America’s Fever of Workaholism Is Finally Breaking
For the first time in 50 years, the rich are buying more free time.
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One of the weirdest economic stories of the past half century is what happened to rich Americans—and especially rich American men—at work.
In general, poor people work more than wealthy people. This story is consistent across countries (for example, people in Cambodia work much more than people in Switzerland) and across time (for example, Germans in the 1950s worked almost twice as much as they do today).
But starting in the 1980s in the United States, this saga reversed itself. The highest-earning Americans worked longer and longer hours, in defiance of expectations or common sense. The members of this group, who could have bought anything they wanted with their wealth, bought more work. Specifically, from 1980 to 2005, the richest 10 percent of married men increased their work hours by more than any other group of married men: about five hours a week, or 250 hours a year.
In 2019, I called this phenomenon “workism.” In a time of declining religiosity, rich Americans seemed to turn to their career to fill the spiritual vacuum at the center of their life. For better or (very often) for worse, their desk had become their altar.
Since then, the concept of workism has been attached to a range of cultural and political phenomena, including declining fertility trends in the West. I’ve blamed workism for U.S. policies that resist national parental and sick leave because of an elite preference for maximizing the public’s attachment to the labor force.
Then the pandemic happened. I didn’t know how the forcible end of white-collar commutes and the demise of the default office would change affluent American attitudes. I assumed that remote work would make certain aspects of workism even more insidious. Researchers at Microsoft found that the boomlet in online meetings was pushing work into odd hours of the week, leading to more “just finishing up on email!” late nights, and Saturday mornings that felt like mini-Mondays. Working on our computer was always a “leaky” affair; with working from home and COVID, I feared the leak would become a flood.
But I was wrong. This year, Washington University researchers concluded that, since 2019, rich Americans have worked less. And less, and less. In a full reversal of the past 50 years, the highest-educated, highest-earning, and longest-working men reduced their working hours the most during the pandemic. According to the paper, the highest-earning 10 percent of men worked 77 fewer hours in 2022 than that top decile did in 2019—or 1.5 hours less each week. The top-earning women cut back by 29 hours. Notably, despite this reduction, rich people still work longer hours overall.
This analysis may have been thrown off by untrustworthy survey responses received during the chaos of the pandemic. But according to The Wall Street Journal, separate data from the Census Bureau back up that conclusion. From 2019 to 2021, married men reduced their workweek by a little more than an hour. Unmarried men had no similar decline.
So why are rich married men suddenly—and finally—reducing their working hours, by an unusual degree? Yongseok Shin, an economist at Washington University and a co-author of the paper, told me that he had “no doubt that this was a voluntary choice.” When I asked him if perhaps rich married men had worked less in dual-earner households to help with kids during the early pandemic period, he told me that their working hours continued falling in 2022, “long after the worst periods of school closures and issues with child-care centers.”
The title of the new paper is a bit misleading: “Where Are the Workers? From Great Resignation to Quiet Quitting.” The authors make frequent references to quiet quitting, the notion that workers in 2022 suddenly decided to reduce their collective ambition and effort. But their analysis doesn’t actually find anything like that. In the past three years, the median worker hardly reduced his or her hours. All of the decline in hours worked happened among the highest-earning Americans, with the longest workweeks. Is that an outbreak of quiet quitting? I’d say no. It’s more like the fever of workism is finally breaking among the most workaholic Americans.
“I think the pandemic has clearly reduced workaholism,” Shin told me. “And by the way, I think that’s a very positive thing for this country.”
I’m inclined to agree. In the years since I wrote the workism essay, I’ve toggled between two forms of writer’s guilt. Some days, I worry that I went too hard on people who are devoted to their job. If people can find solace and structure and a sense of control in their labor, who am I to tell them that they are suffering from an invisible misery by worshipping a false and marketized god?
But on other days, I think I wasn’t hard enough on workism, given how deeply it has insinuated itself into American values. The New York Times and Atlantic writer David Brooks has distinguished between what he calls “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” Résumé virtues are what people bring to the marketplace: Are they clever, devoted, and ambitious employees? Eulogy virtues are what they bring to relationships not governed by the market: Are they kind, honest, and faithful partners and friends?
Americans should prioritize eulogy virtues. But by our own testimony, we strongly prefer résumé virtues for ourselves and especially for our children. This year, Pew Research Center asked American parents: What accomplishments or values are most important for your children as they become adults? Nearly nine in 10 parents named financial security or “jobs or careers [our children] enjoy” as their top value. That was four times more than the share of parents who said it was important for their children to get married or have children; it was even significantly higher than the percentage of parents who said it’s extremely important for their kids to be “honest,” “ethical,” “ambitious,” or “accepting of people who are different.” Despite large differences among ethnicities in some categories, the primacy of career success was one virtue that cut across all groups.
I can’t read those survey results without thinking about the fact that teenage anxiety has been steadily rising for the past decade. Commentators sometimes blame a technological cocktail of smartphone use and social media for the psychological anguish of American youth. But perhaps a latent variable is the reverberation of workism in the next generation. These surveys suggest that everything society ought to consider bigger than work—family, faith, love, relationships, ethics, kindness—turns out to be secondary.
The message from American parents, in a century of economic instability, seems to be Your career is up here, and everything else is down there. Is there any scenario in which this is good for us? People can control their character in a way that they can’t control their lifetime earnings. In the ocean of the labor market, we’re all minnows, often powerless to shape our own destiny. It can’t be healthy for a society to convince its young people that professional success, the outcome of a faceless market, matters more to life than values such as human decency, which require only our own adherence.
I don’t know what will happen to workism in the next decade, but if rich American men are beginning to ease up on the idea that careerism is the tentpole of identity, the benefits could be immense—for their generation and the ones to come.