Bobos in Existential Crisis
March 8, 2016 1:59 PM   Subscribe

A senior editor at The Economist poinders, painfully, what it exactly he (and others like him) finds so compelling about being a workaholic: Why Do We Work So Hard?
posted by Diablevert (55 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Because you bought into a bill of goods you were sold uncritically, and never learned to set boundaries.

Once again, the classics:

Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:06 PM on March 8, 2016 [27 favorites]

This is a disease I was born immune to and have never understood it. There have been many times in my life I wish I could catch it like a communicable virus, as not being a workaholic is a tremendous disadvantage in our society, but my dad was a workaholic and at an early age, before I understood how the world works, I vowed I'd never be like him. I didn't understand the concept of middle ground, but I'm not sure that exists in American society.
posted by spicynuts at 2:08 PM on March 8, 2016 [35 favorites]

Sometimes I think of all the massive potential I supposedly had as a youth, and how from many perspectives it may look like I wasted all the brains and privilege I was set up with on essentially goofing around and getting by unambitiously for my entire adult life, and then I drink another beer and eat more ice cream and crush my 2 year old at Uno until that dumb perspective goes away.

My motto is: If you procrastinate enough, eventually, you will die.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:09 PM on March 8, 2016 [56 favorites]

There are downsides to this life. It does not allow us much time with newborn children or family members who are ill; or to develop hobbies, side-interests or the pleasures of particular, leisurely rituals – or anything, indeed, that is not intimately connected with professional success. But the inadmissible truth is that the eclipsing of life’s other complications is part of the reward.
It is a cognitive and emotional relief to immerse oneself in something all-consuming while other difficulties float by. The complexities of intellectual puzzles are nothing to those of emotional ones. Work is a wonderful refuge.

Huh, it's almost like a whole social class and a gender exist to take care of those pesky other things that disappear when one is engrossed in a fun, well-remunerated problem. Indeed, it's almost as if "some people work shitty jobs for not much money while other people "work" on fun problems for lots of money" is actually the result of some kind of political process.

Honestly, this dude seems like he's testimony to the social reforms of the post-war period that people of his general background are so anxious to dismantle. That 40 hour week and the mobility that took his family from the fields and the mill to a nice house in London happened because of incredible political organizing and sacrifice - by a bunch of heroic people who are no doubt spinning in their graves to see what has become of their efforts. Ellen Wilkinson thou shouldst be living at this hour. Or rather thou shouldst not, as this sort of thing would probably kill thee over again.
posted by Frowner at 2:12 PM on March 8, 2016 [83 favorites]

Also because you don't have a sustaining life outside of work and you tie yourself worth into your career? Not a one to one of the workaholics I know, but pretty close.
posted by Carillon at 2:13 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Boy, that Ryan Avent really drank all the kool-aid, amirite? I can see him on his deathbed, weeping, thinking, "If only I'd spent more time in the office!"
posted by valkane at 2:16 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

The thing I've always observed there is that the multiple millionaires can't stop either. It's never enough! Need more! And I know quite a few of them here in Silicon Valley with palatial homes, multiple 6 figure cars, millions in the bank, etc.

And the career people often (sadly) can't stop working either. I asked a retiring guy with 35 years in what he's going to do when he retired...and other than a vacation to a place he'd always wanted to visit, he had no idea (he ended up back at work after 9 months). I know several like that too: just bored and have no other interests after a lifetime of work, work, work.

Most people just can't stop the gogogo stuff after a matter what the circumstances.
posted by CrowGoat at 2:18 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Everything described in this article is so alien to me it could have been published in a science fiction anthology.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:18 PM on March 8, 2016 [30 favorites]

After reading the, this guy has a permanent kool-aid drip in his arm. I'm sorry but work is not fun. His thesis that you get to put your head down and get lost in an interesting problem to solve and then look with satisfaction at the end of the day is a load of bullshit when examined against the constant interruption of email, chat, endless meetings, office politics.. PARTICULARLY OFFICE POLITICS, and the need to continually keep ahead of the march of progress so as to not become obsolete. This are the exact opposite of a hobby in which you lose yourself for the pure pleasure of the end result. If this is how this guy feels about work, he is incredibly lucky. I think he needs to spend some time outside of his freakin bubble though and talk to some other kinds of people.
posted by spicynuts at 2:20 PM on March 8, 2016 [10 favorites]

There's a Workaholics Anonymous group that meets at my church on weeknights when I'm there. Whenever I see people going into the room, I think: "you're doing it wrong."
posted by Melismata at 2:20 PM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

retirement sounds awful. Why would we stop working?

