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Americans Are Skeptical That Hard Work Will Pay Off (theatlantic.com)
52 points by paulpauper on April 10, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 153 comments



One of the things that bothers me the most about the United States is the ubiquity of "ass-in-seats" thinking. Somehow, the appearance of sacrifice (commuting two hours a day and being there at 9) means much more than the results you deliver in many companies.

It should be "smart work," not "hard work." Hard implies it's all just the transfer of energy--what seems to excite MBAs--when all that should matter is delivering results. Isn't that what capitalism is supposed to be?


I've heard the "smart work" mantra many times, but it's actually quite difficult to implement in practice. I've been told many times "we don't care when you come and go, we just want the tasks done", but what they usually mean is "you can't leave at 5 if the tasks aren't are done".

Because if you manage to finish the tasks early and leave at 2, they'll make sure you have enough tasks so that this doesn't happen again.


"Because if you manage to finish the tasks early and leave at 2, they'll make sure you have enough tasks so that this doesn't happen again."

Yes. I've had managers get offended at the idea of taking a break when tasks are complete because you should be jumping on the next thing.

From what I've noticed, though, jumping on that next task doesn't help your career at Big Corp in any way and usually doesn't significantly lead to more personal accomplishment.

Taking some time to reflect can have a big impact on what you accomplish, though.


helping your career at Big Corp.

1. make sure you have "cover" as high up the chain as possible. Someone that signs your praises, defends you in the right meetings. Usually not your front line boss at larger corps.


Your ass in your seat, taking minimal vacation (with your Blackberry), justifies my existence and competence as your manager in Big Corp.


This definitely isn't a 'big corp' problem though. In fact, employees at 'big corp' will often have better hours and more vacation that employees at 'hot new startup'.


Also "hard work" is easy. Sit and do some meetings to look busy

Shipping and solving problems is harder


Shipping useful stuff and solving actual problems is even harder


do some meetings to look busy

This book is pretty great! https://www.amazon.com/100-Tricks-Appear-Smart-Meetings/dp/1...


There's gotta be some kind of Schroedinger's cat type joke here. If you're not in your seat, you don't exist.


> One of the things that bothers me the most about the United States is

I don't think that is limited to the USA and IMHO the "ass-in-seats" mentality is as bad or worse in most other countries.

Moreover, the thing about the "results-only" approach is that it can lead to precarious employment where you get vicious "rank-and-yank" style management. The complaint in the article is that people are feeling that they can't get ahead even if they work hard.

Perhaps this isn't even really about "ass-in-seat" vs "results-only"? I think its about opportunities getting snubbed.


Fair point. I can qualify that by saying it's much more pronounced here than where I'm from, Northern Europe.


The biggest problem I see with the US today is we lack a national narrative for success. From ~1950 - ~1980 it was something like "Get a good job, work hard and you'll be able to succeed." By whatever combination of political, social and economic factors, the country was able to provide opportunities for the majority of people with aspirations of a comfortable middle class lifestyle to achieve them.

Earlier in the country's history it was "Go west, young man" -- the frontier served a similar social function of giving just about everybody willing to put in the effort demanded the ability to move up a notch economically -- maybe several notches.

Now we've reached a point where many ordinary people no longer have that sort of opportunity. It's tearing our society apart. We need to figure out how to fix it.

I've heard a lot of HN'ers talk about how "Detroit deserved to be disrupted since American cars weren't innovative." OK, maybe true, but the guy screwing bolts on cars now has to go work at McDonald's for a third of the wage and no benefits. He had approximately zero influence on how cars were designed, and now he's struggling to support his family. What was once a shining city in the industrial heartland of America is now a bandit-infested ruin.

"Go work for a startup" is also (understandably) a common sentiment on HN. OK, that works for people like us, but we all know there are a lot fewer decent programmers out there than people who can screw bolts on cars. We need something that can be done by most people, not only the 1%'ers of the intellectual food chain.

This country's made of ordinary folks who just want a comfortable middle class lifestyle. Our society used to be able to provide paths to achieve that, accessible to all, and that was the key to our success. Now we've lost the ability to do so, despite our technological advancements.

America's a broken system. How can we fix it?


Largely agree, but I think there is a common narrative. It's just one that many people believe (perhaps correctly) they can't live out. The narrative is: "develop new-economy skills, move to where the jobs are, change employers every couple of years until you hit the jackpot." Many believe that they don't have, and will never have, those skills. That's a change from the "go west" (or "go across the Atlantic") narrative. Many believe that the risk and disruption is too much. That's a change from the "work thirty years for a big company" narrative. With both of these negatives in play, people feel that the narrative doesn't apply to them. It's a great story about how other people get rich, leaving them behind, and that becomes a negative in their minds.


I don't think Silicon Valley startups or whatever can actually absorb the entire displaced workforce. Maybe that'll work for some individuals (although it's a lot easier to pick up and leave when you don't have a family) but it's not a societal solution.


> America's a broken system. How can we fix it?

it's not nearly as complicated or intractable as everyone makes it out to be. the basic problem in the system is concentration of wealth at the top and wage stagnation at the middle and bottom.

the solution is progressively distributed pay raises in private sector employment, concentrating on raising the wages of those on the bottom and in the middle of the economy. this will massively stimulate demand in the economy and produce an economic growth spurt.

the reason this doesn't happen is because the ideology of shareholder capitalism is completely sociopathic and has caused business managers to behave like sociopaths in the pursuit of short term gains.

so the situation is not that we have no idea what needs to be done to fix the problem, it's that we have no idea what needs to be done to remove the deeply entrenched causes of the problem.

but honestly, a lot of these people with their broken pathological ideology, well, they gotta go. they are unfit to lead.


I think the answer is employee-owned companies. This necessitates falling away from capital-driven growth machines, because introduction of capital dilutes ownership and destroys the whole concept. And then you have to figure out how to be competitive with those capital-driven growth machines, which is a real problem when sales are driven by whatever is cheapest at Walmart / Amazon.


I agree with that solution. The best real world example of it is the Mondragon Corporation[0], but it's an interesting and versatile idea and I'm sure many different versions of it could be successful.

