it down to either/or, black/white terminology. To amend my first statement, perhaps where I place value is hard work to make a difference. I can't speak for the royal “we” here, though. Whether it's making a difference in someone else's life or your own, I value that hard work. Some people can work pretty hard at things that aren't beneficial to anyone (including themselves) and that's where I would find fault.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Ty!

  2. If in fact I have misjudged the nature of what our society values, (and it does instead value hard work to try to make a living as you say, I don't change my overall view that this is not an appealing barometer for me.

    For if I made it my barometer, I would be default have to label all unemployed people as total failures as human beings. I am not prepared to do that.

    If the barometer is, “the level of success that someone has in the banking industry”, than yes, any number of people have failed. But if the barometer is “how much they make”, then I say the great majority of people, including myself have always been, and shall always be failures. I am not willing to go there either.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. JMH

    Hmm…I think what we truly value is self-sufficiency and having the means to exert autonomy. In the vast majority of cases, having access to our own money is a proxy for this. There are exceptions, I suppose.Does society think less of someone living off the grid, growing their own food, building their own house, having nothing to do with the capitalist system? We might think they’re weird, but there’s also something noble and inherently American about taking the archetype of self-made man literally. Sure, this person isn’t holding down a six-figure job, but he’s also not beholden to anyone.

    Maybe even more basic than self-sufficiency or autonomy, we judge people by how free they are. And short of going off grid, we associate amassing more money with getting closer to freedom – retirement, starting our own business, spending without worrying. The catch is that we often have to trade away more of our freedom (to change jobs, to move, to spend our evening hours out of the office) in order to gain the very thing we believe will make us freer.

    Or maybe we’ve just never fully emerged from the logic of Weber’s Protestant Worth Ethic. I could believe that.

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