Americans are progressively becoming genetically incompatible with work?

One of my take-aways from Why You Are Who You Are, Investigations into Human Personality, a 24-lecture course (also available from Audible) by Mark Leary, a professor at Duke, is that the characteristics that make someone a good worker are fundamental to personality and highly heritable. One of the “Big Five” personality traits is conscientiousness. “Achievement motivation” is one of the top 3 that researchers look at for understanding why people do what they do.

The fourth member of the big five is the trait of conscientiousness, which reflects the degree to which people are responsible and dependable. Conscientiousness comes down to whether people usually do what they should and whether they try to do it well.

Conscientiousness also involves industriousness and persistence. Conscientious people work harder because getting things done and doing them well takes effort. And they are more likely to persist when tasks become difficult, boring, or unrewarding.

Achievement motivation is the motive to be competent and to perform at a high level, whether that is with regard to professional success, doing well in school, or being a successful athlete. You can think of achievement motivation as the priority that people place on achievement relative to other motives that they might have.

People high in achievement motivation have a more energetic approach to their work, whether it’s their job, schoolwork, or practicing some skill they want to learn. They’re hard workers, and they tend to stay on whatever task they’re doing longer than people who are lower in achievement motivation.

People who are higher in achievement motivation tend to work more hours—on the job or in school, for example—because that’s how one achieves: by doing more than other people. People on the low end of the continuum tend to work just hard enough to get by.

About 40% of the variability that we see in how achievement-oriented different people are has some sort of genetic basis.

How about people nobody wants to have in the workplace?

Personality disorders appear to be more heritable than most normal personality characteristics. About 50% to 80% of the variability that we see in these disorders seems to be genetic.

Consider Tracey Richter-Roberts. Though intellectually and physically capable of work, her penchant for making sexual harassment and sexual assault/abuse claims eventually forced her to earn her income through family court litigation rather than W-2 wages. That she ultimately resorted to murder as a way of preserving her cashflow seems to have been a sign of a personality disorder (she was not mentally ill). “Does Having a Dysfunctional Personality Hurt Your Career? Axis II Personality Disorders and Labor Market Outcomes” (Ettner, et al., 2012) concludes that that a personality disorder is statistically correlated with unemployment.

Suppose that you wanted to create a generation of people who did not enjoy working and whom employers did not want to hire. What would you do? You’d provide financial incentives for people without jobs to have as many children as possible, e.g., free apartments with extra bedrooms as extra children are born, free health care, free food, and a free smartphone. You’d provide disincentives to people with demanding jobs to have children by concentrating jobs in a handful of cities with expensive market rents (even a two-income couple in a coastal U.S. city probably can’t afford a 3 BR or 4 BR apartment) and providing comfortable welfare benefits to anyone who might otherwise have been motivated to work as a nanny for working parents.

Statistically we know that women with demanding jobs tend to have few kids (see also Pew for “Moms with Less Education Have Bigger Families”) and that women on welfare tend to have high fertility. What does it look like on the ground? From Medical School 2020, regarding the first week of OB/Gyn rotation:

Tiffany: “My patient is 29 years old with six kids, soon to be seven, who doesn’t speak a word of English after living in the US for over 10 years. I have nothing against refugees or old people who are not going to be able to learn a new language. But she has been here for over 10 years and doesn’t work. I did my training in Miami and I use Spanish here more than there. Everyone speaks English [in our city]. How does she take care of her kids?” She added: “Geez, I’m sounding Republican now that I make money. Mom always said I would become one. But I’m not, I am a hardcore Democrat. Weird. I just can’t stand lazy people.” Teacher Tom: “Better get used to it.”

Tom and I go see a 25-year-old pregnant mother, father, and cute chubby 3-year-old twins. Nobody in the family speaks English. She is 26 weeks pregnant and complaining of chest pain so was admitted despite being apparently healthy. We struggle to convey basic information about acid reflux and anxiety through a Swahili interpreter on the phone. Tom complains to the team in the resident lounge: “I just spent 30 minutes telling a patient how to take Pepcid. Why the hell is this patient in the hospital? This could all be done in clinic.”

[Note that these are Medicaid patients. By regulation, our M3 student hero is not allowed to assist with privately insured births.]

How about immigrants? They’re coming into the world’s most generous welfare state (Washington Post, which says that only France spends more as a percentage of GDP) so maybe, at least since the inception of the Great Society welfare system in the mid-1960s, we’re attracting people who are lower in conscientiousness and achievement motivation than immigrants of 100 or 200 years ago. The physicians above were struck by their patients’ lack of motivation to learn English, but Professor Leary would tell them to appreciate human diversity in personality, including in achievement motivation.

