National Grit

Until Angela Lee Duckworth's Grit hit best-seller lists, many people associated "grit" only with a faded John Wayne movie poster. While other psychologists have hailed gratitude and mindfulness, Duckworth's work exalts doggedness. People who show grit are more likely to get a job, pay for a house, and raise successful children. Individuals who lack grit struggle to finish school and cannot keep up with credit card debt. But in my new book The Price of Prosperity, I argue that grit is also a national characteristic, not just an individual trait.

Countries with grittier populations are less likely to cheat, play the "blame game" or go on reckless national spending sprees that bankrupt future generations. Grittier nations extol a degree of self-reliance. A lack of grit shows up when voters blithely vote for politicians who create runaway bureaucracies and incur reckless levels of debt. If the U.S. were a grittier place, would voters have permitted Social Security and Medicare to rack up $50 trillion in debt that will be paid by their children and grandchildren?

Historically, Americans have been known for gutsiness. The lyrics of George M. Cohan's World War I song "Over There" point to a specifically American characteristic:

Johnnie, get your gun
Johnnie show the Hun you're a son of a gun
Hoist the flag and let her fly, Yankee Doodle do or die
Pack your little kit,
show your grit, do your bit . . .
Make your mother proud of you and the old Red White and Blue
Hollywood tough guy James Cagney - an Irish-American street fighter from the Lower East Side -- famously portrayed Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

In an earlier day, American companies and individuals boasted of their perseverance. The Avis car rental company admitted it was "Number 2," but claimed, "we try harder." In a memorable advertisement for brokerage house E. F. Hutton, actor John Houseman intoned, "We make money the old-fashioned way--we earn it." European nations used to sneer at America's unceasing work ethic. Contrast the plucky American way of thinking to the high-brow British approach. At prestigious Balliol College, Oxford, the semi-official motto is "effortless superiority."

Once upon a time Americans didn't mind sweat and grit, but rising incomes in the twentieth century brought a cushier life. In 1900, 41 percent toiled on farms. By 2000 only 1.9 percent worked in agriculture, and that work is much more likely to be done while navigating a GPS-enabled John Deere tractor than shoveling hay and manure with a pitchfork. In the twenty-first century we, understandably, expect more rewards for less toil. Flip through an old Sears catalog to see how hard people used to work. To buy a refrigerator in 1949, a typical worker had to put in 4.5 weeks of labor (before taxes). Today, a much better Sears refrigerator requires about 2.5 days of work. A worker in 1949 labored for 13.5 hours to afford a toaster. Today, a better toaster costs about 1 hour of work.

But such marvelous progress depletes our need to believe in perseverance. In popular culture and the world of self-help, the 8 Minute Abs Workout complements the Four Hour Workweek. A few years ago, Dell Computer's popular ad campaign highlighted a slacker who says, "Dude, you got a Dell," in a laidback surfer tone, suggesting the Dell laptop was bestowed upon the recipient, not earned.

Between 2000 and 2013 disability awards in the United States rose 43 percent. Even after the Great Recession ended, the number of Americans collecting disability kept climbing, by about 10 percent. The chances of a judge approving an application has jumped 50 percent since 1980. For every American working in a factory, another former worker is collecting disability. The Netherlands, Sweden, Great Britain, and Australia have also seen leaps in disability claims.

Are jobs really more dangerous than ever before? Is that possible when rusty factories have shut down, replaced by employees merely sitting in front of laptops, and many working from home and avoiding the hazards of commuting? Since the 1990s workplace fatalities have dropped by one-third. Businesses and workers have incentives not to cut off hands or break bones. Working with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Tyson Fresh Meats reduced workplace injuries by about 70 percent in the past twenty years through better ergonomics and replacing dangerous whirling blades with shielded, automatic loin trimmers. But these improvements--jointly hailed by unions and employers--do not seem to show up in the soaring number of disability awards.

And soaring disability claims do not come only from blue-collar employees. White-collar workers are claiming disability at a higher rate, even if they are more likely to be injured while swiveling in a Herman Miller Aeron chair than while controlling a band saw. Many of our great-grandparents worked in construction and they jammed shovels into the dirt to dig tunnels; today carpal-tunnel syndrome keeps a million Americans from performing any kind of work, whether they developed the syndrome from filleting trout in a seafood factory or writing a blog in their pajamas.

I would not want to go back to the gritty, "good old days" of James Cagney and young John Wayne, when life expectancy was about 50 years of age, and millions of people died on the job, worn out from lifting bales and keeping up with whirring assembly lines. But if a modern country no longer prizes old-fangled characteristics like grit and personal responsibility, it will likely tumble back in time to a more primitive state.