I really favor this type of solution because it solves the alienation problem without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This is a business structure that appropriately distributes the profits of labor, and I think that is the only thing that will get us out of our current predicament. The current American system of funneling profits to the 0.0001% while locking the working population into lifelong wage slavery is not sustainable and I fear for the future if things go on like this for much longer.

[0] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondragon_Corporation


>it's not nearly as complicated or intractable as everyone makes it out to be. the basic problem in the system is concentration of wealth at the top and wage stagnation at the middle and bottom.

Complicated? No. Intractable? Definitely.


I've been wondering about this for a few years now and am glad to hear at least one other person is too. What do we do with our citizenry now that the "union" type jobs are gone?

A (poor) idea I have is to train people to do start-ups as a 'day job' with a vast social safety net to pick people up that fail at them. Just like HS is today meant for factory workers, you could change HS to make it meant for start-ups and the like. Its not a good idea, I know.

The only other idea I have is to pay people to read books all day, or learn in some other way. Basically endless schooling.

Anyone got anything else? Because these aren't gonna work well, but I think they will work in some little way.


-A (poor) idea I have is to train people to do start-ups as a 'day job' with a vast social safety net to pick people up that fail at them. Just like HS is today meant for factory workers, you could change HS to make it meant for start-ups and the like. Its not a good idea, I know.-

Sounds like UBI with unnecessary complexity. If we provide a basic level of support, many may/would attempt a start-up or take other risks. As it stands now, many/most of us are just fighting to keep the remaining scraps that are left and have no room for big risks.


"Hard Work" isn't just "spending a lot of time at work". You have to actually do good work, consistently.

Most of the people I've met who don't believe in "hard work pays off" are the type that want something for nothing.

Most of the people that I've seen hard work pay off for are those who were self-motivated to do good work, and it eventually worked out for them.

But you also have to stop working for companies that abuse you and find one that appreciates its employees. Many people don't even believe those companies exist and won't try to find a better company. Even getting people to look for a new job is nearly impossible. They come up with a ton of excuses and just never do it.


Wow, you truly live in some kind of bubble.

You're talking about a group of people who are marginally skilled for the jobs they have in industries that are racing to replace them with automation. You say they won't even _try_ to find a better company? Could it be because they're afraid that even by looking, they're going to be fired? Or maybe it's that they're working 12-14 hours a day at their current job, and can't run off to interviews to move out or up? And this is assuming they've even ever seen an example of a person moving upward due to hard work! If all you ever saw around you were poor people struggling all their life to scrape by, what would motivate you?

Have you been doing software engineering all your life? It would serve you to try doing other things less charmed before you assume the nature of other peoples' plights.


Alternatively, people work hard at the wrong thing. Being the best fry cook doesn't mean you're the best candidate for running a shift. It takes different skills, personality traits, etc. People think they work hard at what they're doing they deserve to get to that next step promotion. But the truth is you have to work hard at the next thing, not the current thing.


And a lot of the people who talk about "working hard" spend all day on FB and HackerNews but they are so busy. We all have our own delusions.


I feel like the phrase "working hard" should be changed to "providing the most value." But that sounds mean to people who don't make much money while probably "working hard."


- providing the most value

Which for software development usually means how many people jobs can you replace with automation.


If you grew up in a neighborhood where the only thing working hard got you was it made you a target, where the only successful people were criminals or white people who had the police and zoning laws on their side, what would you think?


Point me to this area with a large minority population and all white leadership/business owners.


Crown Heights, Brooklyn

majority black (mainly Carribean) neighborhood. > 90% of the buildings in the neighborhood are owned by absentee landlords, who are typically either Hasidic Jews in South Brooklyn or faceless development corporations based out of Manhattan. most of the businesses in the neighborhood, besides the requisite black barber shops and hair braiding shops and bodegas on the corner, are either corporate chains owned by a national conglomerate, or they are owned by white entrepeneur transplants that just moved in to the neighborhood a few years ago.


Ferguson Missouri comes to mind.


This shitty system thrives because of people that think like you.

Firstly, you mention some magical words like "good work", which mean nothing. Secondly, you wrongfully label a large group of people as wanting "something for nothing".

This holds, of course, if we agree that "paying off" means more than managing to survive, which is the only thing most people get for "working hard".


I agree. Poor people are poor because they are lazy, if you really think about it.


If you're being sarcastic, I would ask you stop using this statement as such. If not, and for those that think this is true, no. This statement is not only totally wrong but disrespectful and destructive.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/03/08/...

http://www.socialworkdegreecenter.com/10-common-misconceptio...

http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-na-pol-poverty-poll/

And there's plenty more research to go along with this. Please stop spreading this lie, even if it's just a joke.


I was making fun of the douchebag parent comment. Agreed


Perhaps the better way of saying it is that most lazy people end up being poor, rather than most poor people end up being lazy.


I'm sorry but do the rich really work that hard ?

First of all, for the rich work is optional, which means they get to choose the work they do. That's why rich people tend to be actors and artists. Maybe at times they do work hard, but it's for their vanity and mental health not of necessity. Their hard work isn't why they're rich, they were born rich.

Rarely do you find rich people cleaning old-peoples arses in hospitals.

Most hard-working normal people earn just enough to get by and most rich people were born that way.


While technically true, "most lazy people end up being poor" is still misleading. Most lazy people stay where they are, and there are already more poor people than rich ones. Statements about the resulting correlation aren't as constructive as statements about causation would be. "Most lazy people don't advance" is probably about as close as one can get to the original statement without being offensive.


Have you talked to poor people lately?

I'm consistently shocked at how they choose to watch TV, do drugs, and quick to blame other people.

I try to help people and share opportunities that seem in line with their experience and skills... yet they do not leave their damn couch. Anectodal, yes

We really shouls just put a good UBC plan together and call it a day.


The #1 cause of bankruptcy in this country is medical bills. Nothing to do with being lazy.


I would reframe this as the cause being lack of health insurance and an emergency fund capable of paying the deductible on said insurance plus 6 months of expenses in the event you're not able to work. Those two things don't guarantee not going bankrupt, but I would imagine it would be a lot harder.


