For all the talk these days of how to revive our supposedly moribund American Dream, it took a college dropout-turned-actor to state the obvious.
“I believe that opportunity looks a lot like work,” Ashton Kutcher recently said at the Teen Choice Awards. “I never had a job in my life that I was better than. I was always just lucky to have a job. And every job I had was a stepping stone to my next job, and I never quit my job until I had my next job. And so opportunities look a lot like work.”
That such remarks made national headlines is revealing of the battered state of our once robust culture of work. In America, we no longer extol hard work the way we used to. For every movie that celebrates drive and dedication, Hollywood churns out dozens featuring irresponsible, dim-witted, lazy bumblers. The “work is for suckers” mentality is no longer confined to a few marginal Huck Finns: “Seinfeld’s” permanently unemployed Kramer is a cultural icon.
Public opinion has also become much more tolerant of idleness. When Alexis de Tocqueville travelled through America in the 1830s, he was struck by the very strong prejudice in favor of work:
I sometimes met rich young people, enemies by temperament of every painful effort, who had been forced to take up a profession. Their nature and their fortune permitted them to remain idle; public opinion imperiously forbade it to them, and they had to obey.
Public opinion imperiously forbids many things today, including smoking and not recycling, but not working is most definitely not one of them. We have not (yet) become a nation of slackers, mooches, and loafers, but we may reasonably wonder whether America is still “the Land of Labor,” as Benjamin Franklin described the country to prospective immigrants.
The erosion of our culture of work has profound ramifications for the health of the American Dream. Along with economic freedom, a culture that sustains, encourages, and honors hard work is one of the twin pillars that make the American Dream possible. The American Dream, after all, is dreamed by dreamers—but achieved by workers.
This is how our great apostle of upward mobility, Frederick Douglass, summed up his message to those trying to get ahead in life:
WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!! Not transient and fitful effort, but patient, enduring, honest, unremitting and indefatigable work into which the whole heart is put, and which, in both temporal and spiritual affairs, is the true miracle worker.
On this Labor Day, let us then remind ourselves that opportunity does indeed look a lot like work. Let us exhort people to work hard, persevere, and give it all they have, rather than sapping their spirits by emphasizing all that is unfair in life and channeling their energies toward demanding more from others.
Let us ask, “What can I do for myself and my fellow citizens?” and not “What must my country do for me?” And let us draw inspiration from those who have succeeded through their own efforts, rather than foster resentment by recasting their success as inequality.
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