I am in the process of achieving one of my major life goals, which is to never wear a neck-tie again. This goal is unlikely to be achieved in the near future, as there are still a few occasions that require me to retrieve a tie from the depths of my closet, along with the diagram from my bottom drawer that shows how to tie it. Tie-worthy events are rare, and include funerals of close family members or myself, state dinners with foreign dignitaries, and the occasional ceremony in which I am awarded a Nobel Prize. None of these happen more than three or four times each year.
I work with a man who wears ugly ties regularly, on purpose. I think he buys these from dead people, at estate sales, or maybe on eBay, and he has done this as long as I have known him, simply to demonstrate, in yet another way, his weirdness. I like him. I like weirdness. I don’t like wearing ties.
In my first real job I worked as a substitute rider for the Pony Express. Actually I worked as a quality engineer in a factory that made elevators, a job that definitely had its ups and downs….(elevator guys are HILARIOUS). The factory consisted of a huge, noisy, dirty area and an air conditioned, quieter office area, and my job consisted of going back and forth trying to fix more problems than I created.
There are a handful of rules that I learned way back in junior high shop class (for all you younger folks, this was a class where you built things, not where you hung out on Amazon.com). Rule number one in a manufacturing environment is that you always wear eye protection (note: contact lenses don’t count). Rule number two is that you never, ever, under any circumstances, work around moving equipment while wearing loose clothing like, say, a necktie.
Why not? Well, consider ways to kill yourself (not for real–it’s just an exercise). The simplest way is just to hold your breath until you expire, but second on the list of most efficient ways to cash in the life insurance would be something like, “Tie one end of a rope around your neck, then throw the other end of the rope into the spinning parts of a gigantic machine.” Replace the rope with a neck-tie and, voila! you understand why they are a huge no-no in a factory.
Except…they weren’t. Because along the way, neckties had evolved into a status symbol, worn by supervisors whose job was to oversee the work of others and never approach the spinning death machines themselves. In that dusty blue-collar environment, a grimy necktie was a symbol of success, not a symptom of a death wish, and new workers longed for the day they too could play neck-tie roulette. My boss at the factory, who had ejected (or was ejected–I was never sure) from General Motors during their 1980’s downturn, told me about a supervisor there who had been demoted. The man was so invested in his former position that he donned a tie every morning so his wife wouldn’t find out, removing it in the factory parking lot before work and putting it back on in the afternoon before driving home.
Americans aren’t great at everything. We are only marginal soccer players, and we make mediocre gelato, and of late we seem to be struggling to govern ourselves, but we are the bomb when it comes to work. We love work, and in many cases we define ourselves by the work that we do: introductions frequently include your name and what you do for a living (“I’m Dan, and I work”). And today, just like the necktie in the machine shop, many of us wear our seemingly endless workweeks as a tawdry badge of honor. This is not the future we were promised.
In 1899 (47 years after the first safe elevator was invented), economist Thorstein Veblen stated what at the time seemed obvious to everyone: a person with lots of free time has this time simply because he (women were not allowed to have free time back then) has achieved great financial success. Translation: time to hang out and goof off is a badge of wealth. In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the 21st century (now), the average work week would be 15 hours, and our major social problem would be managing our leisure time and abundance. As recently as 1957, writer Erik Barnouw predicted that as work weeks shortened, people would increasingly define themselves by what they do for leisure, not by their work. Predicting the future remains astonishingly easy; predicting it accurately continues to be a fool’s errand.
While the wealthy today may define themselves by how they play, their over-the-top, social-media-documented vacations are increasingly crammed into short breaks in their work schedules, and many experience the ‘punishment’ of coming back to a desk overflowing with work to be made up after their absence (yet brag about their excessive work hours anyway). The drive to do more is often contagious, with employees driven to work longer hours simply because their peers do.
And in the ultimate irony, while the college-educated crowd is working more, the other end of the spectrum seems to be soaking up all that leisure time we were promised. Economist Erik Hurst notes, “In 2015, 22 percent of lower-skilled men [those without a college degree] aged 21 to 30 had not worked at all during the prior twelve months,” meaning that one of the most reliable cohorts in the workforce is now leaving it at a rising rate. And many of these men report high levels of life satisfaction, despite having little income, no steady job, and few prospects for marriage. Like so many economists before and since, Keynes got it exactly right, except for being entirely wrong.
So why are we working so much more? First, we choose to drive fancier cars, live in larger houses, take nicer vacations, and in general demand more from life, which requires more income. AND we feel good about it, at least to the extent that we measure ourselves by, and tell others about, how busy we are. Why? Because as studies have shown, in the US we assume that busier people must have higher status jobs. Overwork has become a status symbol, and now we all want to slip it around our necks and wear it like a noose.
It’s not like this everywhere:
We showed Americans and Italians a vignette in which we describe a person who is either working all the time or is conducting a leisurely lifestyle, and they came to different conclusions about status. The Italians, as soon as you tell them that someone is not working as much, they immediately think the person is rich. But in the U.S., they think, “Oh, this person probably cannot work. There must be something wrong, and they’re going to go back to work as soon as they can.
Silvia Bellezza, professor of marketing, Columbia University
I’ve heard why this is fine, and how this is the new normal, and that all the data says workers are doing more ‘living’ at work (half admit to shopping online while on the clock and one-third of managers have fired someone for it). As someone who absolutely loves his job, I counsel our students to find a career they adore and invest fully in it, but the data on happiness at work in the US is grim: a Gallup survey found that a staggering two out of three workers either hate their jobs or have simply ‘checked out’ at work. And don’t assume the job-haters have the ‘lousy’ low paying jobs; some studies suggest that the well paid, respected fields of medicine and law are largely populated with unhappy people.
Two things to take from all this unhappiness. First, if you are a manager or owner or someone else in a position to define an organization’s culture, you are responsible for making sure your workers are not subtly pushed toward living at the office. Kudos to my daughter’s current team leadership who consistently take vacation days and expect their employees to do likewise, despite the norms of consulting that run full-speed toward workaholism, and for things like opening the Monday morning meeting last week with, “Allison did you have the best time with all your friends last weekend?” Makes a father’s heart happy. Also be super careful about ‘vacation shaming’ your people since that’s just flat out wrong.
Second, take a hard look at what you do and why you do it and ask yourself some hard questions about whether the trade-off you make with work is a good one or not. You are literally trading your life, hours and hours of it every week, to your employer. Are you getting enough in return to make the trade a good one? If you need help with this one (and if you brave) ask your spouse or significant other, whose answer may not match yours.
If the end goal of work is to wear a piece of clothing that endangers your very life, why is that the goal? If the purpose of working long hours is a future in which you earn the right to work even longer hours, where is the sense in that? A wise man or woman will look at all around them marching down the road toward oblivion, step out of the road, and choose another path.
Linus Larrabee: Listen, I work in the real world with real responsibilities.
Sabrina Fairchild: I know you work in the real world and you’re very good at it. But that’s work. Where do you live, Linus?
Read here about how two-thirds of Millennials (those allegedly shiftless, lazy youngsters) have felt vacation-shamed, and why 60% have left vacation days untaken because of it.
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