Another way to frame it is how well people can bounce back from a medical emergency. The poorer you are, the harder it is to come back to even where you were before the incident.

Medical bills get out of hand but blue collar workers often find themselves out of work, fired because they couldn't make it to work through no fault of their own.

Our society punishes people for being poor and it's disgusting that it's so hard to even get people to acknowledge this, much less try to fix it.


Yea, that's what the E-fund is for. What percentage of the people declaring medical bankruptcy had health insurance and an E-fund to cover the deductible plus 6 month's expenses?


Sometimes this is true. But there are large external factors that determine this other than how hard a person works. The dot-com crash and the recent financial crisis for example.


Because rich people don't watch TV, don't do drugs, and NEVER blame the government/their boss/poor people for anything.


Almost all the rich people I've known have spent a significant portion of their lives doing coke, eating in fancy restaurants, being on holiday and hosting orgies.

Many of them are genuinely lovely people.


Are those four qualities what make them lovely people?


You should look into learned helplessness. When individuals have tried repeatedly to no avail, it's no wonder they sometimes stop trying.


>I'm consistently shocked at how they choose to watch TV, do drugs, and quick to blame other people.

Much of this was mentioned in Hillbilly Elegy as well (he also brought sources). As well as a much higher rate of domestic problems which can affect kids and hinder their chances of escaping poverty.


so you went and had personal conversations about life and work ethic with the 45 million Americans that live below the poverty line?


Wow, there's just so many things wrong with this sentiment. Must be trolling.

There is no direct correlation between being poor and being lazy. Laziness is evenly distributed across all wealth classes, it's not concentrated to just poor people.


How do you even measure laziness to make such a counterpoint?


I'm a believer in hard work pays off. I grew up poor, in projects (government housing) as a child in what must be one of the worst cities and regions in America (Port Arthur, TX). Lived in a normal house in middle school and high school in the same area, then got out of there around age 20. Then spent years doing almost nothing but working a full time job through my undergrad and grad school and studying every day. Also programmed on the side for people who found me through my website. After finishing up grad school, Amazon found me through that same website of mine. There was a lot of luck in there, but I believe hard work has paid off for me in ways I never imagined.

I guess my point is, if not for hard work, I'm certain I'd still be in that same area where each day is a struggle.


I don't doubt any of your story (I'm from outside Tyler and have a similar trajectory), but I know you know folks back in Port Arthur that never made it out. I won't speak for you, but I know my hard work was augmented by a healthy dose of luck as well, and luck ain't something you can control.


There's also the anti-luck or what I'd call self inflicted pain put on themselves with drugs, alcohol, bad behavior, out of control spending, etc. If one can avoid those things through strong will and at the same time, work hard, then they'll likely do well. Close friends of mine that are stuck, well, they fell into the trap of those things listed and they tend to surround themselves with people doing the same, The bad choices they make end up being normal choices judged by their peers and they don't break free.


"self-inflicted" as in, the brain they happened to possess due to circumstances beyond their control happened to have the neural network that non-ambiguously led to those choices?


You're missing the point, partly because of the imprecision of language. The article is about the idea that hard work will/must pay off. Here you are, talking about the fact that hard work might/can pay off.


Is he? Not doing hard work is guaranteed not to pay off.


If you're rich, you can have fun doing whatever and enjoy the safety net that allows you to attempt whatever you like without devestating consequences of failure. Lack of hard work is only guarantee of failure if you're poor.


The poor have a safety net too, though.


you've never been poor


thats not actually true though. what if you were born with a trust fund with $20 million in it at 5% annual interest. you will gain $1 million/year doing absolutely nothing.

Our society is set up such that we massively protect unearned wealth and afford incredible privileges and powers to those who possess that wealth.


We were talking about ordinary Americans, not the wealthy, so what's your point?

Focusing on the wealthy is just envy and envy is never a useful emotion. Focusing on what you can do to improve your own situation is a much better use of time and that includes doing hard work and taking the chance that it will pay off.


that old canard "its just envy, you're all jealous". no, absolutely not. I'm not jealous or envious. I don't want to have what they have. I don't feel bad about myself because I lack what they possess.

My concern is for how power and privilege is wielded in our society. I want to live in a society that protects those who have very little, because those are the people that need the protection. Instead, our society protects those who have very much. That is unjust. My concern is for justice.

Did that seriously not occur to you? Now who's the one having an emotional reaction.


a lot of people play the lotto.


How has your success been received by your family? Are they still mostly economically depressed? Just interested to know what the family dynamic is like when a kid breaks the cycle.


As they should be, economic mobility in the United States is pretty low. Hard work can move you a couple rungs on the ladder but the predominant factor is still on which rung you started.


The system doesn't reward hard work, it rewards good ideas. One properly executed good idea is enough to move you quite far on the ladder. Sadly people over commit their time and live stressful lives. To have good ideas you need relaxed idle time to study and think.


Most of the nation isn't involved in revolutionary entrepreneurship fueled by VC money. You're talking about why some people become billionaires and others only make 6 figures. Economic mobility is a lot more about moving from low 5-digits to high 5-digits. Good ideas don't matter so much there.


I would argue that good ideas matter a lot, specifically what one studies and/or what job you choose to train for and how you go about doing so and how much time you dedicate to it.


I think that's largely luck. Most people who go into engineering do so because they have some "natural aptitude". That's luck of the draw. Conversely, I'd say that studying history is also largely (bad) luck. A kid has some interest in it and they're too shortsighted to understand what it means to carry tens of thousands of dollars in nondischargable debt while working a low paying job because history degrees are not in demand.

Of course, it's largely luck whether a person even goes to college. If you're born upper middle income or higher, college is basically a certainty. If you're born low income, it's much less likely.


I think Luck is something people who've stopped struggling against mediocrity lean on so they don't have to feel bad. You have a huge degree of control over your life. I started in just about the worst position possible in this game, and now I make my own rules.

