A few weeks ago, Jack Metzgar wrote here about how proud he was when his grandson won the “Lunch Bucket Award” for his hard work in football practice, hard work that paid off in the team’s performance but didn’t make Max a star player at game time. Metzgar argued that the working-class grit his grandson displayed has value for all of us. Researchers agree, but recent approaches suggest some different ways of thinking about grit, and their insights suggest important and troubling changes in working-class culture.
Perhaps the most talked about recent definition of grit comes from the work of educational scholar Angela Lee Duckworth and her colleagues, who define grit as maintaining “effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.” Based on this research, Duckworth has created a “grit scale” that focuses on an individual’s ability to commit to and keep working at difficult tasks. You can take a short online survey to determine your “grit score,” answering questions about how likely you are to stay focused on a project you’ve begun rather than being distracted by new ones.
Duckworth doesn’t tie grit to social class at all. Quite the contrary. She argues that grit cuts across different contexts and people. She also reveals her class perspective when she assumes that individual success and achievement are everyone’s highest priorities. Indeed, her entire project focuses on finding out whether and how to develop grit in young people to help them succeed.
Duckworth’s grit is different from Metzgar’s. He defines grit as the willingness to show up every day and work hard because it’s the right thing to do, not as a means of advancing one’s own position. That working-class version of grit has roots in the collective nature of industrial labor and the experience of living on the economic edge. In industrial workplaces, getting a job done safely often requires collaboration, and being part of a large workforce or an active union invites workers to see themselves not as isolated individuals but as part of a group — or a class. Once upon a time, most workers lived near their jobs, with neighbors who worked in the same factories. When families and communities face economic struggle, because of low wages, lay-offs, or occasional strikes, people have to rely upon each other to get by. Solidarity was part of community life, not just the workplace.
Not anymore. As Nikki Lewis, Executive Director of DC Jobs for Justice, explained at a recent forum at the Kalmanovitz Initiative on Labor and the Working Poor, the structure of work today makes solidarity elusive. Most jobs today are in small-scale workplaces, with staggered schedules and little collaboration. Unlike industrial workers, service industry workers often view their jobs as temporary, expecting to move on to something better – a hope that might not be realistic but that keeps people from investing in relationships or a work-based identity. Workers have little opportunity to talk, in part because when they leave work, they are often heading in different directions, not going home to the same block.
But surely working-class family values remain, right? According to sociologist Jennifer Silva, that, too, is changing. For her book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, she interviewed young adults from working-class backgrounds about their movement from youth into adulthood, and what she found is distressing. The traditional markers of adulthood – steady employment, marriage, buying a house, having children – have become so difficult to achieve in the post-industrial economy. That combined with the cultural power of public discourses of self-help and individualism led the people Silva interviewed to define themselves based on their ability to overcome personal hardships. They told stories of recovering from abusive or dysfunctional family relationships, of their own or their family members’ recovery from addiction, of surviving homelessness, and of struggling through school while working multiple jobs and raising kids. For them, adulthood means not just working hard to get by financially but also managing emotional challenges.
Even more troubling, Silva’s research identified two related themes in the way these young people talk about their relationships with others and their political views. Individually, she argues, they have learned that they can’t count on anyone else. Family, friends, co-workers, teachers, and the government have all let them down. They have come to believe that the only way to survive is to be emotionally self-sufficient and distant. Most also hold conservative political views, believing that if they have gotten by without help, so should everyone else. Many of Silva’s white interviewees expressed resentment toward immigrants and people of color, who, they believe, have received undeserved support and sympathy. Despite lived experience of economic and social struggle, the young working-class people Silva studied embrace a neoliberal vision of self-reliance and suspicion of institutions of all kinds.
That’s yet another form of grit, but it isn’t about either success or commitment to others. It’s all about the individual self. The people Silva interviewed believe in working hard and persevering, and they would probably embrace Duckworth’s vision of grit as the basis for success, even though their own grit has brought them few tangible benefits. They might well reject the idea of working-class grit, viewing anyone who worked hard for the sake of others, or who valued family and community over individual survival, as a fool.
I find the sort of grit Silva describes both depressing and frightening. The stories she tells are often sad, and the working-class culture she describes has little in common with the version many of us embrace as strong and resilient. Understanding this, Silva ends her book with a story that offers some hope. She introduces us to Wally, who seems to be the only person she interviewed who has responded to his economic and personal struggles by becoming what he describes as a “revolutionary.” While his peers blame themselves for “lacking the tools they need to navigate their futures,” Wally believes in “equal opportunity, social solidarity, and risk-pooling.” Instead of turning inward, he is “rallying his coworkers to form a union at the grocery store, protesting neighborhood gentrification, organizing sit-ins and protests on May Day, and fighting for universal health care.” Unfortunately, Silva offers no explanation of Wally’s activism. What makes him respond by trying to change the system rather than trying to heal his own wounds?
At least part of the answer is good old-fashioned, do-the-right-thing, work-hard-for-the-good- of-others, working-class grit.