Thursday, January 20, 2011

Are we losing faith that hard work brings success?

I have recently been thinking about differences in values held by people in high income countries with big governments and those with smaller governments. In my last post I looked at evidence from the World Values Survey of differences in qualities that people consider are important for children to learn. One of the differences noted was that people in countries with relatively small governments tend to place more emphasis on hard work as an important characteristic to encourage in children. In this post I look at more evidence relating to beliefs about hard work.

The survey question I am looking at requires respondents to assign a value from one to ten depending on whether their beliefs are closer to the proposition that ‘in the long run, hard work usually brings a better life’ (1) or ‘hard work doesn´t generally bring success - it´s more a matter of luck and connections’ (10). I have focused on the percentages who are most optimistic that hard work brings success, looking at population averages and averages for young people aged 15 - 29.

As in the last post I have focused on 14 high-income countries with broadly similar European cultural heritage for which data is available from the most recent World Values Survey. The results are presented in the table below, along with the data in my last post on the importance for children to learn the virtue of hard work. As in the last post, the five highest percentages for each variable are shown against a red background and the five lowest percentages are shown against a blue background.

As might be expected, there seems to be a reasonably close correspondence between emphasis on the importance for children to be encouraged to learn the virtue of hard work and the belief that hard work usually brings a better life. People in countries with small governments are more likely to hold those beliefs than those in countries with big governments.

What should we to make of this result? It could mean that incentives associated with big government tend to weaken the work ethic. It could mean that a weakening of the work ethic tends to promote big government. Or, as seems more likely to me, the results might reflect a complex interaction between cultural heritage and changes in beliefs, values, ideologies and economic incentives.

The results in the last column of the table are particularly interesting (and somewhat disturbing to me as an Australian). In most of the countries considered the proportion of young people who are optimistic that hard work brings success is somewhat lower than for the population as a whole. In the case of Australia, however, the difference is more substantial. Closer inspection of the data indicates that the proportion of young Australians who think that success is a matter of luck and connections is also lower than for the population as a whole. So, members of the younger generation are not particularly cynical about the rewards of hard work – they are just markedly less optimistic about this than older generations.

It would be premature to conclude that these results indicate that we are heading toward some kind of brave new world where few people bother to work hard because no-one believes strongly any more that hard work brings success. I need a better understanding of the implications of changes in beliefs about the relationship between hard work and success before reaching any conclusions. If anyone knows where I can find relevant research perhaps they could enlighten me.


Thought Bubble Ten said...

Hi Tim, I can't point you to the kind of research you're after but I can share with you some of my beliefs about *hard work*.

I suppose it would help to define what I mean by 'hard work'. Simply put, it's any kind of effort that flows against the natural stream of effortlessness.

My belief is that our natural, fundamental pre/unconditioned state is one of ease, joy, peace, power and limitlessness.

I have experienced this state often - in formal sitting meditation as well as in my engagement in activities that absorb me completely and effortlessly. In other words, activities that I willingly, enthusiastically and wholly give myself to.

I believe that if we can shift our focus to DESIRED OUTCOMES THAT AN INDIVIDUAL VALUES, rather than the dictum of 'no gain without pain', we might (and many have) surprised ourselves at how creatively we can achieve those outcomes such that what may have seemed like hard work to ourselves and others is actually experienced as 'joyful effort' (as the Buddhists would call it) or joyful engagement.

BTW There is a heap of research on learners and learning which emphatically conclude that when learning is made fun and easy, achievement is greatest along with self-efficacy, optimism and self-worth. (Bandura may be a useful starting point_

Winton Bates said...

Welcome back, TBT. Who is Tim? I hope he is a nice person!

I agree with your view that hard work doesn't have to be painful - and it is less likely to be so if we focus on desired outcomes.

As you would know, the feeling of effortless woke you are describing is the 'flow' state - which feels like success in itself.

Actually, I find the hard part is dealing with interruptions. The ideal worth working towards seems to me to be able to get easily into the flow state where I am focused on what I am doing and oblivious to what is going on around me, deal with interruptions e.g. phone calls and then switch back again and continue where I left off.

Thought Bubble Ten said...

Oops, I do apologize but I did have you in mind when that slip occurred :)

And yes, flow is an effortless state, going downstream :)

Winton Bates said...

No problem :) I thought the novelist must have made quite an impression on you.

Thought Bubble Ten said...

LOL umm...well, truth be told, I've not read any of his books though I've seen it plenty of times in the bookstores :) My impressions of him are therefore vague and distant for now :)