It sounds awful because you've neglected every single other aspect of your life. In fact, you don't really have a life. You haven't built up an inner life or a relationship life or engrossing hobbies or charitable work. That is a kind of impoverished way to live.

This guy...I don't know. I'm trying to consider his POV. I am doing something that looks like work pretty much all the time, but I hate it when I have to work all the time at my job. I like it when my free time leaves time for random reading and research projects, going to talks and exhibits for fun, etc. It's work but it's "free choice" work, and it's independent of an employment context. There are some forms of work that become so integrated with your life that everything is sort of part of work. But this guy is still an outlier, his entire life is an outlier - he has work he's happy with and enough money to create a support system that moves around him, and what he wants to do is continue investing that much time in work for hire. But he's got a lot of his identity invested in his job.

I don't know if he's super secure at that job, but when I see people like this get laid off, they really really lose it. I think they are the most at risk of never putting the pieces back together. They haven't build up any other identity source, and who they are at work has to be who they are, period. It's dangerous, in my view; and it cheats him and everyone in his personal life. And the more he celebrates it, the more it exacerbates the problems for everyone else who really doesn't want to work that much, but feels they are supposed to, because guys like him are.

In conclusion, fuck this.
posted by Miko at 2:22 PM on March 8, 2016 [19 favorites]

Really, the end of the piece was all he needed: he has built his identity on his work, and fears the loss thereof.
posted by DoctorFedora at 2:22 PM on March 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

"There are apps to take care of the shopping, the laundry and the dinner, walk the dog, fix the car and mend the hole in the roof."

That's a relief. I thought these things were being done by poorly paid people. My bad.
posted by crazylegs at 2:23 PM on March 8, 2016 [88 favorites]

I was inoculated from this by the story of Boxer in Animal Farm. The people you work so hard for will send you off to the dogfood factory the minute you can't anymore. It's a rigged game.
posted by emjaybee at 2:25 PM on March 8, 2016 [20 favorites]

Easy for a senior editor at The Economist to say. He's already done the hard part of his career, the part where he's actually at risk of losing his job unless the magazine goes under. 60 hours of fear is different from/than/to 60 hours of ordering around fearful people and writing professionally, as you no doubt dreamed of as a lad. One makes you feel powerful; the other makes you feel cornered.

The only way to get a meaningful answer to the question posed is to ask him AND a liberal heaping of people who do not write for a living. There is a selection bias in our thinking about work, created by our insistence on reading prose that is lovely. Autobiographical, readable, widely distributed essays will only be published if they come from people in the 99th percentile of professional writers. Such people follow a demographic pattern which Ryan Avent matches quite well. He is answering, "Why do I work so much?" having been asked, "Why do we [with all that the first-person plural entails] work so much?"

Putting the other 99 percent of people's stories into beautiful prose used to be the job of journalism. It still is, in some places. Photojournalism will do this more and more effectively as the gap between the rich and the visibly destitute widens.

You know what, actually, I'm now completely sick of the autobiographical essay.
posted by radicalawyer at 2:32 PM on March 8, 2016 [13 favorites]

Why are you all down on a guy who enjoys his work, and yet is ambivalent about his life revolves around it? I didn't get the impression he thought ignoring his family was a good thing -- in fact, I got the impression that he ambivalent about the way he looks at work even as he enjoys it. I read the paragraph about intellectual challenges vs emotional ones as an admission of weakness, not a justification...
posted by smidgen at 2:32 PM on March 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

For me, because he's not saying "the rewards of my "work" are contingent on the disenfranchisement of the people who do all the scutwork that work allows me to escape". He treats his ability to escape from boring chores as some kind of personal failing/man-pain thing instead of the result of social violence and predicated on others' suffering.
posted by Frowner at 2:37 PM on March 8, 2016 [14 favorites]

I kinda hafta work a lot because I was downsized from my managerial job in 2009 after the last crash and now survive as a freelancer. If I don't work, I don't earn, and if I don't earn I can't save for retirement (whenever that may be).
posted by My Dad at 2:37 PM on March 8, 2016

As a senior editor at the Economist, the author should know damn well that we work so hard because CAPITALISM IS SO FUCKING AWESOME. This guy clearly considers himself to be smart, but his prioritization of work over family and his acceptance of its intrusion into the rest of his life makes him as dumb as a post, in my book.