So… we’ve had two generations of Americans born since the U.S. established a generous welfare system and middle-class-and-above women entered the workforce. Is that enough time for us to see a genetically-driven change?

Readers: Could the fall in U.S. labor force participation rate be genetic? Countries such as Singapore with similar aging demographics, but without a big welfare state, haven’t experienced this kind of dropping labor force participation (data).


16 thoughts on “Americans are progressively becoming genetically incompatible with work?

  1. Gosh. I wonder if importing and enslaving a race of people, and then dragging out treating them like real people for over 100 years after “freeing” them might have some ramifications? Or, dominating a native people through force and a series of lies and broken promises by the government. Locking up US citizens with Japanese heritage during WW2. Entire classes of people have been systematically handicapped and it continues to this day. Capitalism is society in which everything is motivated by money and it disproportionately benefits those who have it. Money begets money. And republicans refuse to admit that has any negative effects on our civilization despite having the highest rates of incarceration in the world. The entire legal system is designed to benefit big business and those who can afford litigation. If you’re a Dr(who should have known better) who kills a minority head on passing a Porsche, you get a slap on the wrist because you’re a valued member of society. If the tables had been turned and the minority killed the Dr, it would have been years in prison. Income disparity is increasing. Newsflash, it matters who your parents are. The conservative notion that somehow the disenfranchised class is supposed to just snap out of it in one generation is wholly absurd. children with no or poor examples of how to succeed. There seems to be a consensus that a strong middle class is the key to everything good, yet the republicans do nothing earnest to make that happen. In fact, they’ve been working for years to fashion emotional ideological arguments to convince even the financially abused that it’s morally right. Unions and taxes have many ideological flaws, but it’s the simplest way to tune and balance the outcomes of a society which is designed to benefit the haves at the expense of the have nots. But, the people with money are quite content to maintain and grow the advantages they have at the expense of everyone else, all the while condemning and bemoaning them for all societal woes. From a statistical standpoint, isn’t it a trivial conclusion that our society is heavily rigged based on accelerating income disparity? Given that we know there hasn’t been a quantum leap in genetics–people aren’t suddenly 1000x stronger(able to do more work) or smarter.

  2. Senorpablo: I think everyone can agree that this country’s treatment of Native Americans, Africa Americans, and Japanese Americans during World War II has been shameful. However, it was just as shameful 50 years go when the labor force participation rate for “prime-age men” was much higher (see ).

    So I don’t see how poor treatment of a group of people can account for an overall decline unless the size of that group grows as a percentage of the total population.

    Let’s look at the groups you listed as oppressed. does not show growth in the Native American population as a percentage of the total. Japanese Americans are not broken out separately. There has been a rise in “Asian and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander” but that could be immigration from China, not a population boom among the descendants of interned Japanese. The percentage of “Black of African American” residents has grown from 9.8 in 1940 to 12.6 today.

  3. > Could the fall in U.S. labor force participation rate be genetic?

    I’d bet a dollar there is a strong correlation between IQ (which is largely genetic) and labor participation. I’d also bet that the majority of immigrants are from countries with average IQs significantly below 100. Draw your own conclusions.

  4. Genetics have a much longer timeline just a couple of generations. Probably just good old economic incentives at work.

  5. Phil, how we have treated people historically, and the rate at which people are willing to reconcile civil and societal injustices is paramount to motivation. The “American dream.” Conservatives say that it’s “unfair” to tax high earners at a rate that recognizes and accounts for the advantages they glean because it will demoralize job creators resulting in economic collapse. Widening income disparity is tantamount to the collapse of the American dream. What motivates people to work hard to escape poverty? If you’re a poor african-american who’s lived through generations of the supposed “greatest nation on earth” struggle and doddle to treat people with your color of skin fairly, why would they think they can get a fair shake? You want to have it both ways with labor participation. What were the rates of unionized workers for the golden era you cite?

  6. I’ll connect some more dots since it’s perhaps not clear. In the past, race and gender were the front line for moral and civil inequality. Now it’s income. Citizens united gave the wealthy disproportionate political influence. If you live in a poor area, you get terrible schooling. The consequences of that span generations. The American dream has always been about work hard, and success will follow. Today, you have generations of people who’s experience is to the contrary. There is a dividing line of income, where the people below work harder, and make the same or less year after year, while those above are accelerating away at an exponential rate. When you have a huge percentage of the population just churning and treading water, it’s demoralizing. What kind of example does that set for their peers and most importantly their children? Conservatives explain away a lack of success to a lack of hard work. Yet they fail to recognize all the advantages and benefits they received. Such as good parenting and role models, good schools, etc. It’s human nature to believe that you alone, and your “hard work” are the reason for your success. Why then to do high income folks spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing and sending their children to the best schools? Making sure they take up sports or other productive hobbies? Give them cars and nice things? Because those things matter. Republicans are hypocrites on this subject. They proclaim to the disenfranchised masses that laziness is what ails society, but when it comes to their own offspring, tough love and a focus on hard work turns out not to be the effective prescription as their kids are showered with expenditures.

