Choosing a Path of Lower Pay

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s what one recent study suggested among an averaged cohort of women, highlighted by Derek to underscore the “workaholic mania among educated wealth-seeking American men”:

A new study of several hundred NYU undergrads (elite students, not average 20-year-olds) found that young men and women with similar SAT scores express starkly diverging visions of their ideal job. Young female students, on average, say they prefer jobs with more stability and flexibility—“lower risk of job loss, lower hours, and part-time option availability”—while male students, on average, say they prefer more earnings growth …

Often the cost of that bigger paycheck is a little thing called happiness:

[T]here is evidence that women in the U.S. and in other rich countries are happier at the office, because they have sought out work that is more flexible. Female employees report being happier than men at work, according to a 2014 study by the Council on Contemporary Families.

That’s just one of several studies Derek cites, so it’s worth reading the whole post. It stoked a lot of discussion from readers, foremost among them Ethan Ash:

I don’t disagree with the basic premise of the article; I’ve observed the phenomena discussed here throughout my life. But my question is this: Isn’t life about choices?

If these men are happy to work hard and pursue the goals they’ve set, who’s to say that they’re wrong to do so? The final line of this article— “Sometimes, the winners of a tournament are the ones who choose not to enter it”—implies that they might very well be.

It might drive inequality or wage gaps, but that’s the point to them! They want to be on top. At a certain point worrying about this kind of inequality just escapes me. People working in high-value jobs at breakneck pace earn their compensation and choose their lifestyle. Isn’t, ultimately, the freedom to choose our lives what most people want most?

I’m not saying the wage gap should be “allowed.” Men and women doing the same work at the same level of quality deserve the same pay, hard stop. But if the men like those in the article work harder, produce higher quality work, or add more value and ultimately contribute to the statistical (or aggregate) wage gap, who’s to say they’re wrong for choosing that path?

Another reader responds to Ethan by shifting the argument a bit:

Thoughtful way to put it, but I think the problem is that there’s a bit of an category mistake to clear up. It’s not so much that these people are selecting for work. I guarantee that a day laborer on a potato farm or dairy could give any one of these young Masters of the Universe a run for their money in hours worked in much more difficult labor conditions, so it’s not purely work for the sake of work that’s animating them.

Rather, it’s that they are selecting for working insane hours at positions that have extremely high market value: finance, primarily. And those positions are 1) doing the grunt work for rent-seeking behavior which doesn’t help the economy and 2) exacerbates the inequality problem. In other words, their individual-level actions might well be virtuous (certainly, they are seen as such in a society that equates hard work with virtue as much as ours does), but they are nevertheless causing, perpetuating and accelerating structural vices that are tearing apart the country.

A differing view from this reader:

Person A is paid more because he or she produced more value or negotiated a better deal. Compensation generally has nothing to do with hard work and everything to do with produced value (or negotiated compensation for value). If tapping my finger once a day could earn you a million dollars, you wouldn't hesitate to pay me a hundred thousand dollars to tap that finger (or whatever we negotiated out). The fact that I basically just tapped a finger and didn’t work at all doesn’t figure into it. Meanwhile, someone who busted their ass to earn you a dollar might not be worth paying 50 cents.

From an ethical standard, it sounds nice to have a society in which compensation is based on effort, but in reality our market system keeps beating out all other approaches in terms of net prosperity produced.

Now we can debate how to maximize opportunity for individuals in our society and how to maximize the likelihood that our freely entered contracts are actually free and acceptable to all parties participating, but those are just details despite the apocalyptically self righteous rhetoric of our politicians. The big questions have already been answered, and rewarding hard work just isn’t part of the solution we’ve settled on.

Have any thoughts to add, pushing back on one of these arguments or a part of Derek’s piece? Drop us an email.