It's one of those old, reliable quotes that, despite being repeated over and over, is just wrong: "Hard work should be rewarded."
It comes up in our debates about the minimum wage, education, and a number of other political issues. And it sounds intuitive, on the face of it. After all, we go to great lengths to teach children the importance of hard work, perseverance, and not quitting. Would we rather reward laziness?
But when you look at it closer, it's not the fact that work is hard that makes it valuable. There are any number of Americans out there who work hard at beating a video game, but they're aren't earning any money at it because it's not productive. They might enjoy what they're doing, but it's not providing a service to anyone else.
And then there are people who devote all sorts of time, effort, and ingenuity when it comes to stealing. They're working hard, but they're not producing anything of value, they're just taking what others have earned.
The point is, it's not enough to work hard, you have to create something of value, a good or service that improves the lives of others such that that they're willing to pay for it.
And that's why the reverence for hard work is misplaced. It makes people focus on the sacrifice that's involved in their job. They dwell on what they're giving up in working - the time and energy that they could have spent on themselves - rather than thinking about what (and whether) their efforts are adding to the lives of others. They think something like, "I made sacrifices to work at this job, therefore I'm entitled to compensation."
I'm guessing this is a factor in higher education in the United States today. A lot of people have worked very hard to get degrees at university, only to discover that they can't find a job, because the skills they learned at college aren't in demand. They wind up saddled with student loans that they can't pay off and discouraged and depressed that they're unemployed, underutilized, and that their hard work hasn't "paid off."
But for hard work to pay off, it has to be valuable work, which is why it's so important for students to think carefully about what skills they should learn. That's what's behind the drive (led by, among others, Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs") to question the assumption that kids should go to college. What kids should really do is learn a valuable skill. For some of them, college is the place to do that. For others, a vocational or technical school or an apprenticeship is a better fit, because that's where they can learn carpentry or construction or another trade that serves their local community and that isn't easily farmed out overseas.
Education is not about tallying up the amount of sacrifice you engaged in to get a degree. It's about learning a skill that people value to the point that they will trade something of value in return for what that skill empowers you to do.
Not that hard work is useless. It typically takes hard work to be productive. (Even if there were an easy way to be productive, somebody else would likely have beaten you to filling that niche.)
But we don't get paid based on doing something we don't want to do: we get paid for doing something that someone else does want done. Wealthy entrepreneurs don't get rich because they sacrificed more than failed entrepreneurs: it's because they produced something of greater value.
Instead of telling people to work hard, we should tell them to work smart. That means not focusing on the sacrifice of the worker, but on the benefit the work provides to the customer. While there's a good chance that productive work is also hard work, it's far from guaranteed that hard work is productive.
Alasdair Denvil graduated Virginia Commonwealth University with a B.A. in Philosophy, and attended NYU's graduate program. He has written for Facts on File and PolicyMic.