Many in Latin America can't find the motivation to work hard and prosper

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When economists talk about Latin America’s biggest long-term problems, they most often focus on corruption, the underground economy or bad education systems. But it’s time they put more attention on an additional challenge: the region’s motivation deficit.

I thought of this after reading the inspiring story about Walter Carr, the 20-year-old Alabama man whose car broke down the night before he was to begin a new job with the Bellhops moving company. Carr walked all night — almost 20 miles — so as not to miss his first day on the job.

After unsuccessfully trying to get a ride from his hometown of Homewood to Pelham, Alabama, he set off on foot late Friday night. He arrived in Pelham on Saturday at about 4 a.m.

The young man was sitting on a sidewalk in Pelham and resting from his journey when a police officer who was making the rounds pulled over to ask him what he was doing.

The officer and two fellow policemen were so impressed by what Carr told them that they took him to breakfast. Later, another police officer took Carr to the address of the woman he had been hired to help move and told her what had happened.

“I just can’t tell you how touched I was by Walter and his journey,” the woman, Jenny Lamey, wrote on her Facebook page.

Lamey’s Facebook entry soon became national news. Upon hearing of it, Bellhops CEO Luke Marklin was so moved that he gave Carr his own vehicle, a 2014 Ford Escape, as a present.

Obviously, Carr’s story drew so much attention because it’s the exception to the rule. We have been told time and again by experts that American millennials are spoiled egomaniacs who don’t care that much about work.

But what is often overlooked is that Americans — millennials included — are more focused on their careers than their counterparts in many other countries.

A 2013 Gallup poll found that while 30 percent of Americans feel engaged with their jobs, compared with only 12 percent of Mexicans, 16 percent of Argentines and Peruvians and 14 percent of Paraguayans. In Saudi Arabia, only 9 percent of the people feel engaged with their jobs, and in China it’s only 6 percent.

Marta Lagos, a Chile-based pollster who helps put together the 90-country World Values Survey, told me that when asked to name the top values they want to pass on to their children, 61 percent of Americans cite “hard work,” compared to 43.5 percent of Europeans, 43.1 of Asians and 36 percent of Latin Americans.

“In Latin America, values such as obedience and good manners appeared much higher on the list,” she added. More than 50 percent of Latin Americans cite “obedience” as a top priority, she said.

Hierarchical societies, widespread corruption and wild cycles of booms and busts have created skepticism about work in many Latin American countries. “Many in the region feel that it doesn’t matter whether you work hard or not, because you will remain stuck where you are no matter what,” Lagos said.

Although one has to take these surveys with a grain of salt — other studies show that people in several Latin American countries work longer hours than others around the world — they are good food for thought.

It’s undoubtedly hard for many Latin Americans to worship work when they see politicians and their cronies in the business world stealing right and left to enrich themselves.

And growing numbers of Americans, too, may be starting to feel the same way as they see President Trump and his children shamelessly promoting their golf courses and hotels, while heading one of the most corrupt U.S. administrations in recent memory.

But motivation will be an increasingly important asset in the future. As robots and algorithms take over growing numbers of jobs, there will be greater competition than ever for work. Only the most motivated and best educated will find good jobs.

Latin Americans should remember the story of Carr’s all-night walk to his new job, and start public campaigns to help overcome their motivation deficit.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 8 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

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