Name-Place-Animal-Thing: On the Limits of Hard Work

This week’s column looks at some of the different ways people think about ‘hard work’ – in the US, in India, as white or blue-collar workers, as Dalit women – and the varying importance of it in their lives.

Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

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Last week Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a dig at intellectual elitism (and more specifically, academicians who criticised demonetisation) saying, “hard work is much more powerful than Harvard.” Modi didn’t expand on his statement, drawing a dichotomy between the two things and leaving the rest for the country’s media to decipher.

‘Hard work’ is clearly supposed to have an intuitive meaning here but when it comes down to it, we load a lot of different expectations based on class, caste, gender, nationality and societal norms onto it. This week’s column looks at some of the different ways people think about ‘hard work’ – in the US, in India, as white or blue-collar workers, as Dalit women – and the varying importance of it in their lives.


Workaholic. Credit: Kanghee Rhee/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Workaholic. Credit: Kanghee Rhee/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When you’re too busy for friends

“Hey, I have waaay too much work, really won’t be able to make it tonight” There’s a high chance you sent or received a message like this at some point this past weekend. It’s one of the most ubiquitous and acceptable ways to flake on others.

We all do it, but the question is when did it become so acceptable – dare I say, desirable – to always be busy, drowning under seemingly insurmountable piles of work. Mind you, I’m 22 years old, most of my friends are not in supremely high-powered jobs with the fate of the world resting on their shoulders – but you wouldn’t know it from how frequently we cancel plans in the name of work.

Silvia Belezza, a professor at Columbia Business School, thinks busyness has become a status symbol in American society.

In an interview, Belezza discusses her research on alternative status symbols in American society – and how the conception of work in the US shows a reversal of the Veblen effect. While it used to be true that rich people worked less – because they could afford not to – now “a busy and overworked lifestyle, rather than a leisurely lifestyle, has become an aspirational status symbol.”

Belezza thinks part of this shift has to do with how the nature of jobs has changed – from mostly manual labour like agriculture to more service-oriented jobs that require a greater amount of intellectual engagement from workers. Her research shows that Americans are more likely to think that busier people are richer (and they do tend to be) but only if the busy people in question are in white-collar jobs. The message from the US seems to be – it’s okay if your entire identity is based on the work you do, as long as your job involves intellectual work.

Another part is that it’s become relatively easier to own luxury goods. But appearing indispensable at work in an age when human capital is especially prized really tells people how professionally valued you are (and signals how much you earn) – it’s more than a little sad though that professional value is apparently the only thing worth judging a person on.

Belezza doesn’t think that this striving for busyness does not make people meaningfully happy. According to her the Netherlands and Denmark have struck the perfect balance – paid holidays as well as professional efficiency.

Even though Belezza’s research doesn’t go into the downside of working all the time, and she also focuses on the developed economies of the US and Italy to draw conclusions, it’s not difficult to connect the same conclusions to Indian work culture.


Not the kind of hard work we consider 'prestigious'. Credit: Stephen Geyer/ Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Not the kind of hard work we consider ‘prestigious’. Credit: Stephen Geyer/ Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Ugh, Monday (and Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday…)

Indian millennials are said to work 52 hours a week (which is more than practically any other country on the planet) and significantly higher than the 45 hours a week clocked in the US. India is also the fourth-most vacation-deprived nation in the world.

It’s important to consider these numbers when you look at the next set of findings from a survey Mintel conducted last year. Of the 3,029 respondents who took the survey, 22% said that they were most concerned about “being tired,” not blood pressure or diabetes. Just fatigue. The number of women who complained about fatigue is even higher – 25%.

Prime Minister Modi’s comment about ‘hard work’ assumes that working hard is always unarguably good (apart from all the other stuff it assumes about elite, liberal institutions of education) but anyone who’s ever skimmed an economics textbook will tell you there are diminishing returns to everything after a certain point. What happens when you work a lot? You get tired. And then you work slower and make more mistakes. Then you spend greater amounts of time fixing those things. All you get for this increased amount of effort is fatigue.

And as Belezza’s research points out – there’s a big difference in how much we value different kinds of hard work. The article on the Mintel survey provides no demographic breakdown of the respondents – we don’t know if they mostly work for multinational corporations, small or medium Indian enterprises, whether they work in large cities like Delhi or smaller ones like Jamshedpur or are based in rural India.

And this information is important because there are much larger returns to working harder if you are part of the organised sector and receive benefits like overtime, bonuses, promotions that add to your prestige as well as your bank account. However, things work differently if you’re a construction or domestic worker.

This article, for example, discusses how part of the reason for ISRO’s frugal success is the low cost of labour in India. Anecdotal evident suggests that ISRO frequently expects its employees to work over beyond their official hours but offers no overtime for it. There’s nothing wrong with working hard because you want to, because you enjoy it and want to contribute your bit to something amazing like ISRO. But this shouldn’t be a trade off to begin with – why doesn’t the state-owned organisation pay overtime and in general set a higher standard for the labour market in India?

Part of what Belezza seems to decipher from American attitudes towards hard work is that it is valued when someone is doing it to get richer, but not when someone has no choice in the matter and must work as much as they can to make ends meet or prevent themselves from slipping further down the economic ladder.

And even that assumes a linear relationship between the amount of work you put in and professional success.

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Representational image. Credit: Flickr/BMW Guggenheim La CC 2.0

Representational image. Credit: Flickr/BMW Guggenheim La CC 2.0

When leaning in doesn’t work

“Dalit women can be leaning in, following every piece of advice given by non-Indians and Indians alike, but could still be getting nowhere,” writes Christina Thomas Dhanaraj in a recent article about Dalit women in the corporate world.

Hard work is not a magic knife that allows you to cut through pre-existing institutional structures as Dhanraj has discovered. As an English-speaking, university-educated Christian in a corporate job, she is aware that her life is more privileged than most Dalit women’s in India. However, Dhanraj’s account demonstrates that women like her can hit barriers even in environments that claim to value diversity and inclusion.

For instance, she cites a 2010 study that showed, “64% of Dalit women graduates and above, including vocational, diploma, or certificate courses, were earning only between Rs 3,000 and 6,500 per month.” Another study examined the top 1000 companies listed in the Indian stock exchange and found that “caste-based diversity was non-existent, and nearly 65% of corporate board members were from ‘upper’ caste groups.” And yet another that showed Dalit and Muslims applicants are significantly less likely to be called for job interviews than their upper caste counterparts.

It’s difficult to look at such studies and argue that an entire community of women just doesn’t know how to work hard and so, fails to progress professionally.

Dhanraj also articulates a truth that ‘hard work’ narratives obscure rather well – mentorship, community at the workplace, role models to look up to, representation at the top levels can often be as important a motivating and propelling force as actually being good at your job.

She writes:

Typical issues such as gender bias, lack of leadership opportunities, and poor work-life balance are almost never viewed through a caste lens. The emphasis on intervening when sexist comments are made is not always extended to casteist remarks. This is worsened by the fact that very few Dalit senior leaders (women and men) exist, which if present may help ensure polices that address casteist conduct.

It’s easy to exalt hard work and say that’s all you need to get ahead in life but now is really not the time to privilege this kind of half-baked American Dream narrative. Hard work needs to go hand in hand with state-provided protection and benefits and institutions that focus on their employees’ welfare for it to actually translate into a better life – be it higher wages or standard of living or health.

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