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Op-ed: Overworked and undercooked

By Ryan Cooper

Special to The Washington Post

First Published Jan 21 2014 03:39 pm • Last Updated Jan 21 2014 03:39 pm
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The jobs created during the agonizingly slow recovery from the Great Recession have largely been low-paying, part-time positions. Strikes and other worker movements have often featured demands for more working hours — quite a contrast to the early days of industrial capitalism, which focused on the eight-hour workday (as opposed to 10) — and the 40-hour workweek. The left has rightly focused a lot of attention on this lack of work.

What has gotten less attention is how many people at the top have been doing the opposite. Among elite professions, working absurd hours is not just common but practically universal. What people tend to overlook is that working too much is bad even for elites. Research shows that overworked people are unhappy, less productive and tend to burn out — meaning that forcing one’s employees to consistently work more than 40 hours is a poor business decision.

This suggests that today’s economy is terrible in many ways even for much of the elite. Policies such as a return to a strict 40-hour workweek would have substantial benefits across the board. Democrats and the professional class ought to take notice.

James Surowiecki talked about this overworked elite in a blog post Monday: "Thirty years ago, the best-paid workers in the U.S. were much less likely to work long days than low-paid workers were. By 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating. A 2008 Harvard Business School survey of a thousand professionals found that 94 per cent worked 50 hours or more a week, and almost half worked in excess of 65 hours a week. Overwork has become a credential of prosperity."

And blogger Hugh Hancock breaks down the reality of putting in 80-hour workweek "death marches": "Long term, death marches don’t give you more productive time. . . . If you work more time than your comfortable maximum and keep doing it, your productivity will drop and keep dropping. Quite rapidly, you will become less productive than you would be if you worked 40 hours. Working 80 hours a week for a year might feel productive, but you’ll be getting less done than if you worked 30. . . .

"So what’s a death march good for? A death march lets you steal time. You can’t work 80 hours for the next three months and double your productivity. But you can work 80 hours a week for the next three weeks and double what you get done — provided you’re willing to accept that in the three weeks after that, your output will be functionally identical to that of a lightly-reheated blancmange."

But elite workers are ending up 100 percent blancmange, all the time.

I don’t mean to say that the plight of the "overemployed" is comparable to that of the unemployed but rather that today’s economy stinks even for people raking in substantial sums.


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The political upshot is that Democrats shouldn’t fear full-bore economic justice — there are likely to be substantial benefits even for much of the top.



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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