Current Affairs

I Have No Idea What “Hard Work” Means

And probably neither do you…

If there is one thing that unites all social and economic classes, it’s that we all love to talk about how hard we’ve worked. The 17-year-old who’s trying to get into college, the Silicon Valley wunderkind, your parents’ friend who just got a pool—you might hear from any of these people “I’ve worked so hard for everything I have” or “I’ve put blood, sweat, and tears (into this college application/useless app/aboveground pool).” The newest Supreme Court judge, of course, “worked his tail off” to get into an Ivy League college, all the way from the lowly position of “student at a school specifically designed to get kids into Ivy League colleges.” For many people, their long history of “hard work” is a point of pride that they hold very dear, especially when they are in a position of privilege and feel defensive about it. I don’t necessarily judge these people. I’m sure they do feel that they’ve worked very hard, and it might even be true.

But here’s the thing: I have literally no idea what the term “hard work” is supposed to mean.

There are certain people who I think we can all agree have worked hard. Coal miners? Sure. EMTs? Yup. Furniture movers? Definitely. Any job that requires intense physical labor is on the list of “for sure, you worked hard,” as is anything that involves great emotional and psychological resilience, such as social work. But after that it gets tricky. How about someone who founded a trading company or a real estate agency in the 1980s, riding the wave of the business-friendly Reagan years? They’ve worked for decades, undoubtedly with some late nights or unusual hours. But is that the same as getting black lung? What about someone who just worked a fairly normal 40 hour week, from age 18 to 65? Is that “hard work?” What about someone whose job is creative and enjoyable? Is that also “hard work?” How do we measure this, exactly? Can it be done by number of hours? Intensity of work? Sacrifices made? Cubits of human suffering?

Even in high school, I was always totally clueless as to who was “working hard” and who wasn’t. Part of the problem is that I myself do not work to an orthodox timetable. I have never been one of those enviable people who can set aside neat little one- or two-hour blocks each day for a project, slowly but surely putting everything together right on schedule. I only have two modes: lazy piece of crap, or obsessively focused on my work, the latter phase usually coming at entirely unhelpful times such as 3 a.m., or in the middle of a mediocre date. As a result, I have no clue how many hours I actually work, since my work patterns are so erratic. When I was in high school, the kids who dutifully went to the library to study for one (1) hour every day and go home were “hard workers” to me, but for all I know, the handful of manic work periods I typically had in a school year might have encompassed just as many, or even more “units” of work than them. 

Things got worse when I moved from high school to university, as the number of class hours per week dropped from 30 to six, and work became almost entirely a matter of individual study. Everyone in my classes would lie either about how hard they were working, or about how they totally weren’t working at all, depending on what fit their personal branding. There were people who claimed to be working super hard, despite somehow also drinking 16 hours a day. There were people who self-effacingly talked about how far behind they were, and then aced their exams. There were people you always saw in the library, but who also seemed to spend a lot of time chatting to their friends and nipping out for three-hour coffee breaks. Then there were people you never saw at all, and for all you knew they could have been locked in their rooms with a textbook, or going on adventures in hot air balloons. For someone like me, always unsure of my place in the world, this obscure poker game—where everyone was either deliberately bluffing or simply not showing their hand—was cause for a descent into madness. Was I in the top 10 percent of hard workers, or the bottom? What was the average number of hours you were supposed to look at a book? Did it count as working if you just read the book and didn’t take notes? Who was working hard here? Who was deserving? Who? WHO?

At 24 I was finally able to differentiate between levels of work when I got my first office job. By office job, I don’t necessarily mean any job where you work in an office—a call center is a type of office, technically, but call center work has much more in common with other grueling, excruciating customer service work than it does with an office job. An office job has three defining characteristics: 

  1. You can do the job while sitting with a hot beverage.
  2. You can go to the bathroom without asking permission first.
  3. You are not being constantly watched.

For the first few months working an office job, I remember still acting according to the rules of customer-facing jobs, unaware that I was now playing an entirely new game. I never opened a non work-related internet tab. I never expressed a non-positive emotion. I only went to the bathroom during my lunch hour. If I wanted a cup of coffee, I went straight to the kitchen to make it and came straight back. At some point a coworker came over to show me a viral video, and I looked around, panicked, thinking, “is this allowed?” And then, eventually, I realized no one really cared, so long as stuff got done within a vaguely responsible timeframe. Things immediately got a lot easier (plus, my coworkers liked me better when I started acting like a normal person and not a happiness robot.) This was definitely an entirely different ballpark from service work, which—unless you luck into having a chill boss, or work at a dive bar which permits its staff to have a personality—involves fucking up your back and your feet, going ’round with a smile constantly plastered on your face (yes, the actual, original version of “emotional labor”), unpredictable shifts, and every sign of human weakness—be it a request for time off or a desire to sit down for five goddamn minutes—being counted against you. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to classify both these things as the same levels of “hard work.”