God I hate twits like this. Stay away from my child.
posted by Lyme Drop at 2:38 PM on March 8, 2016

There are downsides to this life. It does not allow us much time with newborn children or family members who are ill; or to develop hobbies, side-interests or the pleasures of particular, leisurely rituals – or anything, indeed, that is not intimately connected with professional success makes life worth living.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:39 PM on March 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

I was inoculated from this by the story of Boxer in Animal Farm.

The writer is, if not Napoleon, at the very least a pup.

One thing that interested me about the essay: the suggestion that due to the subsumption of his class in work, even if you're strong enough to break free yourself there's nothing to hold you there, in the real/outside world. All the people like you, that you might want to meet and talk to, are in the city, in the office, putting in their 60 hours. That the impairment to civic life wrought by this is such that the best and brightest get bored to death, once outside of that world, in six months or so.

I am not sure whether it's just his circles in particular are that rarefied, or whether that's true of his class.
posted by Diablevert at 2:39 PM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I WAS gonna rtfa, but then I read a couple of responses and, well, it just seemed like too much work...
posted by evilDoug at 2:39 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I actually have recently become a workaholic. It's been great for me and I recommend it highly! ;-)

But I'm in a lucky and unique set of circumstances.

I moved from a team with a psychopathic boss where I got nothing done to a team where I'm so overproducing that I keep getting ahead of everyone else (I have seven outstanding pull requests, produced in the last week, four of which are quite non-trivial, which is why I'm on Mefi now... :-) )

And I've been extremely productive on "fun work" too - musical programming, lighting, that sort of thing. I basically get up, write programs, eat food (around 9PM), watch some video, read some books, sleep, do it again.

The point is that I have infinite flexibility. I work from home. Everyone else is in California. Today I got up, read email for a bit, and then went out and had a leisurely coffee with a friend and watched koi in a pond...

So it doesn't feel like work at all - because there is never an instant I can't just throw up my hands and go read a book or go for a walk, and I take advantage of that all the time. And there are weeks when little gets done, and no one cares.

And yes - I'm very very lucky. I tell myself this each day. I aimed to get here, it wasn't an accident but there were trainwrecks along the way, and I feel happy to have gotten to my destination. I feel very bad for my friends, many of whom have miserable jobs... :-(
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:40 PM on March 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

between this and the other FPP about motivation, I feel like I should procrastinate some more.
posted by numaner at 2:45 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I want what you have, lupus--kind of have to have it, right now, actually. But it's hard to get there...

Speaking for no one else, some of us work hard because we're scared and desperate and don't want to leave our kids and other loved ones dealing with the wreckage of our lives if we can't reach a point with enough financial security to have to force our kids to choose between having their own lives or taking care of their parents with declining health in their retirement age. If you ever knew financial insecurity as a kid but managed to claw out a chance to not be poor in your adulthood, none of this seems like an academic exercise. You just live in fear of being a burden.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:51 PM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

The only way to get a meaningful answer to the question posed is to ask him AND a liberal heaping of people who do not write for a living.

Actually I find him very unrepresentative of most people who write for a living. Those that write for a publication live in daily fear that their employer is not going to make sales budget this month and go under, and they're being tasked with more and more output for the same amount of time, and less money that they used to be able to command, because of the glut of out-of-work journalists and media writers. Those that freelance live in daily fear that they will not get their next buy or next contract, or, that they will be graced with lots and lots of work but find they need to spend inordinate amounts of time invoicing outlets who practice "slow pay" as a way of managing their cash flow. Most are also working too hard to hang around the office bandying about big ideas with the bros. So even for his profession he's an extreme outlier.
posted by Miko at 2:52 PM on March 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

You know what, actually, I'm now completely sick of the autobiographical essay.

Oh man, a big Cue-Eff-Tee for that.
posted by officer_fred at 2:53 PM on March 8, 2016

I think my parents were rather baffled by my determination to find satisfaction in my professional life. Life was what happened outside work.
And I begin to understand the nature of the trouble I’m having communicating to my parents precisely why what I’m doing appeals to me. They are asking about a job. I am thinking about identity, community, purpose – the things that provide meaning and motivation. I am talking about my life.

