What can we make of new statistics that show poor workers working fewer hours than rich workers?
Parents say all sorts of things to motivate their children. One piece of advice I heard repeatedly growing up was “work hard in school now so you’ll get a good job and won’t have to work so hard later.” If this article in The Economist is to be believed, our parents may have been dead wrong. Today, high-earning workers are spending more hours at work than low earners.
Some of the reasons for this strange inversion are not hard to find. If you earn a ton of money for every hour you work, the temptation to work more hours grows stronger. On the flip side, low-earning workers are often poor not just because their wages are low, but because they work as part-time, temporary or contingent workers who may not be able to work the full conventional 40-hour week.
The Economist goes on to point out some aspects of high-earning work that makes it more amenable to longer hours. High-prestige jobs tend to be high in worker satisfaction as well, so perhaps today people meet their needs at work that may have been met outside of work in the past.
How we think of leisure may have changed as well. Vacations, time off, sabbaticals, and even banker’s hours were once marks of prestige. But today, being always-on and always in demand are the markers of success. Alarmingly, I find that even basic self-care suffers in the face of high-flying workers who feel they simply “have” to put in more hours.
While I think The Economist‘s coverage is good, I’d like to suggest some other ideas as to why we’ve reached the point where rich workers are working longer than poor workers. One thing that rich workers and poor workers have in common right now is that they’re both embedded in a very tight job market where there are more workers than work. While poorer workers have little control over their hours, rich workers do, and they may feel pressured to be more productive, or at least more present, in order to hold onto the positions they have.
Low-wage work is often very routine, and therefore easily measured and estimated. High earners are more likely to be creatives, where performance, value and speed are much harder to measure. For a great number of white-collar workers, acceptable performance is measured primarily by time spent in the office. Tasks are often stretched out in order to fit the demands of a full work day. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say that they could finish their allotted day’s work in three hours of determined effort, but would rather not let their betters in on this secret. Workers with any conscience feel uneasy about such deception, but keep the conspiracy going for the sake of an income.
I’ve also come to believe that some in management are in on the game of expanding work to fit the available workforce. If it’s true that automation no longer creates more new jobs to replace the old ones it eliminates, then the rich and the poor alike are stuck dividing a smaller and smaller pie of useful labor to be done. One way to slow the progression is to avoid looking for additional efficiencies, if not to introduce inefficiencies to existing tasks, to keep people at their desks. If you’re a manager, and you’re paid according to your headcount, efficiency may not be what you want to maximize.
Other than introduce inefficiency on purpose, what can be done to remedy this strange world we’ve found ourselves in, where the poor want work but can’t get it and the rich have more work (or at least more hours) than they want or than may be good for them? On the low-wage side of the equation, frugality has now become an extreme sport. Tiny houses, extreme couponing, and other money-saving gymnastics allow some to continue with shrinking hours and shrinking incomes. Whether this will become a practical or attractive option for more than a few remains to be seen.
For some high-earners, work and leisure are being blended together more and more. Increasing numbers of people work from home now, and that allows them to earn, to knock out domestic chores, and even to relax while still “on the clock.” Others develop deep and abiding friendships at work rather than during their leisure time. Some of my most accomplished friends have gone from employees to entrepreneurs or consultants. By selling their own services on their own terms, they take back power to manage their time and energy. Ultimately, it will take new, creative approaches to work and life to continue to meet our needs while adapting to the ever-changing social, economic and employment environments.
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