And yet, is this unfair to the experiences of white-collar workers? Offices also hold their share of misery. Yes, you might have an orthopedic chair, but you are still spending vast spaces of your life doing work that is repetitive, boring, and/or stressful. I definitely did a decent amount of work at these office jobs, once I’d gotten over the excitement of being allowed to look away from the computer every now and then to text my friends soothing words about their unreliable boyfriends (which is something you do a lot at 24). Even at the higher levels, to “work” still means to be in some state of discomfort. It’s easy to look over at your boss in upper management, and fume that they get to spend half their workday schmoozing at expensive lunches. But look at the guy they’re taking out to schmooze. Would you want to talk to that guy? Laugh at his jokes? Smile sympathetically at his explanation of why the divorce isn’t actually his fault, why his wife has never understood him, how it was all just a big misunderstanding when he sent that five-figure sum to a camgirl in Nebraska? Sit through his endless explanations of all the various kinds of boat until you finally convince him to write the firm a big check? 

Yeah, didn’t think so. Maybe scrolling through spreadsheets isn’t so bad after all. 

Everything gets even more complicated when you consider that many people love what they do, but are still undoubtedly putting in a lot of “work,” whether it’s a creative job or they just really happen to dig filing. If I weren’t getting paid to write, I would probably be doing it anyway just to amuse myself. Does that mean it’s not work? Heck no. I’m still using my skills (such as they are) to produce something, and putting in time I could be using to look at ferrets on the internet. And even the coolest jobs still involve some level of drudgery, whether it’s dealing with invoices or emails or fixing your music track in some horribly unintuitive software. Outside of drudgery, there are issues like stress, burnout, and impact on your personal life. Being, say, a world-traveling vlogger sounds cool, until you take into account the vast amounts of time spent crammed into planes, sleeping in characterless hotel rooms far from home, and being perpetually mobbed by shrieking teens with boundary issues.

So, all the jobs it’s possible to have—unless maybe you’re an heiress with a jewelry line—require huge amounts of the best years of your life, and they all involve some aspects that can be classified as “hard work.” (To clarify, I’m not saying that a vlogger has it anywhere near as tough as a factory worker—just that both could make reasonable justifications for saying that they work hard). Why, then, are people so insistent on using “I’ve worked hard” as a statement that they are somehow special? Why is it so often used as a shield from criticism, whether it’s by millionaires who argue against tax hikes, or divorced dads making videos in their cars explaining why they yell at strangers for looking Mexican? 

I think the issue is that when people say they’ve “worked hard,” they’re implicitly suggesting superiority. I’m deserving of reward, not like those people who are lazy (“those” people being immigrants, poor people, liberal arts majors, whoever it is you seek to contrast yourself against). In a society where competition for the top spots (or even the doing-comfortably-okay spots) has become increasingly ruthless, simply having a job is not enough to prove you should be treated with respect, be compensated well, and enjoy a good retirement. You have to prove you are exceptional, and if you talk a big game about how hard you work, you can justify either your current position (if you’re privileged) or why you, personally, deserve a better position (if you’re not). This focus on defining yourself by the nebulous idea of how “hard” you’ve worked is a distraction from the more important issue, which is whether the situation you’re in is just

In my opinion, we should change the framing a little here. Instead of saying “I worked hard” (compared to whom?), how about saying: “I worked.” The act of working itself, even if you just clock in most days, put in minimal effort, come home, and never smile at anyone, is still a massive imposition on your life. You should not have to claim some unusual level of diligence to feel entitled to a good standard of living. You should just be able to say: “I work. I go to a place I don’t want to go to, five days a week, and on the weekends I want to go to the movies and a restaurant and eat a big chocolatey dessert.” If you did “work hard,” whatever that means, it still wouldn’t justify an excessively large income above a good standard of living (such as, for example, a billion dollars), given that however “hard” you worked—however we would make that calculation—it could never be in proportion to the difference between your hard work and that of a waitress. If there were some sort of way of quantifying “hard work,” through which you could prove that your wealth was truly earned, is there any possible way one could show that they had “earned” a billion dollars? Do billionaires work that many magnitudes more hours than waitresses? Is their work that many magnitudes more strenuous? Are they that many magnitudes more stressed? (Billionaires might believe so; that just shows they’ve never been waitresses.) Brandishing the concept of “hard work” in order to justify why some people live in miserable poverty and others have sports car collections is just nonsensical, an obvious distraction away from the question of why these disparities are so vast and unjust. Honestly, “hard work” is such a vague and slippery concept that we’d probably all be better off if we just threw it out. And once we stop playing this pointless game of comparing how hard we all work, we can start asking the real question of when we’re going to start being compensated fairly for it.

More In: Labor

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


Elevators, the sixties, myths, and more! Endless fun surprises in our final edition of 2020. Wishing you all the best during these dreadful times and hope our magazine can bring a dash of consolation and joy.

The Latest From Current Affairs