  7. Blacks whose ancestors were slaves have been replaced by educated African blacks and African refugees. Married black birth is no longer dominated by native, heritage-American blacks. The replacement wasn’t done by Republicans, incidentally, so I’m not sure why senorpablo is bringing them into his laments.

    Also, married households in general are very prosperous, while we’re supposed to believe that a single person making 25k a year is hopelessly deprived (presumably by reduced eligibility for welfare). If there’s acceleration away economically, it’s entirely driven by importing educated high earners from other countries and not promoting local native-born Americans and then being shocked there’s more social and economic inequality.

  8. Senorpablo: If unionization is the key to getting Americans to work, maybe we could look at states with high unionization rates to see if they have high labor force participation rates?

    (Historically I don’t think that unionization can have been a prerequisite for Americans going to work. Nearly 100 percent of able-bodied working-age men worked in the U.S. circa 1800 and there were no unions. But maybe your point is limited to modern welfare states?)

    One complicating factor in this analysis is that unionization rate may actually be a proxy for “what percentage of a state’s economy is government” (since government employees are 5X more likely to be union members; see ).

    We can start with


    There is no correlation that I can immediately see between unionization rate and the percentage of adults aged 25-54 who are working. Wisconsins and Minnesota, for example, both have high and similar rates of labor force participation despite radically different unionization rates (and radically different family law systems; a brief sexual encounter with a high-income person in Wisconsin can secure a lifetime of tax-free middle-class spending power, but the profitability of children in Minnesota is capped; see ).

    New York is off the charts (high) for unionization, but below average for labor force participation. California is high in unionization, but going to work every day is an even less popular lifestyle choice for a 25-54-year-old than in New York.

    (Of course, a truly liberal political system would ensure 100 percent labor force participation among the able-bodied. In the Soviet Union, for example, everyone was required to have a job. There were no stay-at-home parents, no rich idlers, no alimony or child support profiteers, no welfare heroes living in luxurious downtown apartments, etc.)

  9. Phil, how about the the real golden era of labor participation, 1900, when 18% of American workers were under 16! Let’s get those kids back to work I say, rather than sitting on the couch playing Xbox. You seem to be fixated on labor participation. Which your own example of communism points out isn’t a relevant metric to a prosperous society.

  10. Senorpablo: That was me in the golden age! At age 14 I got a work permit from the State of Maryland and worked 40 hours per week as a Fortran programmer (then attended school in the evenings).

    Obviously the 100 percent labor force participation rate of the Soviet Union is not something that a lot of Americans (well, at least those who have found a way to enjoy both leisure and spending power!) wish to see here and now. But, circling back to the original post, people who are conscientious and achievement-motivated actually enjoy working. If their average fertility is low, the research psychologists and geneticists say that we will end up with a smaller percentage of the population that enjoys being at work.

  11. In order for people to be achievement motivated, there needs to be evidence that achievement is actually productive. For the majority of Americans collectively, that hasn’t been the case for many years/decades. All of the increases in productivity, and then some, are going to the top 1%. Are CEO’s 100x smarter than they were in the 60’s? No. But, they’re getting paid 100x more. If you want to know if someone (the house or a player) is cheating in a game of chance, you use statistics with a large data set. A variance of 5% or more means someone is cheating. Middle class Americans are doing more or less what they’ve always done as are the 1%’ers. The enormous divergence in income inequality can only be explained by one thing: the entire system has been altered over time to benefit the very few, at the expense of the vast majority. And for most folks, it feels like cheating, and no one wants to play in a casino that cheats. And it’s not just income, it affects health, liberty and Justice. Poor kids die in wars, get screwed by the Justice system (compared to their wealthy white peers) and so on. Just wondering how it was that you had access to a computer to learn Fortran?

  12. Senorpablo: Poor kids die in wars? The military recruits from middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. See

    Even if a poor person were to get into the military, why would he or she be likely to die? Mortality rates in the U.S. military are lower than among civilian counterparts. See

    No reward for achievement? says that income rose 70% for folks in the top quintile (minus the hated 1%) versus 41% for folks in the dreaded middle and 48% for folks at the bottom (this is after taxes and transfer payments, such as welfare).

