Hard Work May Not Pay Off for Everyone

Woman's hand highlighting on a weekly calendar on a work desk with laptop and paperwork.Meritocracy is the belief that success in life is based on personal effort—i.e., those with skill who work hard will be rewarded, with better jobs and higher incomes. This popular U.S. belief is a basic component of the American Dream. At its core is another belief in an “even playing field” where anyone can rise to the top based on merit and hard work. However, little research has been done to look at whether hard work actually results in status attainment for everyone. This MIDUS study fills that gap, but shows that, contrary to popular belief, hard work seems to mostly benefit those who come from privileged backgrounds.

To measure hard work, researchers looked at how persistent people were in striving toward their goals. Participants indicated how much they agreed with statements such as:

    • “Even when I feel I have too much to do, I find a way to get it all done.”
    • “I rarely give up on something I am doing, even when things get tough.”
    • “When I encounter problems, I don’t give up until I solve them.”

The guiding idea was that those who exhibit strong persistence likely invest more effort toward their goals and thus would attain better life outcomes than those with less persistence.

Status attainment was measured via socioeconomic status (SES), which assesses economic parameters:

    • Participant’s occupational prestige, determined by their income and educational attainment, was measured during MIDUS 1 and 2, about ten years apart.
    • Participant’s family SES was measured via their parent’s occupational prestige when participants were growing up.

Participants were also divided into three age groups, given that different life phases offer different opportunities for improving one’s SES:

    • the younger age group (aged 25 to 30), who are likely just beginning their careers and starting to build SES
    • the middle age group (aged 31 to 49), who are actively engaged in their career development
    • the older age group (aged 50 or older), who have already spent 20 or more years in their career and may be thinking about retirement.

When measured by age, results showed that:

    • Among those who became more persistent in striving toward their goals over the ten-year period, only those in the younger age group (25-30 years old) showed an increase in SES.
    • This was true independent of family SES.

When measured by family SES background, results showed:

    • Increased persistence among those of low- or middle-status family backgrounds over the ten years did not result in increased SES attainment. As the authors say, “They do not gain much from their hard work.”
    • In contrast, among those from higher SES family backgrounds, maintaining moderate or high levels of goal persistence, or increasing levels of persistence over 10 years, resulted in higher SES attainment (when compared to those with low goal persistence).

Thus, persistently striving toward one’s goals seemed to pay off mostly for young adults and those with higher family resources. Meritocratic beliefs and the American Dream encourage everyone to work hard so as to achieve their goals, but these results seem to suggest that those from more disadvantaged backgrounds do not get as much benefit from their hard work. Perhaps those of lower SES lack the opportunities and resources that those from higher SES backgrounds can take advantage of in pursuing their dreams. If this is the case, then believing that upward mobility is based on personal attributes needs to be amended to take into account structural advantages that benefit some but not others. These findings thus illuminate widening social inequalities that are becoming more apparent in American society. The authors suggest that more research is needed to explore this disjunction between the American Dream and how it actually plays out in people’s lives.


Kwon, H. W., & Erola, J. (2022). The limited role of personal goal striving in status attainment. Social Science Research. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2022.102797

Read the full article at: http://www.midus.wisc.edu/findings/pdfs/2585.pdf