I lived in a tent and got food stamps so I could afford to attend a community college. I studied whatever interested me, and I didn't decide on a specific track until I was about 120 units deep. I nearly lived in the library because I couldn't afford to buy textbooks. That isn't luck, that's determination.

After college, I took several positions that paid shit, on the condition that they gave me a lot of free time, exposure to interesting new science and technology, and latitude in how I did my work. I used that free time to read scientific journal articles and practice my programming. That wasn't luck, it was an investment.

Now I'm in the position of having almost total control over my work. I choose what I work on, how I contribute, and my work schedule. Beyond that, I'm nearly debt free - I had to take a 10 year mortgage to finance my house, but I'm going to pay that off several years early.


Sure but there are fewer and fewer people like you.[1] If you take it that social mobility is actually declining what are we to take that to mean? That more now than in previous times have "stopped strugging against mediocrity"? I don't really buy that, I'd say that it's that they're unlucky. Political forces beyond their individual control have influenced their chances to build a better life.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/07/social-...


The problem isn't that social mobility is no longer possible. The problem is that the current social narrative for how you achieve that mobility is no longer accurate. You can march for 16 hours a day and never reach your destination if you're walking in the wrong direction.

Unfortunately, most people blindly trust the social narrative. As a result, rather than step back and question their direction, they proceed in an unproductive manner. When things don't work out, rather than admit their chosen path was poor, they blame circumstances.


So, you don't view it as lucky your were born with that much self worth to enable you to be that successful. I think most of the people don't invest in themselves because they see themselves failing at it.


I wasn't born with high self worth. My mom was a teenage single mother, I was put in special education classes throughout school, and I ended up dropping out at 16. I thought I was worthless.

On the plus side, being so marginalized, I had absolutely no respect for the established order. I knew I was never going to win the game according to other people's rules, so I just followed my heart. It turns out that strategy works really well if commit to it fully and you stick with it long enough.


One properly executed good idea

aka - many, many hours of very hard work


That depends on how long it takes you to write up a patent application, then build and shop a prototype I suppose. You could earn 20 years of royalties at somewhere between 5 and 15% with a couple hundred total hours total investment. Of course, the subject matter knowledge required to come up with the invention will be higher, but from my perspective that part is fun.


I think the most frustrating thing for me as someone from the United States is the number of people I talk to that want a 'better paying job' where the job is exactly what they are doing right now just with a bigger dollar amount attached to it. They can't even see that the fact that they have a job that pays as well as it does is an aberration and can go away, or that it is a cultural/economic norm to just slowly increase pay over time and those bonus/yearly raises are often not representative of your value in the organization. There is a reason why firing someone and replacing them with someone fresh out of school is such a common trope/strategy because it just resets this implicit clock among other established interpersonal tensions.

I'm not talking about the more entrepreneurial types or people who feel like trying to take a level of change jobs or start a business of their own is beyond their taste for risk, which are people I could see as part of 'hard work will pay off' not really ringing true.


Maybe Americans will finally stop thinking of themselves as temporarily bankrupt millionaires and start voting with their own interests in mind.


> ...start voting with their own interests in mind

That sort of condescension is exactly why recent elections have turned out the way they have. Shocking as it may sound, it would seem the public isn't remotely persuaded that their interests are what you say they are.


What would you call it when a population who relies greatly on government support votes in large numbers for a party who wants to end government support?


Maybe a population that want to be able to support themselves?

Check where trump had overwhelming support: it was mostly in areas with lots of unemployment or underemployment. The people there don't want free stuff, they want to work.


If you're talking about out of work coal miners or factory workers, then they're going to need to be retrained and reeducated. Those jobs aren't coming back to save them. Yet the people they elect are overwhelmingly against public funding for education or any kind of public assistance for that matter.


> If you're talking about out of work coal miners or factory workers, then they're going to need to be retrained and reeducated. Those jobs aren't coming back to save them. Yet the people they elect are overwhelmingly against public funding for education or any kind of public assistance for that matter.

I hear this, if you'll forgive me, rather tone-deaf refrain a lot from people who are highly educated. Practically speaking, 1) The older you are, the harder it is to retrain and then restart your career and 2) a lot of people just plain aren't education-oriented in the first place, to put it politely, and won't benefit much from retraining no matter how hard you try.

Education might be a partial solution for future generations but it will do nothing for the people who are suffering right now. And they know it.


Of course they want "free stuff". They want farm subsidies, they want tariffs and a trade policy that has everyone else paying more so their wages can be artificially increased, they want unnecessary military spending that puts money in their pocket, etc.


If you don't see a difference between "Here's some free cash." and "Here's an economic and societal environment where you can build a prosperous and fulfilling career and family with your own two hands.", then studying human psychology and spending more time with those who have grown up in the US with a much different culture and upbringing than you might be to your benefit.


It's still "redistributive".

1. How are farm subsidies different from welfare payments at worse or at best the Earned Income Tax Credit?

2. How is imposing tariffs so that some people pay more than they would pay based on free market prices not "redistributive"?

3. How can the same people who say "the government doesn't create jobs", jibe with the civilian government forcing weapons and military bases that the military says it doesn't need, but it creates jobs in the US using taxpayer money?

These are the same people who don't like ObamaCare but like the ACA.....

http://www.npr.org/2017/02/11/514732211/obamacare-and-afford...


Yes we need higher taxes and more laws. How many laws do you think it takes to make us good people?


Oh, I'd say enough so that you don't go into financial ruin when you get sick.


Not too many.

- Bring back the public interest requirements for broadcast licenses to shut down the right wing crazy on the airwaves.

- Restrict ownership of media outlets.

- Require that election districts overlap with contiguous existing geographically defined areas. Assign designation of districts to an independent commission and make it a crime for a political official to interfere with the commission.


Hard work will really only pay off for your employer, unless you are building and running it yourself. If you work for a corporation you are absolutely replaceable and only as valuable as the bottom line.


I've work hard for employees for a long time and it has paid off handsomely. I just didn't expect an employer to pay my rapidly increasing market value (software developer/architect) and I changed jobs frequently. From looking at the market and seeing that I have no desire to go into management - I think my days of outsized increases in salary are about over.


