Jennifer Sherman.

In the early 2000s, Jennifer Sherman, a professor of sociology at Washington State University, went to study a poverty-stricken mountain town in Northern California for her thesis.

What she found upon meeting folks on the ground was that “every interview, people just talked about their own work ethic, somebody else lacking work ethic, or the value of hard work,” she tells Grow. Even in the absence of jobs, work remained key in measuring human value. With whatever external proof they could find, “people really, really did make the big show of letting me know that, ‘I’m a worker,’” she says.

Researchers and psychologists point to 3 pillars of messaging in American culture that hugely shape this thinking: the Protestant work ethic, the emphasis on individualism, and what gives one status in the States.

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