In America, Work Habits Begin Young

In her 2004 book Hello Laziness: Why Hard Work Doesn’t Pay, author Corrine Maier offered her fellow French citizens a how-to guide for avoiding work, arguing that “doing the least possible” is the true key to success.

But Maier did carve out one exception for her rule: America. When asked whether she thought Americans were insane for their work habits, Maier replied, “No, because Americans, I think, believe more in the future than French people. We French people, right now, don’t believe that the future will be better than now. We think that the future will be worse than now, so we don’t have any reason to work.”

I opened the chapter on “Work” in my book A Nation Like No Other with this anecdote because I believe it cuts to the core of what makes America exceptional. While other countries have enshrined 35-hour work weeks and 60 days’ paid vacation in their laws, America remains one of the few developed nations that have declined to restrict these economic liberties. Here, we value hard work and free enterprise as the substance of opportunity.

Our optimism, that with hard work, everyone in America can rise has been at the core of our beliefs since the beginning. And our strength has come from an economy that lifts everyone up, not a politics that levels others down.

In the last few decades, however, the quintessentially American trust in hard work has begun to erode, and in this struggling economy many have begun to lose hope. Millions of Americans are so frustrated that they’ve simply stopped looking for work. Last month’s drop in the unemployment rate was attributable in large part to people dropping out of the labor force, so they are no longer counted as actively unemployed.

The pain this is causing to families enduring the Obama depression is very real, and I worry the long-term consequences for our country could be even worse. More Americans than ever before are dependent on food stamps. And more are receiving unemployment, for longer durations, than at any point in recent history. That’s a tragedy for those millions of adult Americans who can’t find work. Many of them happen to be parents, too, and so it is a tragedy for the kids as well. A generation of young Americans is growing up in an environment that doesn’t teach them what’s best about America.

In the Obama economy, our children don’t see the optimism about the future that has always distinguished us. They don’t see clearly the tremendous opportunity to pursue happiness that America offers. In short, if you’re a young person right now, your country might be starting to look more like the France Maier wrote about than it does the America she described. This generation is missing out on the magic of America—including, too often, the many rewards of hard work.

Not surprisingly, statistics reflect this change. Whereas a few generations ago virtually every American began work at a young age, today our children work far less than they did just a decade or two ago. In 2001, half of 16- and 17- year olds had summer jobs—crucial experiences in which children first begin to understand the work ethic. In 2010, this number was down to under 30 percent. Since 2000, the teen summer employment rate has declined from 45% to only 25.6% last year. And the percentage of teens employed in July was below 50 percent last year for the first time since the records began, in 1948. In the late 1980s, this number was almost 70 percent!

Ever-growing bureaucracy has made this trend even worse, with some rules being added that just don’t make much sense. Just this month, Businessweek reported on new Labor Department rules that would ban many children and teens who work on the farms of their parents or relatives from doing work they already do under their families’ supervision.

The danger is real in this economy that our children are not learning the work ethic they need to succeed.

In extremely poor neighborhoods, this problem is not temporary and has been clear for some time.

I said so recently to the howls of a media too politically correct even to acknowledge the possibility of a problem. Yet clearly, it’s the media that doesn’t comprehend the difficulties poor children really do face.

One particularly hysterical response from New York Times columnist Charles Blow claimed that “the facts” betrayed my argument that children in very poor areas often lacked working role models. Blow then proceeded to present the data. He wrote:

“Even among children who live in extreme poverty — defined here as a household with income less than 50 percent of the poverty level — a third have at least one working parent. And even among extremely poor children who live in extremely poor areas — those in which 30 percent or more of the population is poor — nearly a third live with at least one working parent.”

So only one in three children in extremely poor families has even one parent who works. Let’s talk about what we can do for the other two-thirds.

Eleven or twelve year old children, and especially those in the poorest areas, should have the chance to learn the value of hard work, part time and in the safe environment of their schools. Strong evidence suggests the benefits of starting to work at an early age, and there are dozens of tasks they could be paid real money to do: working in the cafeteria, clerking in the front office, straightening up classrooms, and cleaning bathrooms. Not strenuous labor. Not dangerous work. Exactly the type of things that many parents ask their children to contribute at home. 

It won’t solve the whole problem, but it would go a little way towards helping America’s poorest children learn the habits that can make them successful.  And the opportunity to see hard work pay off can ignite optimism in situations that might otherwise seem hopeless.

It’s not a coincidence that the voices in the media that are horrified at the idea of 12-year olds doing part time work are the same ones who advocate turning America into country more like France. I, on the other hand, believe America has a better future ahead of it. The strong American work ethic that has characterized our country can help every one of us get there.