Work and ‘Character’

I recently wrote about the ”CAN DO” of work, arguing there are personal and social prerequisites for strong employment and labor-participation numbers. The “A” in the acronym is for “access,” whether people out of work are actually able to seize openings. Many of us immediately associate job access with specific hard skills: If a coding job is open, does the individual have coding skills? Also, a skilled individual can run into obstacles when trying to access work, for example whether there’s an onerous licensure process (e.g. see this great IJ report).

@paolo2012 via Twenty20

But another key part of access is what some people call “soft” or “non-cognitive” skills. These aren’t about ability in, say, math or reading; they instead reflect the personal capacities that precede work or shape how people engage with work. It can be useful to think of non-cognitive skills as a package since they are related and can be mutually reinforcing; some people refer to that package as “character.”

A couple years back, Richard Reeves of Brookings helped shepherd a series of terrific short essays under the title of “Character and Opportunity.” Each piece is interesting in its own right (e.g. Brent Roberts on conscientiousness and Lawrence Mead on morality). But together they offer a complex and nuanced way of understanding the factors that influence one’s interaction with employment. They suggest that each month’s employment figure is merely the output of a sprawling equation made up of countless character-based variables.

Importantly, policy can influence these character-based variables. In a recent outstanding talk at AEI, Iain Duncan Smith, MP explained how the United Kingdom’s welfare policies had inadvertently undermined work by undermining work’s prerequisites. For instance, government officials described welfare programs in “unforgiving, clinical language” and made policy decisions based on “impersonal, economic thinking.” One effect was denuding work of its moral and personal dimensions. Employment was no longer cast as the fulfillment of responsibilities or the realization of potential or the investment of talents.

Duncan Smith, upon taking leadership of such programs, sought to address a host of upstream issues that shape individuals’ lives at and beyond the workplace. Accordingly, part of his government’s approach was to “re-focus the relationship between the welfare recipient and the state,” so public programs supported the beliefs and habits essential to consistent work.

Obviously, these issues have resonance stateside, too. Too many US men have left the workforce, and recent books like Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” Isenberg’s “White Trash,” and Murray’s “Coming Apart” describe a number of the character components of the problem. These deep-seated issues are especially important because there are so many tactical fixes currently underway. That is, all of our efforts to create apprenticeship programs, CTE high schools, or site-based training initiatives — no matter how many there are or how smartly they are designed — will likely have muted effects unless we address these underlying matters.

One fascinating and promising effort is called the Character Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Led by MacArthur Fellowship-winning professor Angela Duckworth, the lab is studying how character (which the team understands as “all intentions and actions that benefit both the individual and society”) can be defined, assessed, cultivated, and taught. Such research could have a profound influence on schools, especially since states are currently developing new ways to hold schools and district accountable under the new federal education law. But the science of character is so new that Duckworth and others are encouraging states to not (at least not yet) grade schools based on grit, perseverance, and related measures.

So what do we do now if we think that character must be part of the work conversation? One answer is to more explicitly lean on civil society; indeed, this is one reason I put “C” (culture) first in “CAN DO” and right next to “A” (access). Although welfare reform and other government policies can help character formation, it’s far likelier that families, neighborhoods, civic associations, faith communities, and other mediating institutions will have the positive, lasting influence we desire.

Indeed, in AEI’s 1996 collection of essays To Empower People: From State to Civil Society, one author, David Green, refers to mediating institutions as “builders of character and upholders of the virtues indispensable to liberty.” And in the Brookings collection on character and opportunity, one author, Marc Dunkelman, makes the link between “grit and community” the heart of his essay.

We know that work problems have a profoundly negative influence on communities. We should similarly recognize that communities — by fostering character development — can have a profoundly positive influence on work.

First published at