I don't work for myself but my hard work has paid off in the form of raises, promotions, larger bonuses, and more job security than my peers.

Of course a business will replace me if I do badly enough or they stop having enough money to pay me. And if it has an exit my gain from it will be less than the people above me. But those are all rare events. After 20 years I've never been fired or laid off. I've done well and it feels like it makes sense to acknowledge that my efforts have paid off rather than complain about being a victim of an unfair system.


Forgive me, I hear you and agree with a lot of what you say, but I do not trust corporations. I think they will replace you to save the job of your superior, to reduce costs, or increase profits. You are fortunate, and I hope it continues for you, but caution to never get comfortable.


You don't have to trust corporations. You have to keep your skills up and be ready to jump ship when necessary.


> Hard work will really only pay off for your employer

Convincing employees that it will pay off for them is basic marketing 101.


If you are replaceable you need to focus on building some skills which make you invaluable. Amazon can replace an unskilled warehouse worker without blinking. When a good programmer leaves the company though it's a painful and costly effort to re-staff the work/projects they were doing.


My industry is government policy. Every single one of us is replaceable. No exceptions. Until we attain some public status or clout, as a policy analyst, I am replaceable for any number of reasons, and have been. Nonprofit ran out of money. Elections. Preference for women on the team by the ass grabbing boss.


I'm not sure how anyone could believe generalized "hard work" will lead to a lifestyle one desires. To me the idea that "if I work really hard someone will reward me" is lacking of personal responsibility that comes with freedom. Waiting for someone else to make my life the way I want it isn't how I want to spend my time.

Also, the definition in the article of 'pay off' is vague, but seems to allude that getting into a higher income quantile is the goal. If this is the big 'pay off' Americans are looking for, it's a little sad to me.


In my lifetime I've seen linearity of the link between 'hard work' and capital formation drastically distorted. Lots of different causes, but the one that strikes me most is also the most recent. Zero interest rate policy. Historically it has taken discipline (hard work?) to build capital to take business risks. While there has always been an unequal distribution of capital and idiot heirs to spend it, currently however, there is a fairly large group of people who has first dibs on nearly free capital that they had little to do with generating. This decouples or reduces the link between capital formation and the type of people who have the work ethic traditionally required to perform this activity. This is a disconnect that I find a fairly radical departure, at least in scale, from the past. I think the effect of this is that the pool of people with the required work ethic, dedication, luck and capacity to out compete incumbents is smaller. I think people are correctly assessing that their chances have been reduced.


Most of us know people that worked hard for most of their lives and were not as successful as somebody who was able to secure an early exit. And vice versa, of course.

So, it is easy to conclude from personal observations and some basic first-order logic that hard work per se doesn't always pay off, to say the least.

However, figuring out things that better correlate with success, filtering out non-actionables (I can't have richer parents), turning the rest into a life strategy and executing it usually requires more advanced reasoning.


I've seen a lot of comments where people think that their hard work led to their success without taking into account the benefits they had based on their environment.

I felt the same way. I use to say that I graduated from an unknown state college with a horrible CS degree over 20 years ago (debt free) and within three years, I was making as much as people who graduated from well known schools who had debt. If I could do it, anyone could.

But looking back, I realized that I did have a few advantages. Many of my classmates took jobs working in the defense industry working on mainframes and other not so cutting edge systems. But they came out of college, moved to small towns, making enough to support themselves.

That's not the life I wanted. I was offered a job, based on an internship the prior year as a computer operator in a larger, more expensive metro area, making much less than my classmates, but I knew it was a better long term opportunity. I told my parents my rational for wanting to take the job and I knew I couldn't afford to make the move by myself.

My parents, paid the deposit, the first months rent and sent me money for the first two years to make up the difference until I got a job as a software developer. 20 years later, the rest is history. My parents could afford to do that without blinking. How many of my classmates didn't have that same opportunity?

On a related note, many people get jobs based on unpaid internships. Who can afford to work a summer without pay without parents who are able to help?

My internship happened to be paid and they provided housing, but I was lucky.


The world has always been dividided into regions with unfair allocation of resources. The control of the resources is allocated to those who believe more in the boundaries.

A large company for example is an institution that contains resources that is allocated to people who "work hard and believe in the company". The amount allocated is removed from value added, and in some cases, an employee with 0 or negative value is still knowingly paid as it actually supports the legitimacy of the institution. "If you work hard and believe, even if you're useless you'll still be taken care of. "

The American attitude towards hard work is the leftover cargo cult of this type of thinking and it is weakening as examples of rapid non-institutional growth increase.

Another catalyst is that the original boundaries are weakening via technology. From manual copying to printing to the web, rapid information democracy is dragging along physical goods democracy as well. An ephemeral concept is slowly but surely tugging at the physical world.

The issue with this equalizing force is that it is BAD for US citizens. The total output of the world divided amongst people is 30k, which is bad for people inthe US but good for a lot of other countries in the world.

In fact, many executives in the Us are paid very hadsomely for speeding up this equality by offshoring.

Ironically they are also targets for being unfair and hoarding wealth.

So middle class scripts that relied on the existence of institutions are now segfaulting ad the external environment changes. The attachement to these scripts is a huge weakness when it was formerly a strength.

The kneejerk reaction is to go backwards in time, in current news manisfesting as kneejerk isolationism.

People who are unattached to these scripts though (young people mostly) have more freedom. Sometimes they will grow up during a time when new institutions are already in the process of consuming the old ones and can just use script2.0 to be successful until the next environmental shift.

Currently though, the old institutions are dying but the new ones aren't powerful enough. So young people, thoguh they realize the futility of old scripts, don't have a more powerful alternative. Making your own is hard. So they float around in a state of anomy.


"Of the children born in the bottom income quintile, 44 percent are still there as adults."

Is this actually a problem? I would expect this number to be above 30% at the very least. I'm glad it's below 50. What is the desired number? 40%? Serious question.

If this number was actually 20% that would mean that you would have almost no influence on your child's economic outcomes in life- how could that possibly be?


If society provided those children with an education and options which allowed them to succeed.

