The overvaluing of overwork
Moritz Erhardt has become a tragic symbol. The 21-year-old summer intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch was found dead on Aug. 15 at his rented London apartment. There is no official report of what happened, but coworkers blogged that Erhardt died after working three consecutive 20-hour days. Whether or not that is true, the tragedy has prompted a worthwhile debate about the work culture in banking and other high-pressure professions.
Erhardt’s schedule was not extraordinary for the ambitious young people who are trying to advance on the fast track at investment banks, law firms, consultancies and other practitioners of long working hours. The normal career starts with a period of white-collar slavery: 80 or more hours a week of drudgery in air-conditioned offices, with occasional breaks for take-away meals. The tasks eventually become more interesting, but the years of mega-hours drag on. Later, workers often have lives of privileged desperation: lots of money, luxuriant houses and holidays, and a trail of damage.
Deaths from overwork are rare. But exhaustion, family breakdowns and substance abuse are common in high-stress jobs with ultra-long days. The extent of the gradual degradation of character – intelligent and interesting people reduced to narrow-minded careerists – is a matter of ongoing debate.
Long hours were once traditional in factories. That changed. So too it could change in the office, and more easily, since shorter workdays have less effect on output there. These professions don’t need or even obviously benefit from this cult.
So who is responsible for its perpetuation?
Employers deserve some blame. Human Resources departments could brief managers on the extensive psychological research about the damage of overwork. The excuse that mega-hours are somehow good for shareholders is both mistaken and feeble: workers should not suffer unduly just to keep profit up, and profit would not suffer if workers had a chance for a good night’s sleep.
One reason these practices continue is that there are so many would-be workers willing to endure them. Each intern position at top firms attracts hundreds of applicants. The few who are chosen, and then the even more select group who get professional positions, vie to put the most hours on the job. The post-midnight days are often described with a sort of grim satisfaction and pride – a mark of membership of a privileged group.
Fear of being fired or of losing out also keeps people working hard. However, anyone who is skilled enough to find a job at a leading bank or law firm could easily get a less all-consuming job at some other respectable employer. And while the lure of ultra-high pay is significant, young professionals could demand, and be given, more reasonable working conditions without sacrificing much income.
I think the culture of long hours can be traced back to something else – the status that now comes with overwork. This is a historical novelty. In almost all pre-industrial societies, the aristocratic life had ample leisure time, while very long working hours were a sign of poverty and a low social position – think Downton Abbey. That hierarchy – leisure above labour – made sense when hard work was necessary for survival.
Today, we have a new social hierarchy. A life of leisure is more often associated with shameful unemployment than with wealth and privilege, while the irreplaceable expert enjoys the highest social status. That status is demonstrated by the need, and the desire, to work long hours. The time on the job shows dedication, skills and the importance of the job.
If my theory is right, there’s an economic irony. The skills of most of the professionals who enjoy an elevated social status are real enough, but the social benefits of many of the long-hour roles are questionable. The hard grind of many bankers and lawyers does not translate into much gain for the productive economy.
There is also a social tragedy. One of the great gains of the modern economy – the reduction of toil – is being squandered. The labour-market elite, who help set the social standard of the good life, too often choose to put exhausting work, however pointless, before family, community and what used to be called the higher things in life. As a result, the work multiplies, and with it the sense that it should bring extravagant rewards.
The widespread, horrified response to Erhardt’s death shows that many people are concerned by the hours-culture. BofA Merrill is investigating working conditions for its young workers, with a view to encouraging cultural change. That’s a good first step. The overvaluing of overwork has gone too far.
This column has been updated with minor edits to improve clarity.