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Lives of Toil and Stress, Not Self Indulgence

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

In pop culture, images of wealthy executives usually connect the execs with yachts and swimming pools, golf-courses and ski lodges, Gulfstreams, and absurdly expensive restaurants. A more accurate portrayal would emphasize long hours, BlackBerry interruptions, punishing stress, lost sleep and missed family occasions. In ground-breaking work, Dalton Conley, chair of the sociology department at New York University, reveals that “it is now the rich who are the most stressed out and the most likely to be working the most. Perhaps for the first time since we’ve kept track of such things, higher-income folks work more hours than lower-wage earners do.” In the New York Times (September 2, 2008) he cited a study by economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano, showing that since 1980 the number of men in the bottom fifth of the income scale who work long hours (defined as more than 49 hours per week) dropped by half. At the same time, long weeks for the top fifth of earners increased a painful 80 percent.

“Today, the more we earn the more we work, since the opportunity cost of not working is all the greater,” Conley concludes. “In other words, when we get a raise, instead of using that hard-won money to buy ‘the good life,’ we feel even more pressure to work since the shadow costs of not working are all the greater.” A supporting study by Daniel Hammermesh and Jungmin Lee shows that women with higher incomes (purportedly leading pampered lives and relying on hired help) actually report feeling more stressed than women with lower incomes. More money doesn’t necessarily produce more comfort and leisure, but increases the sense of responsibility and challenge—the desire to use every available moment in a productive and beneficial way.

Daniel Gross, insightful and fearless columnist for Newsweek and Slate (and a repeat guest on my radio show) reached similar conclusions in a fascinating piece, “No Rest for the Wealthy,” in the New York Times Book Review (July 5, 2009). “In the contemporary money culture, to be at leisure, to be idle, is to be irrelevant… A great many people can afford not to work and could spend their time shuttling between multiple homes, eating fabulous meals and playing golf. Yet they continue to work around the clock… Among Type-A, self-made members of the leisure class, there’s a sort of reverse prestige associated with leisure.” Gross noted that the yearly World Economic Forum at the glorious Alpine resort of Davos allowed few of the movers and shakers to relax. “At Davos, which is filled with conspicuous consumers, the only people who ski are the journalists.”

In other words, an all-consuming ethic of effort and a constitutional allergy to wasted time contribute significantly to the well-publicized success of most leaders of American business. These CEO’s, as well as most middle managers, affirm the eternal connection between economic advancement and hard work.

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