This chapter caps off our deep dive into the cultural value of “hard work” with ways we can shift the conversation to wield the value for our progressive goals.

*Note that in an upcoming chapter we’ll discuss ways to expand the definition of what counts as “work.”

Check out the previous chapters on “hard work”  – Mapping the Value of Hard Work and Hard Work and the Deservingness Trap  – and stay up to date on all the Voices from the South chapters here.

Too often the idea of hard work is used against us and our values. Conservative voices consistently (and effectively) tap into existing cultural values around hard work to undermine pro-worker policies and systemic solutions.  While we can’t ignore the firmly entrenched value of hard work in the Cultural Common Sense, we can wield it for our own progressive goals.

The crack in the Cultural Common Sense: Hard work should be rewarded

In short, the default way of thinking about hard work is premised on the question of whether or not a person is working hard enough. But the conversation we need to have is whether or not work is rewarded enough.

The cultural ideal shared by nearly all Americans is that hard work ought to be recognized and rewarded. A person who tries, who strives to do what they can do – whether in a job or at home or in the community – is worthy of respect, of material security, and of help when they need it.

In our research, we found a promising opening in the Cultural Common Sense when we flip people’s perspective from “working hard enough” to “being rewarded enough.” People across the South and Southern Midwest recognize a disconnect between encouraging hard work and not actually being rewarded for it.

People work full-time jobs and still cannot provide for their families. It makes me sad and mad.

– 60-year-old liberal Black woman, Kingsland, GA

Workers aren’t getting the compensation they deserve for their work. We should insist they get better treatment . . . Workers get treated so poorly by everyone and nothing is done. People get paid the bare minimum and expected to be able to live off that small paycheck.

– 22-year-old non-voting white woman, Foley, AL

I think it’s really awful there’s too many people that’s working full time and struggling. I think it’s a direct connection to the idea [of] changing the rules about how working people are treated. There’s a lot of employers that’s not considering the employees of the company.

– 32-year-old Republican Black man, Kansas City, MO

I believe that we as a state should raise minimum wage and wages in general so those of us with families like myself can support them without worry. I currently work two jobs and still had to request a credit card just so I could buy food for my wife and two children.

– 28-year-old liberal man, Russell, KS

One part of our overall strategy is to reorient and use this core idea to our advantage – reinforcing the notion that a person’s economic well-being shouldn’t come just from privilege, power or social position, but from the work, effort and striving that people bring to their lives, including (but not only) their working lives.

We see an opening in people’s frustration with how the current system seems to be treating them, and a path toward recognizing that in order to get something better we need collective action to make the system really work the way we want it to.

Testing shows the opening for a systems perspective

The South and Southern Midwest is a region where people are far down the spectrum in terms of what people believe a worker has a right to expect (or demand) from an employer. In our research across Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas, we tested ways to move the needle closer to what every job (employer) should be required to provide.

In our open-ended qualitative interviews, default thinking to individual hard work almost always won the day. But in our 5-state survey, we forced systems into the conversation by asking people to choose one of two explanations:

  1. In our economy, if you work hard, you can get ahead, no matter where you started OR
  2. In our economy, the system is set up to make it easier for some people and harder for others

Source: Topos Partnership, Southern Mindshift, 5-state Survey, May 25-29, 2023

While there is a generational divide (the older you are the more likely you are to believe that hard work is rewarded) and a gender divide (men, across demographics, tend to stick most strongly to the idea that work is rewarded), over 6 in 10 respondents side with the view that “the system is set up to make it easier for some people and harder for others.”

We can’t ignore the fact that 40 percent of respondents chose individualism and meritocracy over systems, but this survey result provides a glimpse into an important opening to build on.

Shifting to a focus on systemic challenges that require systemic solutions

So, HOW do we shift the focus from the role of individual striving toward economic systems and the conditions of work?

Of the three synergistic elements we introduced in chapter 2, the third point – shining a light on businesses’ actions (rather than individuals’ hard work) –  allows us us to have a paradigm shifting conversation about work and economic policies:

  • People drive the economy, and businesses rely on us.
  • Taking active steps to build up and include ALL people makes both moral and economic sense.
  • Some businesses exploit their workers, neighbors, or consumers; so we need rules and guardrails.

As noted earlier, in our qualitative research, people often default to thinking about how individuals navigate the work world and whether or not they are working enough to get ahead. However, in the survey, when we presented an alternative view based on whether or not businesses are rewarding work as they should, by 2-1 Southerners side with the idea that we-the-public need to demand more.

Source: Topos Partnership, Southern Mindshift, 5-state Survey, May 25-29, 2023

Within this framework of ideas, shifting to the results end of the equation (Is hard work actually rewarded?) allows us to shift from individual blame to questioning the system.  And we can show people how and why the government has a role to play when it comes to regulating the workplace and ensuring both our individual and collective well-being.