America lags behind many other countries which do this, and where the earnings of the parents are not such a massive factor in their children's success.

http://www.epi.org/publication/usa-lags-peer-countries-mobil...


The average person in the lowest quintile in the US is more likely to move up a quintile then remain. That's currently the case. If this were increased even more, that would result in more people from upper quintiles moving down to the lowest one.

Shouldn't we focus more on making life better for the lowest quintile than moving people into a higher quintile? Someone has to be in the lowest quintile, I'm sorry to say. Literally 20% of people.


> Shouldn't we focus more on making life better for the lowest quintile than moving people into a higher quintile?

Why shouldn't we be focused on both? Obviously more mobility means more people moving down as well as more people moving up. That could be a very good thing if it means that the quintiles are compressed.


America does provide a means of getting an education for everyone. If you're poor you can get Pell grants and government guaranteed loans.


Edit: in context, my comment didn't make sense. Never mind.


> If everyone is getting an equal education, no one would move quintiles

Huh? Equal education implies more economic movement. Of course education is not the only factor anyway so claiming movement stops completely as a result of some educational change doesn't make sense.


One step further than that, we need to know what traits are common among the people in that 66%. I'm confident it's not just random. I suspect some fairly simple things like graduating high school, maintaining full time employment, and not having children out of wedlock have massive impact on your economic outcome.


Agreed. The issue we seem to forget when discussing these issues is that there will always be a bottom income quintile, and that it will always be populated by a full fifth of the population (not the few deviant outlayers they make it out to be).

If just 20% of those at the bottom were already there, it means 80% fell there somehow. Imagine the economic stagnation and nasty social dynamics that would happen if (the perception of) a single mistake or transgression would ruin your life!


The more influence you have on your child economic outcomes the less merit based the society. Ideally it really should be close to 20%. Further, someone going from 19.9% to 20% is a tiny change. The most important number is from each quintuple to top 0.01%.


I agree with this. The movement to and from the very top percentile is much more important that this talk of quintiles.

But I don't think my original statement is anti-merit. If I teach my five year old to use VI and write C, and she becomes some sort of genius due to the training I have given her, doesn't she therefore have more 'merit'? Certainly being in a higher quintile would make me more likely to teach her those things.


Generally being in top 10-5% in the 1600's is worse than being top 50-10% now which has little to do with individual merit. So, IMO the focus should be how good your children are off on the absolute scale not just relative to their peers. Because being 'poor' in the star trek universe may be much better than being 'rich' now.

Now, which tends to help society more when it's run by intelligent and well educated or peoples who's grand parents where intelligent and well educated? I would much rather have a CEO that's competent vs. one whose parents knew how to hack Harvard's admissions process. Continuing this line of thinking having a better public education system makes it harder for your child to reach the top X%, but on an absolute scale your child is better off in a well educated society.

Thus, all things being equal, the better influence you have on your child's success the worse off they will likely be.


That's not merit. It's opportunity. A poor kid with absentee parents has as much merit as your daughter.


Do you mean intrinsic human worth or innate genetic potential to become highly skilled?

I thought merit typically meant a person's ambition and skill set, regardless if it comes from nature or nurture.

edit: Merit can't mean 'innate human worth'. If it did, then all humans on earth would have equal merit, and terms like 'merit-based scholarship' and 'meritocracy' would be meaningless.


The point is that as a result of being high income, you can provide opportunities for your child that someone of low income cannot. You can call that "merit" if you want, but it's in no sense fair or equal. If your daughter were raised by a poor family, why should her economic potential be worse? Why should Zuckerberg's daughter's economic potential be so much better?


It isn't fair. My only point is that everything a parent does, from the food they feed their children to the books they read them will affect the way that child grows and develops. These small changes have huge effects later in life. This is well documented. And of course humans will always tend to raise their children the way they were raised. And those postitive traits that can be instilled in a child will always reduce economic mobility. So what can be done about it? Can we prevent a person in the upper quintile (your typical HN reader) from feeding their child a balanced diet? Would that be fair? Can we assume that a person in the lowest quintile won't feed their child properly, and take away their ability to do so prematurely a la Minority Report?* That wouldn't be fair either. That's because nothing is fair.

So we are not going to reach 80% mobility out of a quintile. We can't, without producing some sci-fi dystopia. 66% might be ok, I don't really know. But I think the article's presentation of 66% as a problem without much further elaboration is troublesome. Also, I assume (without looking it up) that the author probably selected mobility out of the bottom 20% instead of 10% or 25% or whatever because it probably produced the best "stats" to bolster the claim that mobility is stagnant in the US.

*We can provide them financial support, but we can't make them do anything.


> So what can be done about it? Can we prevent a person in the upper quintile (your typical HN reader) from feeding their child a balanced diet? Would that be fair?

Of course not, and no one sane thinks we should actively hamper development of upper-class children. The argument is that we can and should do more to provide additional opportunity to lower-class children.

> So we are not going to reach 80% mobility out of a quintile. We can't, without producing some sci-fi dystopia.

I agree we aren't likely to see that.

> But I think the article's presentation of 66% as a problem without much further elaboration is troublesome.

56%, not 66%. And I don't know what the ideal number is, either, but almost half of people born into poverty staying there does seem high to me. I suspect there's a lot more nuance that needs to be captured, too. We'd see 100% "mobility" if we simply swapped the bottom two quintiles, but that wouldn't actually address real mobility.


You're right, the US can improve. 56% is low. I just dislike the entire metric of mobility out of the bottom quintile.


The whole premise is based on the straw man term "hard work" which isn't the same as "smart work". Digging holes and filling them back up again is certainly "hard work", but that doesn't mean it's valuable work. We have always valued smart work over hard work in this country which is why we've grown to the economic superpower that we have. Another aspect of "hard work" that isn't ever mentioned is what you do with the money you earn from such work. If you're saving every penny you can in service to some long term goal, and then apply that money to achieving that goal, then you're doing hard work but also making wise financial decisions. It doesn't matter what type of work you're doing in that case because being financially wise will always pay off.


