EARNING AS MORALLY WORTHY HARD WORK

Like Paul, most earners immediately reached for the idea of hard work when confronted with the question of the legitimacy of their wealth. For example, I asked Monica, the upward-oriented real estate agent, if she felt guilty about having more than others. She responded, “I don’t feel guilty. I mean, I work hard. My husband works hard, my kids work hard. I don’t feel guilty.” When I asked Betsy, the former consultant, if she felt she “deserved” her lifestyle, she told me she wanted to avoid “entitlement” but still emphasized hard work.

She said, “I think we worked hard for it. I don’t think it was, like—I don’t think we feel entitled to it. But I think we feel like, you know, especially for [her husband], he puts in a ton of hours. I actually think he’s underpaid for the amount of time and energy and stress that is involved. . . . I don’t know that I like the word deserve. But I feel like we’ve worked for it.” Betsy is reluctant to say explicitly that she deserves her lifestyle exactly because she and her husband have worked hard for it, but she invokes the work itself as a legitimator.

Again like Paul, upwardly mobile earners alluded to their upward trajectory as evidence of hard work and intelligence and hence of merit. As we have seen, Miriam earned over $1 million per year as a banker. When I asked if she thought she deserved what she had, she said, “I think I work my ass off, so I think ‘deserve’ in that sense, I think I have earned what I have by a lot of hard work. . . . I don’t feel that anything has been handed to me at all. I think that I worked hard for what I achieved in school, and I worked hard for what I’ve achieved professionally, and I still work hard.”

Notably, Miriam also draws on the idea of self-sufficiency as a key dimension of achievement. As I described in chapter 1, Miriam was “downward-oriented,” acutely conscious of her privilege relative to others, at least partly because of her class background and the political activism of her parents. In describing this tension she said, almost as if trying to convince herself, “But I don’t think my father would think there’s anything wrong with working hard and making money. It’s sort of crazy, right? I mean, they gave us these opportunities, and [so] I was able to go to these schools and I’m able to make this money. And they gave me that, right?”

Warren, a private equity entrepreneur from what he called a “middle-class-slash-working-class” background, said that he felt “different” at his Ivy League college. But, he said, “the difference was empowering” because it was clear that he was there because of his intelligence, not his family history or connections. “The people who were around me . . . recognized that the fact that I didn’t go to Andover makes me a little special. ’Cause it wasn’t kind of like, quote-unquote ‘handed to me.’ . . . The fact that my father didn’t go to college was, like, this kind of badge of honor, or talent. . . . It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m no legacy [admission]. I didn’t go to private school. I’m just, you know, I’m actually smart.’”

By the same token, earners and former earners highlighted their self-sufficiency by distinguishing their earned wealth from money they might have inherited. Ursula responded to my question about whether she deserved her lifestyle by saying, “I don’t know how to answer that. Over other people? Do I deserve it instead of somebody else? I feel like I worked hard. I mean, I don’t think anything has just

dropped in our laps____I think we deserve what we have in the sense

that we worked hard to get it. This is not something we’ve inherited.” Frances was a stay-at-home mother married to a hedge fund director, with tens of millions in family assets. When I asked about how her parents saw her lifestyle, which was more lavish than theirs, she responded by emphasizing that her husband had earned the money that supported them. She said, “I think they’re probably proud of [her husband]. You know, we’re not living on his inheritance. We’re living on money that he-we made. And I think they’re very proud of his success. And so they’re okay with it.” By invoking “money that he-we made,” Frances associates herself with the earning of the money, although her work had contributed little in monetary terms and she had long been a stay-at-home mother.6 These women had been raised in upper-middle-class families, so they could not claim upward mobility as Miriam and Warren did, but they still focused on earned income rather than on financial and other advantages they might have received in their upbringings.

 
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