The cult of long hours hurts the bottom and the top

January 20

The jobs created during the agonizingly slow recovery from the Great Recession have consisted in large part of low-paying, part-time positions. Strikes and other worker movements have often featured demands for more working hours — quite a contrast to the early days of industrial capitalism, which focused on the 8-hour day (as opposed to 10) and the 40-hour work week. The left has focused a lot of attention on this lack of work, and rightly so.

What has gotten less attention is how many people at the top have been doing the opposite. Among elite professions, working absurd hours is not just common, but practically universal. What people tend to overlook is that overwork is bad even for elites. Research shows that overworked people are unhappy, less productive, and tend to burn out — meaning forcing one’s employees to work over 40 hours consistently is a poor business decision.

What this suggests is that today’s economy is terrible in many ways even for the much of the elite. Policies like a return to a strict 40-hour work week would have substantial benefits across the board. Both Democrats and the professional class ought to take notice.

James Surowiecki has a nice piece today talking about this elite overwork:

Thirty years ago, the best-paid workers in the U.S. were much less likely to work long days than low-paid workers were. By 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating. A 2008 Harvard Business School survey of a thousand professionals found that ninety-four per cent worked fifty hours or more a week, and almost half worked in excess of sixty-five hours a week. Overwork has become a credential of prosperity.

Over at Charles Stross’s place today, Hugh Hancock has a great breakdown of the actual reality of putting in 80-hour work week “death marches,” and the very rare situations they might be useful:

Long term, death marches don’t give you more productive time…If you work more time than your comfortable maximum and keep doing it, your productivity will drop and keep dropping. Quite rapidly, you will become less productive than you would be if you worked 40 hours. Working 80 hours a week for a year might feel productive, but you’ll be getting less done than if you worked 30…

So what’s a death march good for? A death march lets you steal time. You can’t work 80 hours for the next three months and double your productivity. But you can work 80 hours a week for the next three weeks and double what you get done – provided you’re willing to accept that in the three weeks after that, your output will be functionally identical to that of a lightly-reheated blancmange.

Needless to say, today’s elite workers aren’t doing this. They’re ending up 100% blancmange, all the time.

I don’t mean to say that the plight of the “overemployed” is somehow comparable to that of the unemployed or precarious part-time worker. Instead I mean to say that today’s economy sucks pretty much across the board, even for people who are raking in substantial sums.

Politically, the upshot is that Democrats shouldn’t fear full-bore economic justice — there will likely be substantial benefits even for much of the top. The professional class is doing quite well. But not very many of them are in the 0.1% that is increasingly capturing most or all of the fruits of economic growth. In other words, today’s professionals have more in common with striking Walmart employees than they might care to admit.

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