Hard work _can_ pay off. But in the USA the effects of your parents income are literally _triple_ that of Denmark:

http://www.epi.org/publication/usa-lags-peer-countries-mobil...

Which means that the US could be set up so that hard work had a much bigger chance of hard work paying off.


I'm unconvinced that this measurement of income mobility is a good thing, and I'm confounded that it gets talked about and referenced so often. The frequency at which I'm hearing about this makes me suspicious that it's in service of some political ideololgy.

I understand that this measurement of mobility purports to measure something like how meritocratic a society is. But parents teach their children their own habits (consciously and unconsciously), so if your income quintile has any relationship to your behavior, then it's no surprise that income mobility is not perfect. But what's the "right" amount of mobility? Comparisons between countries are a little suspect, because, for instance, the top quintile in income in the US is drastically different than the top quintile in Canada.

The fact is that 20% of your population will always be in every quintile no matter what you do. Every person you send from the bottom quintile to the top will be balanced out by a person falling by the same amount. We should be focusing on making everyone's life better, not shuffling people around.


As the child of middle-class parents, I was dirt poor for a long time as an adult. That was due to bad life choices, not work ethic or job. I made enough money to live comfortably, but I squandered it. Once I made smarter life choices, my strong work ethic paid off and I finally started doing well in life. Always had the strong work ethic, I just made dumb decisions.


Trying to express this simply, I think the business term "margin compression" applies.

In 1972 my brother was working as a heavy equipment operator, bulldozers, excavators, etc. Pay was $15 to $18 per hour.

In 2017, typical pay for this same job might be twice as much. However, everything else is multiples higher, from gas, cars, housing whether renting or owning, etc.


http://www1.salary.com/Heavy-Equipment-Operator-Salaries.htm...

that source says the median salary for heavy equipment operator is $60K/year. If we assume 2000 working hours per year, that divides out to $30/hour, so your estimate seems pretty on target.

cost of living numbers based on Consumer Price Index (does not take into account major dislocations in specific sectors like housing though, so this is actually undercounting costs)

http://www.usinflationcalculator.com/inflation/consumer-pric...

1972 avg CPI was about 40. 2016 avg CPI was about 240. the cost of living went up about 6 times.

2x wage increase vs. 6x cost of living increase. yeah, we're feeling the squeeze alright. mind you during this same period GDP

https://www.thebalance.com/us-gdp-by-year-3305543

in 1972 the real dollar GDP was 4.8 trillion. in 2016 it was 16 trillion. that's an almost 4x increase in real dollars. in inflation adjusted dollars its even more. 1972 nominal GDP was 1.2 trillion. 2016 nominal GDP was 18.5 trillion. YES THE NATIONAL PRODUCTIVITY WENT UP BY ALMOST 18 TIMES IN THAT PERIOD.

so the nation is approximately 18 times wealthier, by a deeply flawed but widely accepted metric, but wages only went up by 2 times, and cost of living increased by 6 times. Where did all the rest of the money go? Not to the workers, that's for sure.


This is what I don't understand, and I would appreciate if anyone explained it to me.

The money went to "the top 1%", whatever. Where do they keep it? Probably either in a bank, which invests it back into the economy, or in other form of investments. Definitely not under a pillow.

So entering back into the free market economy, the money, pretty much in its entirety, gets distributed into the hands of the millions of "regular people" in form of investment. They buy a McLaren or a mansion? Great, that money goes to the people who make those things.

All in all, because the entire "1%" money is circulating in the economy anyway, what does it matter who it actually belongs to?

What am I missing here?


> The money went to "the top 1%", whatever. Where do they keep it?

That's a complex puzzle but the answer is some combination of all of the following: financial assets (this is a big one, stocks and bonds soak up a lot of money), real estate, luxury goods, re-investment, off-shore tax havens, and under a pillow (gold or other commodities that have low utility but high scarcity).

> All in all, because the entire "1%" money is circulating in the economy anyway, what does it matter who it actually belongs to?

this is the theory behind the now discredited and disproved "trickle down economics" theory. the money doesn't really circulate very well, actually. it is far less liquid in the possession of the wealthy than it is in the possession of the working class. wealth stockpiles in the form of longterm held financial assets sucks a huge amount of money out of the economy.


Every time this topic comes up I wonder about the role of delayed gratification. For example, not signing a 2 year cell phone agreement and saving up to buy one in cash.

That kind of mentality might not make you wealthy, but it surely won't make you poor.


That's a poor example. I switched to buying my phones in cash and overall I'm now paying more when I total everything up.

Not buying on credit would be a more useful example.

But to answer, I don't think it matters much at all. Saving can certainly increase your wealth. It won't do much for your income unless you're already quite wealthy. Earned income is the biggest factor for economic status. If you're poor, your income is low. If you're wealthy, your income is almost certainly quite high.


This is correct if you live in the US, where interest rates are artificially low.

If you try to live like that in a country with double digit mortage rates, and credit card rates in the ballpark of 30% for people with an established good record, then you are setting yourself for debt servitude regardless of your eventual income.


I'm really not sure what your point is. Whether or not saving to buy vs buying on credit is the smarter option has very little to do with whether you're in the top income quintile or the bottom.


The GP was about delayed gratification. How much does a new iPhone cost? 1 year old model? 2 year old model? 3?


You didn't say anything about buying an OLDER phone. That's not really delayed gratification. That's just being frugal.

And none of this is relevant to income inequality, which is what the article was discussing. If your income is $15k/year, you're still in the bottom quintile regardless of how much you save.

You said you wonder about the role of delayed gratification. The answer is that there is no role. If you earn nothing, you're still poor even if you wait to buy stuff. You might be less poor than your neighbor who buys on credit, but you're still poor.


What's the benefit of paying $600 for a cell phone up front instead of paying $600 over two years on an interest free loan? Most cell phone companies have moved away from subsidies to interest free payment plans.

That being said, you can get a perfectly acceptable unlocked Android phone for less than $100.


I see your point, but subsidies are invariably offered on extremely expensive plans and that cost must be calculated as an overall expense. Compare with buying the phone outright and using a pay-as-you-go alternative.