This seems to be the crux of the difference between Work Now and Work Then. Workers have had a few more decades to marinate in a stew of capitalist propaganda and economic instability (i.e. the fear saulgoodman describes), and the end result is millions if not billions of people who literally cannot separate their selves from their jobs and wouldn't want to even if they could. And all this for employers who, in the vast majority of cases, wouldn't give a second thought to laying them off and destroying their lives if it meant saving a few bucks.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:56 PM on March 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

There's a Workaholics Anonymous group that meets at my church on weeknights when I'm there. Whenever I see people going into the room, I think: "you're doing it wrong."

You know that wasn't the first thing they tried, right?
posted by thelonius at 3:00 PM on March 8, 2016


That's pretty much where I'm at. As a mathematically illiterate millenial, I have a particularly difficult road ahead as far as gaining well-remunerated employment goes. For the past few years I've been bouncing from one minimum-wage job to another.

I'm young enough to not have any outline planned for the long term, yet I'm terrified of all the scenarios for which someone with my meagre means might have have to start preparing for now. How can I prevent myself from falling into destitute poverty after a single big accident? Is it even possible for me to finance the first 18 years of a child's life? What if I or my prospective partner is unlucky, and we need IVF? Will I even be able to finance my parents' residence in retirement homes?

I work hard at my jobs out of fear, not because they're tremendously entertaining. Being addicted to work is a privilege. I'm sure Ansel Adams loved his work, but how many were there?
posted by constantinescharity at 3:27 PM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

As a writer, I've always had a hard time describing it with a straight face as "work."
posted by gottabefunky at 3:30 PM on March 8, 2016

Also, as a freelancer, I've always tried to take the Travis McGee attitude of taking retirement on the installment plan.
posted by gottabefunky at 3:31 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Since he's writing an autobiography justifying his 70 hours a week I may as well chime in with mine, from a corporate point of view...

I approach my work the same way I approach my competitive online games - both from a position of privilege, for sure. I could quit my job and still be fine, I'd survive decently on a much lower wage than I am now because my needs are very modest. The question in gaming is how does someone improve to the level of competing with the top 0.1% in the world?

See it's NOT about completing the tasks set before you (the end result) it's about what you learn along the way. Being put into difficult situations accelerates your learning curve. Spending more hours accelerates your learning curve. Sitting down and strategizing and optimizing. You have a road-map to improvement, and a list of all the resources you can tap along the way. You don't step into the tennis court like it's the grand finals every day: you spend a week learning one kind of serve, and another week working on your backhands, etc, but every week you're getting better, improving as a person, moving forward. The tasks management give you are just opportunities to hone your skills: just the same way as the online game matchmaker provides me an opponent to test my new strategies against. In many cases, the harder the opponent, the better. Do you have mentor - they are critical. Trying to learn and improve on your own is completely futile. Do you look at the top 0.1% and emulate their behaviours and methodologies? There are remarkable similaries. It's never an equal playing field. Players from New Zealand have worse latencies than players in the US. Talent pool in SEA is inferior to Europe. A person could be a minority at work, or be unable to devote as many hours as their colleagues. But the top players don't give up. There's a system, a game being played, and ultimately you're playing the game to benefit yourself alone.
posted by xdvesper at 3:36 PM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

> As a writer, I've always had a hard time describing it with a straight face as "work."

As a former writer, I learned that the writing was actually the easiest part.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:42 PM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

He treats his ability to escape from boring chores as some kind of personal failing/man-pain thing instead of the result of social violence and predicated on others' suffering.

I'm still confused as to what he ought to have said (or felt). It still doesn't change his personal feelings about how he invests his life into his work. It just doesn't seem all that relevant to me. He should repay his debt to the past by .. working less for the man?
posted by smidgen at 4:14 PM on March 8, 2016

I'm sorry but work is not fun

Well, sometimes it is. His assessment of what he's doing doesn't strike me as wrong. The people in this thread pointing out that he's in this position while other people are working themselves sick involuntarily are not wrong either.
posted by atoxyl at 4:23 PM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

If anything it seems like two sides of the same coin, two parts of a whole. (If people are down on him here it's because while he appears to be aware of the other side he doesn't really appear to care.)
posted by atoxyl at 4:34 PM on March 8, 2016

I think there is a general feeling of impatience that we are supposed to feel sympathy for an incredibly privileged person because he is ambivalent about choosing to spend too many hours at the office. He has an obvious solution, right in front of him, that he could afford take at any time, unlike 99% of the world.

