Jun 182011

People who count as middle class and above in advanced industrial societies enjoy a level of material prosperity and comfort far exceeding human historical norms and should have really good lives, right?  Well…

Let’s face an unpleasant fact to begin with.  For most people work ranges between pretty unpleasant to very unpleasant.   For some of the most privileged people in the professional middle class, it is shockingly unpleasant.  People often say they like their jobs, and there are senses in which this is true.  They like having incomes and the social status (or which more anon) attached to their jobs, and they might like some aspects of their work, like being able to interact with people on a day-to-day basis.  But I’m pretty sure they don’t like what goes on from minute to minute in a workplace, much of which is an unpalatable combination of tedium and fear, rather like being an infantry grunt only much more slowly fatal. If you think people really like their jobs, ask yourself how many of them would keep doing them were it not for pay. And yet they spend shockingly large amounts of time on them.  Even if directly only 40 hours a week they spend large amounts of time commuting to and from them, lying exhausted in front of the TV after them, spending time getting credentials to obtain them, and so forth.  Kind of a nasty existence, if you look at with an appraising eye.  Why?

We certainly can’t appeal to brute physical necessity.  We’re way beyond that.  I remember quite well that during the last part of my life in which I enjoyed extended happiness I had an income more than an order of magnitude less (yes, I did control for inflation!) than what I have now, and I don’t recall any sense of significant physical discomfort or deprivation back then.  Many older readers of this blog might recall something similar in their own lives. 

Given my huge rise in productive possibilities, shouldn’t I be working an order of magnitude fewer hours?  After all, George Jetson worked only nine hours a week.  Why isn’t the future as good as it used to be?

I’m pretty sure the answer has to do with status.  It’s a complicated concept, but I hope not too hard to grasp.  It clearly has a first order component of being admirable somehow:  smart, beautiful, capable, talented, rich, etc.  It also has a second-order component of affiliation.  Be friends, allies, associates, or even just hangers-on to those high in status and your own status goes up.  The dreaded converse also applies.

It’s just awful of us (and I am afraid I can’t exempt myself) to care about status, but we do.  A lot.  Even people on the very brink of subsistence will make sacrifices in their material well-being and those of their nearest and dearest to maintain status.  Sister Y links to an account of how even people suffering severe malnutrition will still spend parts of the meager budgets on things like alcohol and tobacco of the purposes of maintaining status and social affiliation.  Perhaps even more astonishingly, Katja Grace points to an example of how in rural Bolivia, people refuse to use a cheap method of disinfecting water, even when it means more of their children will die of diarrhea, because doing so means signaling comparative poverty to their neighbors.

But even in a rich society like ours, status matters.  Pretty much all the time.

High Status Low Status
“I’m sure we can help you with that, ma’am.” “Your call is very important to us. Please remain on the line and it will be answered in the order received.”
“I’d love to have coffee with you some time! What works for you?” “Gee, I’m really busy for the whole next month.”
“May I see your license and registration please, sir?” “Out of the car, hands on the hood, legs apart. NOW!

You know the drill. You can add your own examples. To be low in status, or to lose status, is to bleed from a thousand tiny cuts.

What has this to do with work?  As the Bolivia example above shows, people put a lot of effort into signalling their status to others.  If you want people to treat you as higher in status, and if you want people to affiliate with you on the basis of your status, you’d better be able to show people that you have a higher status.  These signals are often pretty costly.  Consider an example that a lot of ordinary middle-class people in my neighborhood face:  live in a forty year-old split-level or a new McMansion.  The McMansions are costlier and thus a more reliable signal to the world of your ability to pay for something more costly, and thereby indirectly a signal of your ability to earn more, and thus a signal of some desirable attribute on your part — you’re smart or hard-working or good at office politics or have a fancy degree from a fancy school or something.

Now if you happen to live in one of the older split-levels (which are perfectly comfortable houses, by the way), you could try to convince people that you just prefer living more modestly.  But doing so invites invidious inferences.  Maybe you just can’t afford enough to buy the McMansion.  Maybe you’re just not smart enough to get a higher-paying job.  Maybe you’re just unsociable and just weird. So if you don’t want to bleed from those thousand little cuts, you end up trying to buy the McMansion.  Better put in those hours at the office!  Hope you enjoy them…

And so people engage in their consumer status arms races against each other while slaving away.  A good book to read in some ways on this is Geoffrey Miller’s Spent:  Sex, Evolution, and Human Behavior. His diagnosis, at least at the level of individual human psychology, is good. 

His proposed policy solution won’t come even close to working. The race for status — and the corresponding misery it generates — is one which very few if any can escape.

