Attitudes toward hard work in the Gilded Age 2.0

Jessica Wildfire
Jul 22 · 8 min read

Maybe you noticed, we’re in something of a Gilded Age 2.0. If you’re not familiar, the Gilded Age is that intermission in history following the Civil War when the Carnegies and Rockefellers made their fat stacks. Don’t believe me? Look around. Count the number of folks you know working extra hours, or an extra job, just to stay inside the ever shrinking waistline of that lady formerly known as the middle class.

How often are these people described as lazy?

Or unmotivated?

Meanwhile, a tiny handful of entrepreneurs are doing very well. They’re eager to show us how they earned every cent, fair and square.

Listicles swoosh across our screens every day, telling us how to escape the 40-hour work week, and morph into paragons of success. As if one day every barista might launch her own successful startup.

Just like now, the 1870s was prime time for writers like Horatio Alger — a disgraced pastor who published a dozen or so young adult novels about wealth building. All of his books tell the same story, about a teen who manages to transform himself from vagabond to tycoon through hard work and grit, but also the kindness of wealthy gentlemen.

This guy would approve of the side hustle. He practically invented the “rags to riches” story we’re all so familiar with.

Alger shared a lot in common with the Weinsteins and Epsteins of today. After graduating from Harvard Divinity School in 1860, he spent a couple of gap years bumming around Europe. Lucky for him, he dodged the Civil War thanks to health issues.

Bone spurs, I’m assuming.

Alger’s only stint as a pastor didn’t end well. In 1866, he confessed to “gross familiarity with boys” and left Boston. He never faced charges, though, and still found plenty of work as a tutor for the sons of bankers, while also adopting and rehabilitating kids off the street.

The strangest thing about Alger is how well he’d fit into today’s landscape, full of advice as he was about what was stopping the unfortunate from creating wealth. Even for Alger, it’s always their attitude or their choices. They don’t believe in themselves; that’s the main thing. Or they waste their money. Or they don’t wake up early enough.

Alger’s first “rags to riches” novel, Ragged Dick, tells the story of a 14-year-old shoe shiner who impresses older gents with his so-called moral fortitude and cheerful outlook.

Dick Hunter (really unfortunate name) is different from the other homeless children in the city. Despite his poor habits, he still possesses the ambition to do better for himself. The poor kid eventually achieves some financial security when he rescues a drowning child, whose father rewards him with a new suit and a factory job.

The message is clear here, and everywhere else in Alger’s work— truly good people never stay poor for long. They always find a way to get ahead.

If they can’t climb out, it’s their fault.

You can see Alger’s attitude toward poor youth even in the novel’s opening pages, when we find Dick oversleeping because he drank too much last night. Later, the narrator discloses all of the kid’s shortcomings:

Another of Dick’s faults was his extravagance. Being always wide-awake and ready for business, he earned enough to have supported him comfortably and respectably… But Dick was careless of his earnings. Where they went he could hardly have told himself. However much he managed to earn during the day, all was generally spent before morning.

Dick’s many sins include splurging at the theater, gambling, alcohol, cigarettes, and oyster-stew with his friends.

How flamboyant.

If only Dick would stop having any kind of fun whatsoever, he could live within his means by shining businessmen’s shoes.

Dick is also kind of… a dick, especially to the other boys. Even when he buys them food, he considers himself a cut above. At one point, he criticizes one of his friends, a boy named Johnny, when he starts complaining about his lack of clients. Dick offers some advice: “I keep my eyes open, — that’s the way I get jobs. You’re lazy, that’s what’s the matter.” Later, Dick talks shit about his friend, telling himself how “That boy ain’t got no ambition. I’ll bet he won’t get five shines today. I’m glad I ain’t like him.”

Wait, it gets worse…

Alger’s prosaic interjections explain what’s really wrong with these kids. Aside from their gambling, drinking, and abusive fathers, they also get addicted to life on the streets:

Johnny gets so attached to his precarious but independent mode of life, that he feels discontented in any other. He is accustomed to the noise and bustle and ever-varied life of the streets, and in the quiet scenes of the country misses the excitement in the midst of which he has always dwelt.

Right, being homeless is so much fun.

Who’d want to give that up?

Things gradually get better for Dick after he stops gambling and drinking. He devotes himself to learning to read and write. Adults start taking him more seriously. And then he finally gets a chance to perform an act of heroism. And yet, the book just can’t let up on Dick’s poor friends. Even in the final chapters, Alger has to make a final swipe at Johnny:

Johnny Nolan was…utterly lacking in that energy, ambition, and natural sharpness, for which Dick was distinguished… To succeed in his profession, humble as it is, a boot-black must depend upon the same qualities which gain success in higher walks in life… Johnny, unless very much favored by circumstances, would never rise much above his present level.