I have T-Mobile, but I think most of the major carriers work the same.

My bill is simple to calculate -- phone plan + payment plan.

If I bring my own phone, there are no extra fees. If I buy a phone on a payment plan, my bill is my phone plan + (phone cost/24).


Yep. I believe that the meme "if hard work made you rich, [coal miners | cotton pickers | day laborers | etc] would have been millionaires" is relatively recent.


Moving up the economic ladder relies on more than self-motivation; it also requires opportunity.

IMHO, they also forgot to list an important factor: IQ

http://greyenlightenment.com/paul-graham-economic-inequality...

The trend, I predict, is that wealth inequality will become almost the same as IQ inequality. IQ is more much important today than a generation ago in influencing individual economic outcomes. 100 years ago in an economy dominated by manual labor, the difference between a 90 IQ and 120 IQ wasn’t that important, but now it is.

https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/minds-business/is-...

When Belsky and colleagues analyzed measures of genetic variation and educational attainment, they found a link: A high polygenic score—an aggregate measure of variation across a person’s genome—predicted not only educational attainment, but other forms of success as well.

But even 'work ethic' may be a function of innate traits. Biology plays a bigger role than many social scientists may want to admit. Biology, especially as it pertains to IQ, is still the 'third rail' of the social sciences.

The solution will probably mean more social safety net spending, but making average Americans feel like they are contributing will be even more difficult. Post-scarcity does not answer the problem of existential fulfillment, changing social values, etc.


I think opportunity is MUCH more important than IQ.

I know lots of intelligent people, some of them that do have measured IQs in very high numbers, that are in really crappy situations right now (example: one friend has a small kid, and both he, and his similarly extremely intelligent wife are unemployed and failing to find freelance work, despite their work quality and speed being quite good, both of their parents families are also having economic problems, and are struggling to support the toddler, with the toddler grandparents selling old properties to pay for basic needs).

Also when I was more "immersed" in startup world, having my own startup and meeting lots of other startup owners, opportunity always was the important factor in success, never intelligence or even motivation, I met funded startups with crappy leaders, and similarly met genius stuff with no funding, frequently the funded ones had as advantage the fact they had some personal tie to someone in a VC somewhere (example: founder mother is friend of VC partner, or founder is cousin of VC person, and so on).

And judging by corruption scandals I've been seeing, that are always tied with rich companies (That you conclude that they are rich BECAUSE they are corrupt), I can conclude that the "equality" that is important would be "equality" in social relations. (even when there is someone "poor" that is self-made rich, if you look closely enough that "poor" person had some past connection that was important)


> one friend has a small kid

How did they get the kid? Stork dropped it off without inquiring about their financial situation?


They made the kid when both were employed, and got immediately fired (for reasons unrelated to kid)


A number of points:

1.) IQ measures certain types of symbolic manipulation. This is a very narrow measure.

2.) IQ correlates with cognitive task skill only for the inexperienced. Chess ability correlates with IQ for novice chess players, but by the master level this correlation disappears.

3.) Even being a narrow measure, it is changeable - even over 20 points in a 3-4 year period. An enriched environments and improvement in diet will do wonders.

4.) There is actually some evidence that people who learn more slowly ultimately learn "more deeply". This is paralleled in the behavior of neural networks - a large learning rate tends to lead to poor generalization.

Ultimately, biology is a lot more flexible than most people realize. For example, there is a gene (ACTN3) that influences muscular force production that is considered extremely important for power athletes like sprinters. Yet even at the national level there are still competitive athletes that have no working copies of this gene! It isn't until you get to the Olympic level that everyone has at least one working copy. Beyond this, the NBA dunk competition has been won repeatedly 5'9" Nate Robinson.


I will agree with the majority of your sentiment, but do note that research work by Carol Dweck (2010) has found IQ to not be as deterministic as most of us had previously accepted it to be the end-all-be-all of your intelligence. This is actually bleeding edge in the field of psychology, and I was lucky to work in her lab before I turned to computer science. [0]

Other research additionally had found that in school, you are essentially being "trained" to solve the IQ test. They found this out when applying alternative tests to Aborigines in AUS and Taxi Drivers in NYC(ironically). Taxi drivers and Aborigines were able to ace the "map/geolocation" IQ test where, even if you or I were to not rely on our GPS for most navigation, we would fail miserably. [1]

[0] This was a good discussion, but you can find her research all over the net: https://www.quora.com/How-can-I-reconcile-Carol-Dwecks-theor... [1] unable to find source at this time. If you're interested let me know and I'll try to keep this thread active.


In my experience, your ability to utilize your relationship with other humans is a better source of success than IQ.

I know plenty of intelligent people that are stuck somewhere in life because they are socially average or worse. Most project I worked that failed didn't because of technical problems but human ones.

IQ may helps, but it can also get in the way.

You know the drill about money not buying happiness but having not enough is a drag ? Kinda the same with IQ and success really.


Being poor is mentally taxing - your doing a lot more work to stay still.


Not to mention that IQ is such a blunt statistic. There's a guy I've known since 1st grade who I'd assert has a way higher IQ than me. When we were in high-school he was 2 or 3 years ahead of me in math and still breezing through. He was helping me install and configure php and apache while we were freshmen.

We enrolled in the same college at the same time, but his mom died. He dropped out and got a job working at Taco Bell. He's worked there ever since. Just a single acute stressor changed his track and now by all accounts he's stuck. His crappy job keeps him working strange shifts and he can never accumulate anything for savings. When you have like 20$ of disposable income after working 40+ hours a week everything seems out of reach. Saying IQ is trending towards correlating to earnings feels like an elitist cop-out. I certainly hope they're right for the sake of all my anecdotal life experiences! I've met a lot of foolish people in fantastically lucrative situations and really smart people on the rocks.


I agree - if you chose the right parents and were born with a high IQ, support, education and contacts, then you deserve to be rewarded with money \s


I wonder how many more Americans are skeptical that disabling their adblocker to read an article will pay off...


I use Brave. No ads and never get blocked because I don't view ads.


Great, thanks for the suggestion!




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