  8 Responses to “You work too hard”

  1. Got any more evidence for the claim that “For most people work ranges between pretty unpleasant to very unpleasant”? The two pieces you point to seem far too weak to support it.

    A single lawyer complaining is a pretty small sample size, plus he is hardly representative of people who work. Maybe the pay for being in his position is high because it is particularly unpleasant.

    As for the fact that people would mostly not do their work if they weren’t paid, that only shows that removing a salary would make their work low enough priority that it would not get done. As there are indescribably many pleasant things which are still not the best thing to do at any given moment, this does not say much about pleasantness. Except that jobs are not so pleasant as to be worth devoting half our waking hours to just for kicks. Which is hardly news – is anything that pleasant?

    • Very pleased to see you here.

      My initial reaction was to this inquiry after evidence was “you mean, isn’t it just self-evident?” But it’s a serious question and I’ll take a stab at it.

      Much of this is driven by personal observation in a professional context and represents my best inference about the people I meet there. Possibly the lawyers you know are different, but I’ve met a lot both in a work context and among my former students and while Jonathan Foreman might represent an advanced case, his experience doesn’t seem all that atypical compared to folks I actually know.

      My own experience is buttressed by memory and introspection. The grim irony is that I have had a job (maybe two) where I actually enjoyed what I was doing — this would be focusing just on the work itself, not on stuff like how much it paid or how much status it conveyed. The enjoyable job actually paid relatively little and conveyed relatively modest status (high because of what it was affiliated with, but discounted because it was very junior and paid little). For all that I often think I would have kept it, had it not been a temporary (though potentially renewable) position and had I thus not faced the likelihood of a near-future in which my employers budget for people like me would run out leaving me broke and unemployed. All the same, I really liked getting out of bed and going in to the office in the morning. I went on to a much higher-paid job, and that job often requires and act of will to get out of bed and head off to. So I know the difference between work that’s pleasant and unpleasant in itself. I also have a decent sense of what it is that most people have to do all day, and most of it seems to much more strongly resemble the later job rather than the earlier, pleasant job. There just aren’t that many enjoyable jobs. Now it could be that I’m just unusual and end up being made more unhappy by normal work than other people. This is possible, but generally I proceed from the assumption that I’m like other people. I know very few people — other than perhaps a handful of tenured academics — who regard what they actually do on a day-to-day basis as much other than an ordeal to be gotten through on the way to whatever they consider their real lives.

      Now I’m open to the objection that this is just one person’s experience (although I do think at this point I have a fair amount of it). It could be discounted because perhaps I see the world through jade-colored glasses or perhaps I just happen to live in an unusually unpleasant corner of the professional world. I’ll try to dig in a little deeper here and see if I can pull up something more systematic. Although in so doing I have to ask what you think would count. I should note that I tend to distrust many self-reports, because most people are pretty good at internalizing the lesson that complainers are unloved. (This might be one way in which I am different from other people.)

    • Also (with due respect for the fact that I’ve undercut it with my remark about self-reports) there appear to be quite a few reports like this one.

  2. I think your comments on why people work also apply to why people enter monogamous relationships. Especially this:

    Now if you happen to live in one of the older split-levels (which are perfectly comfortable houses, by the way), you could try to convince people that you just prefer living more modestly. But doing so invites invidious inferences. Maybe you just can’t afford enough to buy the McMansion. Maybe you’re just not smart enough to get a higher-paying job. Maybe you’re just unsociable and just weird. So if you don’t want to bleed from those thousand little cuts, you end up trying to buy the McMansion. Better put in those hours at the office! Hope you enjoy them…

    Maybe you just aren’t good enough to GET a monogamous partner . . .

    • You have anticipated the next post on the theme, which was going to be (largely) on just this subject. Guess I’ll just have to commit more energy to the undertaking to make it interesting. :-) But just for the record, the additional commitment won’t count as working to hard, since it will be — dare I say it — unalienated labor?

    • Can’t the invidious inferences go the other way if something non-monogamous is the norm, or a status considered superior to the norm? That is, “maybe you just aren’t good enough for your partner to let you fool around with others. . .”.

      This is hypothetical, of course, although some in some communities monogamy and non-monogamy are considered equally standard (which happen to be the two communities I spend most of my social time in: a gay community and an artsy, foodie, Burning Man / Firefly community). The invidious inferences can still be made in these communities, however, if someone is thought to prefer non-monogamy or has had a non-monogamous past, but is observed to be with a partner who requires monogamy.

      So basically I want to say that Sister Y’s comment is contingent on monogamy being hegemonic. If polyamory were hegemonic, then we’d be in a world where it made sense to say that people enter polyamorous relationships to avoid invidious inferences.

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