So Johnny can rot out there on the streets for the rest of his life, because he just doesn’t have what it takes. Alger has decided that some kids simply deserve homelessness and poverty.

Alger himself didn’t spend his money very well. Despite selling 20 million copies of his books, he never enjoyed much financial stability. Later in life, he fixated on the “rags to riches” theme, no matter how sick people got of it. He kept trying to reboot his original success until his death.

Captains of industry were happy for someone like Alger to remind poor people that they should stop complaining and just work harder. That one day, they might get rewarded for some random act of bravery, if they could simply cut out their bad habits and say their prayers.

We’re haunted by the ghost of Horatio Alger. When those life bloggers and hackers tell you why you haven’t made a million dollars yet, Alger’s spirit hovers in the background.

Meant to be inspiring, the “rags to riches” tale— even today — carries a darker subtext we need to call out: If you’re poor, it’s your fault. If you’re in debt, it’s your fault. Homeless? Your fault.

You’re lazy. You don’t believe in yourself. You don’t wake up early enough. You drink too much. Wait, you do none of that?

There must be something wrong with you…

If you’re curious what millionaires think about normal people, watch a little Graham Stephan. He looks like someone who walked right out of a Horatio Alger novel and into a YouTube channel. He spends most of his videos trying to find fault with how other millennials spend their money.

Most of the time, Stephan can’t find much wrong with the budgets of non-millionaires. But when he does, he digs in deep:

Stephan himself seems like a nice guy. He earned his money in legit real estate deals, starting at the age of 18. He never went to college, essentially teaching himself everything he knows about finance.

Look, I kind of like Graham Stephan. He makes good videos. There’s a lot to admire in someone who makes their fortune from scratch, but not when they play judge and jury with baristas. It’s not about $71 cupcakes, but the broader implication — that any barista could support themselves on $15K a year, if they just stopped throwing away their money.

Videos like these, and everything else we hear coming out the sides of rich people’s mouths, tell us that poor people just don’t understand finance. Stop complaining about the minimum wage, they say. If you earned more, you’d probably just waste it at Sephora.

How quickly these millionaires and their fan base forget: CEOs of the Fortune 500 world, especially Starbucks and friends, depend on tricking the average consumer into buying crap they don’t need.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t sing the praises of CEOs who make their fortunes off ridiculous luxuries we don’t need, then turn around and berate a barista for wanting an upgrade to the iPhone X.

This is what some of us call hypocrisy.

Americans haven’t lived in this much debt and poverty since the 1870s. It makes perfect sense that we’d also be drowning in advice that assumes everyone can just think themselves out of it.

Anyone can get rich, they say. You just have to follow a list made up by today’s living incarnations of Horatio Alger.

Be sharper than your peers. Think positive. Believe in yourself. But also, stop having fun. Hoard your money.

Maybe you also see the irony and faulty logic in the average self-help playbook. If everyone listened to these millionaires and their advice-wielding fan base, nobody would buy their shit. Starbucks would be empty, along with every Apple store.

Nobody would be willing to work as a nurse, teacher, police officer, or paramedic. Anyone who did would suffer the same criticism that Alger heaps on boys like Johnny — slow and unambitious.

Humanity would devolve into an endless circle jerk of Shark Tank presentations — fun, but pointless.

We’re starting to engage in what I’d call extinction-driven behavior, where everyone becomes grimly aware that the end is near, and starts looking out for themselves, hoping to last just a little longer than their neighbor. This thinking scares me.

When everyone starts thinking like a millionaire, we have a serious problem. It’s the sign of a culture that no longer values public service, or the greater good. It’s no coincidence that the political and industrialist leaders of the Gilded Age promoted social Darwinism — a crass appropriation of evolutionary theory that justified their place at the top.

The Horatio Alger myth has made a wicked comeback. The pursuit of wealth has become a moral imperative for many of us. Mocking poor people has turned into a form of entertainment.

Entrepreneurs feel entitled to take advantage of the working class. They want it both ways — to make money off their own stupid app or gadget, but also to judge anyone dumb enough (in their eyes) to actually pay for it. And if you complain? You’re just lazy. That’s what’s the matter.


Live on your own terms.

Jessica Wildfire

Written by

Say something once, why say it again?


Live on your own terms.

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