It's a little like only being able to afford one meal of peanut butter sandwiches a day and then turning on the TV to see a man with a massive feast in front of him going on and on about how having so much variety to eat all the time has given him jaded tastes and he's very sad about it.

So no, I don't have any sympathy for this man. The world he lives in bears very little resemblance to mine and I have no time for him.
posted by emjaybee at 4:59 PM on March 8, 2016 [9 favorites]

As a mathematically illiterate millenial, I have a particularly difficult road ahead as far as gaining well-remunerated employment goes.

Yeah, but the good news is that since you're mathematically illiterate, you won't be able to tell.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:59 PM on March 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Also all the kudos to Diablevert for the post title.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:00 PM on March 8, 2016

I think there is a general feeling of impatience that we are supposed to feel sympathy for an incredibly privileged person because he is ambivalent about choosing to spend too many hours at the office. He has an obvious

I do find this a little frustrating. I don't mean you personally, em, you just happened to have articulated one of the big common reactions to the piece.

To me what is interesting about the piece is whether one agrees that the feelings and incentives he describes are the ones that motivate people like him. If he is right, and those are the levers, can they be pulled in other directions? Pushed? Why do these levers work and not others? Who gives a fuck if you like him personally or not? I just don't feel like one's empathy or lack thereof for the author has any bearing on whether the piece is interesting.

To read an essay from the standpoint of "do I like this person: yes/no? If yes piece is interesting, if no, piece is not" is so limiting. I feel like it's part of this poisonous side effect where the only way to claim authority in public discourse is to make an identity claim. "I am a person like this/member of this group and this is a thing that hurts me/gives me joy me because of that identity. I can't change my identity, therefore you should feel especially bad that I am being hurt in this way/especially happy that this thing I like is happening, and therefore listen to my descriptions of my hurt and anger/joy and enthusiasm with attention and respect." If the identity being claimed is not worthy of respect/comes from a position of privilige, the hurt and anger/joy and enthusiasm can be ignored and or ridiculed. You don't have to be for or against a person to be curious about why they think they way they do.
posted by Diablevert at 5:19 PM on March 8, 2016 [15 favorites]

Also, he doesn't really appreciate Marx.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:49 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just don't feel like one's empathy or lack thereof for the author has any bearing on whether the piece is interesting.

Or I mean - is it primarily about him asking us to feel sympathy for him? That's not really what I took as the main thrust. This isn't actually to complain about the direction of the thread at all because I feel like e.g. Frowner's response is in many ways just filling in the rest of the picture. There are plenty of insightful things you can say en route to concluding that the author seems like an asshole. But sometimes I do feel like people are in a hurry to pull out "fuck this guy" which isn't that interesting a take in itself.
posted by atoxyl at 6:01 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

The conceit of this essay is in its assumption that people with lives and values that externally seem similar to Avent's, must internally be motivated by a similar set of drivers. Avent does not make a compelling case for this connection. He, of course, can prefer to spend his free time on anything he wants, whether it be more work or other life pursuits like family, hobbies or simple relaxation. His personal inclination towards working long hours isn't enough to discount his thesis entirely, but he errs is in his assumption that everyone else who is working long hours in professional jobs is doing so because they also prefer it to all other activities that provide personal fulfillment.

It is quite possible that the vast majority of his workaholic peers are much more like saulgoodman, working long hours out of desperate fear of losing a job and a source of income and a way to provide for the young and old member of their families in a reliable way. Many of these people likely do get some fulfillment and sense of satisfaction from their work but, in comparison to Avent, a much smaller part of their identities are invested in their professional selves. They would gladly trade the 10 to 20 hours they work each week over and above the standard 40 for more time with their families or their personal pursuits, if the risks associated with those trade-offs weren't so threatening to the basic comfort of themselves and their families.
posted by scantee at 6:33 PM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

See, this is precisely what I object to in...well, a lot of things.