    Wouldn’t that be a strong incentive to try to get into the top quintile (top 20%)?

    There is a lot more to buy these days, which provides an incentive, no? There were no smartphones in my youth. Nobody had a 6,000 square foot newly built house (well, maybe someone did, but my Harvard grad parents didn’t know them). Nobody had a NetJets membership. Very few people traveled by plane for vacation (government-regulated ticket prices that were high). Between the extra stuff that one can buy and the lower tax rates today, I think there is more motivation for achievement-oriented folks to stay at their desks.

    How did I learn Fortran? I got a book ( ) and learned a bit at a neighbor’s house (she had a 110 baud terminal connected to the University of Maryland UNIVAC 1108) and then at a neighbor’s little software company. So it was helpful to be in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. (Speaking of the rewards to achievement, all of the houses in my old neighborhood have been demolished and replaced by houses that are 3X the square footage and built to a vastly higher standard. Funny/sad story: My dad put a huge amount of work into fretting over and maintaining the house and its various mechanical systems. When my parents moved into a retirement fortress a few years ago, the buyers had the house bulldozed within hours of the purchase closing. The 1/4-acre lot in which we played tag and touch football is now almost entirely covered by house and garage.)

    (The neighbor with the terminal was ; she advocated for a planned economy so that women could be equal to men. I don’t think that she really processed that, by the time of her death, it was more economically rational for a woman to have sex with a high-income man than to work at any kind of wage that a central planner might realistically set. See . She was still championing women in the workplace well beyond the point where it was no longer economically rational for most of them to be there, at least in Professor Bergmann’s home state of Maryland.)

  13. The freakanomics article said right up front it was based on work by the Heritage Foundation. Ha! I’m not sure what recruitment has to do with combat deaths. But, as a fun exercise, do a search in google maps for: “armed forces recruitment center” in your area and observe which neighborhoods have one vs which do not. There is a wide range of danger within jobs, and even entire branches(Air Force and Navy) of the US military. It’s not too surprising that the second link you provide supports that. Though, since we’re talking about the haves and have nots, I think the results would be much different if we focused on the top 5% vs the bottom 5%. Are kids from the inner city getting enlisted as nuclear reactor engineers, or are they more likely to be a rifleman? Neither of those links goes into wounded soldiers. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, for example, for every combat death, 4.9 soldiers were wounded badly enough they couldn’t return to active duty. What we need to know, is what economic class of people comprise Army and Marine combat soldiers. And conveniently for the US government, and the 1%’ers, that correlation doesn’t seem to be readily available.

  14. Also, you did indeed have some interesting neighbors. Glad to hear the west coast isn’t unique in minimum setback madness. I have some relatives that would make your father proud. Their house was preserved to near museum quality and virtually indistinguishable in photos spanning nearly half a decade!

  15. Pablo: says that the 26 U.S. military personnel were killed “in war zones” in 2016 and 31 during the first 11 months of 2017. Let’s average that to 30 and compare to the 2.1 million folks in the military (active plus reserves, which do sometimes get deployed) and the risk of combat death is 1 in 70,000. The fatal accident rate in fixed wing non-commercial general aviation is 1.13 per 100,000 flight hours (non-fatal rate is 5.57 per 100,000 hours). Keep in mind that this includes Gulfstream bizjets with two pilots, deaths in $10 million light jets, twin-engine King Air turboprops, etc., as well as the little Cessnas and Pipers that the public perceives as lawnmower-powered deathtraps.

    (see )

    Serving in the U.S. military for one year, therefore, is about as dangerous (in terms of being killed by an enemy) as flying for one hour in a Cessna.

    Working in the logging industry is roughly 100X more dangerous than serving in the U.S. military. Being a farmer or truck driver is roughly 20X as dangerous. (see ).

    I did search for an army recruiting center as you requested. I specified “Enlisted” as my “Are of Interest”. The nearest one is in Waltham, MA where Zillow says the median home value is $587,700. There is also an Air Force Reserve recruiting center in Bedford, MA. The median home value there is $688,200. The Marines have a recruiting office in Medford where median rent is $2,500 per month (presumably the lowest income residents rent) and one can walk to Tufts University (about $75,000 per year to attend). The Navy has a recruiting office in Boston, right next to the Westin Boston Waterfront hotel (current rates approximately $432/night plus taxes; walk a little farther to the Seaport Hotel and pay only $353/night).

    [Of course, it is possible to die a non-combat death in the military. 13 soldiers were killed and 30 wounded by Nidal Hasan in . But similar risks exist in civilian jobs. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 and wounded 22 in ]

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