How Some Lucky Bros (& Karl Marx) Ruined Work For Everyone

They live for their jobs, so the rest of us suffer

As Lifehacker recently pointed out, a 2014 Stanford study found that the relationship between hours worked and amount accomplished is not linear — or rather, that it stops being linear at around the 50-hours-a-week mark. The researcher summarizes his findings this way: “below an hours threshold, output is proportional to hours; above a threshold, output rises at a decreasing rate as hours increase.” In other words, by working late, you’re not being more productive. You’re just billing more hours.

In some industries, of course, that’s sufficient. I’ve lived with lawyers my whole life; I know how that system works. To the winners go the spoils, and the winners are those in the office, charging clients for work, starting at breakfast and extending through dinner. When more hours = more money, period, efficiency doesn’t enter in.

It’s funny that this research came out of Stanford, since Silicon Valley seems to operate in a similar way: that’s why companies like Google offer their employees everything from laundry to haircuts onsite. To keep their people onsite, too.

We’ve heard this before: don’t work more, work smarter, yadda yadda. Unfortunately the “more ≠ better” message seems like one we don’t want to hear. Consider this essay from 1843 Magazine called “Why Do We Work So Hard?” in which the author argues that work is fun. Not for everyone, maybe. But for lots of affluent, white-collar folks like him, anyway, it is.

my work — the work we lucky few well-paid professionals do every day, as we co-operate with talented people while solving complex, interesting problems — is fun. And I find that I can devote surprising quantities of time to it. …
One of the facts of modern life is that a relatively small class of people works very long hours and earns good money for its efforts. Nearly a third of college-educated American men, for example, work more than 50 hours a week. Some professionals do twice that amount, and elite lawyers can easily work 70 hours a week almost every week of the year.

The trouble is that those people, the elite, set the pace for the rest of us. What they normalize we have to deal with. And without meaning to, at some point, the elite became Marxists. It was, after all, Marx’s contention that we should live to work, not work to live.

[According to Marx,] being occupied by good work was living well. Engagement in productive, purposeful work was the means by which people could realise their full potential. He’s not credited with having got much right about the modern world, but maybe he wasn’t so wrong about our relationship with work.

Thanks a lot, Uncle Karl. Really, though, it’s the fault of the Don Drapers of the world and the Will Gardners — or rather I suppose their real-life equivalents — for taking that advice to heart. They spoil the curve.

Because some people are fortunate enough to have jobs they chose, jobs they like, jobs that enrich them in more ways than one, and they devote themselves to that work, everyone else gets judged according to that standard. The sacrifices that result are real, as the author admits.

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.

Maybe it’s the part of me that just produced a newborn child talking but: ew. Work is one aspect of our lives. It can, even maybe should, be a rewarding aspect. But an expectation that we should prioritize it over other everything else? That’s ridiculous.

Thanks but no thanks, Uncle Karl.