The problems with the piece operate at (at least) three levels: its factual content, which suggests (as usual for the Economist) that the 40 hour week and relatively widespread post-war prosperity just sort of....happened, instead of being the product of political struggle; the authorial position, where he doesn't say "gee the Economist exists so that the center right has some sort of window-dressing of ideological legitimacy for its attacks on the livelihood of regular people and its crony capitalism, and it's a jobs farm for people with the right belief system" but instead suggests that working at the Economist is just about luck and gee he's so lucky to have this great job where he 'works on' interesting problems; and at the level of its reception, where folks are all like "why don't you like this guy" as if this is a referendum on his personality instead of his principles.

Mystification, as the feller says.

This guy is in the spot he's in because of, oh, several hundred years of working class struggle plus Thatcher - the struggle gets him the baseline working conditions and the education, and Thatcher [considering "Thatcher" to mean the forces she embodied] gets him the whole ideological position, plus the poorly paid Uber drivers and dog walkers and grocery delivery people and so on who allow him to "work" on the interesting problems of justifying the center right to itself.

The work he does is very useful in one sense - it allows the center right to make sense of itself as tragicomically hard-working, as "natural", as the product of merit rather than politics; and it is part of a whole network of wealth-spreading among an elite. The work he does is absolutely useless from a "taking care of people and making society better" standpoint, if not actively harmful. (I think in the US we mistake the Economist for non-poison, because our own economic bloviators are so much worse.) I object quite strongly to the type of thing where someone is paid heaps of money to do toxic ideological work for the right and then complains about how he's just too, too hard-working and isn't it sad, because that's sheer mystification, the making personal of what is best understood as politics.

I'm sure he's a lovely person from a social angle - the nicely-brought up, economically comfortable and widely esteemed frequently are, if only because they have Uber drivers and so on to take the sting away. He's probably a wonderful father, a charming conversationalist, far wittier and better-read than I and a great guest to boot - because in my admittedly limited experience of the global upper class, they generally are. But again, that's not the point.
posted by Frowner at 6:36 PM on March 8, 2016 [12 favorites]

I mean, I guess I should say that he probably is a perfectly nice person in private life, and that it seems that it's almost as difficult for the professional classes to really fall downstairs as it is for anyone else to rise; it's not really as though he could just have ditched it all and been a union organizer any more than I could ditch it all and edit the Economist, even though he could probably teach instead and I could probably manage a convenience store instead.

The whole point is that this isn't personal; he may be his generation's Wildean charmer and I may be my social circle's shrivel-hearted grampus, but our social roles and our economic choices have very little to do with that.
posted by Frowner at 7:04 PM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I went to a psycho seminar a couple years ago given by an elite psychotherapist. His patients (or clients if they would prefer) are not sick people. They are from the masses of the worried well. He reports their most common complaint "If I can just hang in there for five more years I will be fine but in the meantime I am killing my soul".
posted by bukvich at 8:36 PM on March 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I tend to be of the opinion that one can work for The Economist and be a person. Whether or not his magazine is a mouthpiece for evil is fairly irrelevant, really. Would the lifestyle he describes be much different if he worked for The Guardian? The Washinton Post? Vox? the American Prospect? Mother Jones? I suspect not. Nor for Google or Cravath Swaine & Moore or Goldman Sachs or McCann Erickson or Haliburton or Memorial Sloan-Kettering or the State Department, to a large extent. The 60 hour week and the the outsourced chores and the hustle hustle hustle to climb, these are perhaps peculiarly American, or at least Anglo-Saxon. It's not just, you chose to write for a center-right economics magazine, therefor you brought this on yourself. It's you chose to dedicate your life to intellectually stimulating work in a white collar profession. These basic expectations for what it means to work and what it is reasonable to ask of "knowledge workers" extend across the professions.

Is that ideological? Surely. Other countries, other places have done it differently. Is it purely ideological? I don't think so. There is an acquiescence there, a channelling of the desire to seek meaning, a satisfaction of that desire, through this subsumption. There have been other times and places where people have been willing to give up much, much more of their autonomy and comfort to have that desire satisfied. The monk in his bare cell. But there have also been times and places where people have given up much much less and obtained that same vaunted status, that same power and prestige and stimulation, that he seeks. Think of the Newland Archers of the Gilded Age: Shut the office down at 4 when the market closes, in time to dine and dress for the opera. Summers in Newport, six week honeymoon on the Continent to do the Grand Tour.

