There are numerous conflicts in Hard Times, but one of the most important is that between the new values and the old. Hard Times is set during a time of great economic change, when rapid industrialization totally transformed society, for both good and ill. In the new society, the utilitarian values of Mr. Gradgrind came to the fore, stressing the importance of economic efficiency. Social and cultural practices, most notably education, increasingly came to be seen as having value only insofar as they were useful.
This grim worldview is contrasted to Sissy Jupe's much more imaginative way of seeing things. She regards other people—not to mention circus animals—as having innate value; they must always be nurtured and treasured. To Sissy, people are not just a means to an end, but an end in themselves. In common with most people of her background, she treats people as individuals, unlike Mr. Gradgrind and other stern, unbending utilitarians, who see them as nothing more than cogs in a gigantic economic machine.