The Dignity of Work — A UK Model for the US

There’s diamonds in the sidewalk, the gutters lined in song.
Dear, I hear that beer flows through the faucets all night long.
There’s treasure for the taking, for any hard working man,
Who’ll make his home in the American land.

Leave it to Bruce Springsteen to celebrate the value and dignity of work in one of his most patriotic songs, “American Land.” It’s not surprising that he is appreciated as one of America’s greatest musicians by people from all walks of life, from poor to rich and old to young.

One of the reasons his popularity has spanned decades is his ability to tap into the belief that “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is a quintessentially American attribute. Pursuing happiness is American in nature. And the ability to achieve the American dream through hard-earned work is also American in nature.

But what happens to this foundational belief when the “hard-working man” begins to disappear from the picture? What happens when the “treasure for the taking” is actually easier to acquire via government handout than through blood, sweat, and tears?

While millions – perhaps billions – have memorized lyrics to songs composed by The Boss, a non-American leader reminds us that our value of hard work is the only way to success. Iain Duncan Smith recently spoke about the United States’ problem with labor, welfare, and the culture of dependence and demonstrated how the trend toward dependency is preventing so many Americans from pursuing their dreams.

Smith is a British Member of Parliament whose civil service has included posts such as leader of the Conservative Party and founder and chairman of the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), “an independent think tank committed to tackling poverty and social breakdown.” Under a program he established at the CSJ, he defined the “five pathways to poverty” — educational failure, addiction, serious personal debt, worklessness and dependency, and family breakdown. He then went on to craft a plan to reduce them.

A coalition led by Smith came to power in the United Kingdom in 2010. At the time, the UK was suffering a similar problem as the United States — a decline in labor participation and a growing dependence on government largesse. Nearly 20 percent of UK households had no member in the workforce, and 1.4 million people (in a nation with 52 million individuals age 15 and over) had been on public assistance “for most of the previous decade.”

Smith and his allies implemented a series of reforms that built off the ideas proposed by the CSJ. Today, just seven years later, the United Kingdom enjoys its lowest unemployment rate since 1975, “the highest proportion of people in work since records began,” and historic lows of people unemployed and not seeking work. It’s labor participation rate stands at 75 percent.

Smith recently delivered remarks at the American Enterprise Institute to address the social reform that American leaders, like their British brethren, can implement to help reverse the unintended damage caused by welfare programs. These U.S. programs — now standing at 126 in total, 71 of which provide a cash or in-kind benefit — were created with the best of intentions. But they have ended up trapping people into indefinite dependency instead of providing a temporary safety net for people while they get back on their feet to earn their own success.

As Duncan explains, the “temporary” nature of welfare makes not just financial sense, but human sense.

Work is about more than just money.

Culturally and socially, work is the spine that runs through a stable society. Not only is it the best way to increase your earnings, but it provides purpose, responsibility, dignity. It offers role models for children, and it builds community spirit.

Conversely, an ever-growing body of research has shown that inactivity not only reduces your financial well-being, but is directly linked to poor mental health, substance abuse, and in the very worst cases, suicide. Fundamentally, as Benjamin Franklin once observed, ‘It is the working man who is the happy man … [and] the idle man who is the miserable man.’

According to Smith, the idle man is the kiss of death for society because “worklessness” hurts the individuals who should be earning their success alongside society at large. Smith quoted the Father of Economics, Adam Smith, saying:

No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable.

Sadly, the U.S. government has taught people “learned helplessness.” It has allowed people to become so permanently dependent upon it for money, food stamps, and other financial assistance that it makes more sense for these dependents to stop pursuing work at all. This mindset bleeds into new generations of dependence and, as a result, the vicious cycle continues.

Of course, Smith carves out exceptions for individuals who need assistance, citing sickness, disability, and “times of desperate hardship” as examples of when the state should step in to help carry them through their struggle. Even then, he argues, assistance should be less about sustenance and more focused on the journey of helping shift from dependence to independence.

It is both expensive and unconservative to manage and maintain those at the bottom rather than give them the opportunity to take back control of their lives.

