What Creates Success?
Shortly after starting my first job as a grocery clerk, which required me to wear a white oxford shirt every day, my dad showed me how to hand-wash my collar before it went in the washer so it stayed clean. He was a welder by trade and often came home filthy after a day on a dirty job site. He could have gone to work in unwashed clothes and most people wouldn’t have noticed. But he reminded me that he started every work day in a clean shirt. This is just one of a hundred important lessons passed on to me in my solidly middle class upbringing.
When looking at class mobility (or a lack thereof) the elephant in the room is that many lower-income parents fail their children not by having poor homes but by not demonstrating the basic skills needed for personal success. Success doesn’t start with dad teaching junior how to pick the right stocks. It starts with dad showing junior how an adult gets up every morning and goes to work on time.
Wonks like to talk about how the upper tiers of society have created an unfair framework for transmitting wealth and power to the next generation. But what if their real strength comes in transmitting life lessons?
From Megan McArdle
You can argue about why this is–are the upper middle class transmitting real skills, or pull? But does it matter? As an editor at The Economist once noted to me, it’s actually rather more worrying if what they’re giving their children is a strong education and an absolutely ferocious work ethic. An aristocracy that simply bequeaths money and social position to its children will eventually fall. And aristocracy that bequeaths the actual skills required to earn more money than everyone else is self perpetuating.
So the upper tiers transmit important life lessons AND arm their kids with quality education through some combination of private schools and/or the best public institutions. That’s all they need, right? McArdle argues there’s still more:
But in the new aristocracy, it is rarely enough to just get born to the right parents; you also have to work very hard. (Higher earning men are now more likely to work more than 50 hours a week than are men in lower earnings quintiles.) Whatever the systemic injustices, it’s also quite clear to everyone . . . even parasitic leeches of investment bankers . . . that their salaries only come as the result of frantic effort.
There remains a powerful argument that hard work is just as important, or even more important, than the class of one’s birth or the quality of one’s education. At the very least hard work remains an undeniably important part of the American tradition. And tradition remains a key part of conservative dogma, which may explain much of the partisan bickering over how best to prepare people for adulthood. Whatever the case, it seems hard to argue that the hows and whys of personal success are a complicated story and one that constantly defies the best intentioned of policy remedies.