Even 30 or 40 years ago, for capitalist pigs just like him, the equation was different. As he is at pains to point out. So how was the trick worked, exactly? Because I suspect the answer is important if we ever want push the outcome in a better direction.
posted by Diablevert at 8:48 PM on March 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Somehow, in the last four layoffs due to highly successful (for the executives and no one else) acquisitions, I've lost the desire to be a workaholic. It's really much easier to go home on time when you know your role is fodder.

Possibility for number five coming up next month... maybe I'll go home early tomorrow.
posted by underflow at 9:26 PM on March 8, 2016

Our society has spent decades bubble-sorting psychopaths to positions of wealth and power so it's no wonder what he says is alien to so many people.
The rich really are not like us and it isn't because of their money.
posted by fullerine at 12:22 AM on March 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Lotta words to say Stakhanovite. Same shit, different economic system.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:55 AM on March 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Not a single word about the self-employed or the entrepreneur. Sixty hours a week? You wish.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:44 AM on March 9, 2016

That's true, but there is such a difference between busting ass for your own direct benefit and doing it for an employer, on an employer's terms and to its ends.
posted by Miko at 9:21 AM on March 9, 2016

I can see how Avent's privileged position would irritate people here. I assume the intended audience is "people who read the Economist." To be fair, Avent appears well aware that he's fortunate compared to most people: Not all work [is enjoyable], of course. When my father was a boy on the family farm, the tasks he and his father did in the fields – the jobs many people still do – were gruelling and thankless.

Joseph Heath notes in The Efficient Society that even when people are able to cut back their hours, they're reluctant to do so. Why?
The Time Bind is based upon [Arlie Russell] Hochschild's study of a large American corporation -- referred to as "Amerco" to protect the anonymity of her sources -- that was trying to create a workplace that would better accommodate employees with child-care responsibilities. ... despite making a wide range of such programs available to its employees, rates of participation were abysmally low. Hochschild set out to discover how the following three facts could obtain: "First, Amerco's workers declared on survey after survey that they were strained to the limit. Second, the company offered them policies that would allow them to cut back. Third, almost no one cut back."

... Upon investigation, Hochschild was able to quickly dismiss the standard explanations for these low participation rates. There was no correlation, for instance, between income level and participation rate, making it difficult to make the case that employees chose not to work part-time because they could not afford it. Hochschild also found that the policies were not just "window-dressing," but that a good-faith effort had been made to implement them. And perhaps more importantly, the majority of employees believed that the company was making a good-faith effort.

What Hochschild ultimately found was that most employees did not take advantage of the alternative work arrangements because it was not in their interest to do so. It's one thing to go part-time when your job involves stacking boxes in a warehouse. Here you are clearly being paid an hour's wage for an hour's work. But this "market" model of the labour contract is clearly inapplicable to [many] jobs. In most corporations, employees do not exchange money for discrete units of time. They are paid to become members of a team. Their salary is paid in exchange for their cooperation -- the willingness to place the firm's interest above their own. Once this exchange is made, employees are expected to throw themselves into any project with all the energy and enthusiasm they can muster.

If we think of employment as teamwork ... then it is easy to see why part-time work is not a solution. The problem with teamwork is that it doesn't allow for degrees. Either you're in or you're out. Either you're there for the others or you're not. To form a cohesive group, people need to know that they can rely on each other when the crunch comes. When someone chooses to work part-time, it sends all the wrong signals. It suggests that they are not "really" committed to the team, and that when push comes to shove, they can't be relied upon.
On Avent's politics: he's the author of The Gated City, on the shortage of housing in cities like San Francisco and New York. I thought it was pretty good. He's also an inflation dove, arguing that the Federal Reserve should keep interest rates low as long as possible, allowing wages to rise.
posted by russilwvong at 9:34 PM on March 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

Well, I think that accepts the status quo narrative a little too objectively, while being entirely correct about the team aspect of salaried employment.

At least in my experience, one way to go part time is how this describes it ("I'm taking some time off to do other things that are more important to me"), but another way to think about it is stretching yourself for the team ("I have important things to do, but I'm still working as well because work is also important"). In one case, you are abandoning the team, in the other case, you are expressly joining it. I guess it depends on how adept you are politically, really.
posted by smidgen at 12:03 PM on March 10, 2016

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