For all the changes that must happen for the United States to implement the proper laws and procedures — and adopt the advantageous mindset that enables individuals to prosper through the blessing of work, Smith remains hopeful.

With a new administration, the United States has now a golden opportunity to give welfare the reform it so urgently needs.

There is the potential to create a welfare system that recognizes with compassion the situations people find themselves in, but ensures fairness for the taxpayer.

One that is more conditional, less chaotic, more dynamic.

But, above all, one that is about life change, enabling people to transform themselves and their families.

As Springsteen sings, “We Take Care of Our Own.” But the ability to pursue our happiness is easier when families are able to take care of themselves.

3 Lessons on Work to Create Meaning in Your Life

Sure, pretty much everyone wants a career. It makes it a lot easier to plan your weekends that way. But having a career, or even a job, doesn’t mean that you are going to create meaning in your life. Indeed, if you hate what you do, your life is going to feel meaningless, and your likelihood of happiness takes a big tumble down the odds maker’s charts.

So how do you create meaning in your life? Ultimately, by having a vocation, a reason for doing what you do. Whether you’re a ditch digger or a high-powered executive, choosing work that feels fulfilling brings a much greater sense of happiness.

Three lessons on work can help you determine whether your day-to-day work is fulfilling to you, and hopefully help you decide whether you are living with meaning or need to pursue your happiness through work in another way.

Lesson #1: Focus on serving others

The greatest engine of misery in our society is a sense of social and economic superfluousness. Feeling like you’re needed is integral to feeling successful.  The sense of insecurity many in America feel today is contributing to the anger on display in U.S. politics.

Have a miserable colleague at work? Odds are the problem isn’t just skill mismatch or lack of drive. Most likely, they don’t feel really necessary. Don’t believe it? Reflect on your own experience. Remember that time you weren’t being used enough on the project at work? Didn’t feel good, did it?

We’re designed to serve others, we are wired to want to feel useful, and a sense of superfluousness is a social and psychological cancer.

At the same time, most public policy ideas aimed at helping the job market fail to unleash that sense of utility — and the commensurate human flourishing that goes with it — because the policies are created through a managerial mindset, treating lower income earners as data points to be managed and raised.

To promote human happiness, public policy and our politics must treat every human as a precious asset. Our organizing principle must be that everyone needs to be needed. And even if we don’t realize it, almost anyone with a job is needed and relied on. There are people counting on each of us. We should view every day as an opportunity to serve them.

Lesson #2: Ask why you do what you do

When people first meet, they often ask, “What do you do?” But rarely do you hear, “Why do you do it?” And that second question is important to consider.

Saint Thomas Aquinas asks in his Summa Theologica why people are happy or unhappy? He poses the question of whether happiness is found in such things as wealth, honor, fame, glory, power, the physical body, pleasure, the soul, or objects.

“Naught can lull man’s will save the universal good,” Aquinas contends.

What does that mean? The upshot is that miserable people chase money, power, pleasure, and fame. That’s no surprise, it’s a natural thing to do. It’s much easier to pass on your genetic material if you accumulate these things. But pushing you to pass on your genetic material is not coincident with you leading a happy life. The key to happiness isn’t being a ripe specimen in the eyes of Darwin. Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re happy.

Understanding the real moral purpose that lies behind your choices and keeping it square in your sights is a much more viable route to happiness. The diagnostic tool is to ask yourself: Why am I doing this thing? We all want money. But is it primarily for money? Is it primarily for power? Is it primarily for fame? Or is it because I feel a sense of purpose?

Lesson #3: Don’t invest everything in work

The social science comes down pretty clear on this one. Four inputs of happiness are in our control: faith, family, community, and work. Many people might think they have all four covered. Indeed, they might. The key question is this: When was the last time you checked your life portfolio for balance among those four inputs? It’s easy to find ourselves drifting, especially at different phases of the life cycle. But this is a big trap. Just like it takes diversification to weather economic shifts, so too can big life events upend an unbalanced happiness portfolio. Investing all your time and thoughts into work is like going long on Greek bonds. No one wants to be that guy.

— modified from the work of Arthur C. Brooks