Overworked and overpaid

January 21, 2014

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“Overwork has become a credential of prosperity”, writes James Surowiecki on the growing cult of overwork among knowledge workers. It’s not just the beleaguered and well-compensated junior investment bankers who are putting in long hours:

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.

This kind of never-off-the-clock fatigue seems to affect higher paid workers more — the more money you earn, the more you seem to work. Meanwhile, there’s evidence that working more doesn’t mean you’re actually doing more. OECD data, The Economist writes, shows declining productivity as the number of hours worked increases.

And yet knowledge workers keep working counter-productively long hours. Alexandra Michel, whose nine-year study of two investment banks Surowiecki cites, focuses her research on banks, but her conclusions are broadly applicable. Companies say they value “autonomy and work-life balance; their less visible embodied controls caused habitual overwork that bankers experienced as self-chosen”. Former management consultant Richard Koch makes a similar point:

Working hours are dictated by culture, not economics. Of course long hours undermine productivity—as C Northcote Parkinson said, “work expands to fill the time available.” Whatever our religion or ideology, we are still trapped by the centuries-old Protestant ethic, which viewed long hours as a badge of moral seriousness. Most firms still value such “intensity.”

Don’t expect the robots to save you from overwork, either. When robots replace 45% of human jobs, the desire of the remaining 55% to prove their value will likely only increase.

Cardiff Garcia notes that we humans are pretty bad at predicting which jobs can and will be mechanized: “even jobs that haven’t been created yet seem to be at risk of being displaced.” Ryan Avent has a long look at the impact of automation. He’s bullish on the outlook for “emotive occupations” — things like “artists and therapists, love counsellors and yoga instructors” — and worries that unskilled workers will be stuck with fewer job opportunities and stagnant wages. — Ben Walsh

On to today’s links:

“By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world” – Bill Gates

Did the Fed’s QE program actually hurt credit growth? – Sober Look

Why Bitcoin matters (and is better than cash) – Marc Andreessen
The reverse psychology of Bitcoin – Izabella Kaminska

The correlation between teen employment and minimum wage hikes – Idiosyncratic Whisk
“Teen employment isn’t really very well correlated with the minimum wage” – Kevin Drum

Primary Sources
The IMF’s 2014 economic outlook: more growth, even less inflation – IMF
Ezra Klein is leaving the Washington Post – Poynter

Crisis Retro
Five years later, banks are still vulnerable to the derivatives market – Francesco Guerrera

The economics of credit card security – Todd Zywicki

Fanboys: A primer – The Verge

Eur-Over It
EU regulators have effectively banned the cinnamon roll in Denmark – Modern Farmer

The Mooch bets on US mortgages and gains 38% – Bloomberg

Important Wine News
“There are growing signs that rogue traders are buying their wine over the border” – Tax News

Sad But True
Scarlett Johansson won’t be “in computer form any time within the next 30 years” – Kevin Roose

The Grantland apology for the controversial Dr. V story – Bill Simmons

Growth Industries
Instagram is the fastest growing social media site worldwide – Tech Crunch

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