Are workaholics a danger to society?

The Economist’s new 1843 periodical asked me to write a short theme on that question, here is the result:

Work? What is work anyway? I’m a writer on economics and thus also a reader.  I don’t find writing to be so hard, but I need something to write about and that means reading. For me, working more means reading more. And you know what? Working less also means reading more. It does however mean reading different things.

If I worked less, I would read more fiction and less non-fiction. Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps the fiction enriches me more as a human being, but I enjoy reading the non-fiction (including The Economist) just as much, sometimes more.

Plus I get paid, usually indirectly, for absorbing non-fiction material, playing with the ideas, and converting them into content for others. I enjoy earning that money, and spending it.

Also, most fiction isn’t that good. In fact, it isn’t even true. Or if it is true, it is true by coincidence or accident. That’s not a complaint, but I don’t see why I should give up cash income for the privilege of giving up reality. Can it be such a winning bargain to give up cash and reality at the same time? It’s not, and I won’t. Unless it’s Star Wars or Elena Ferrante.

Otherwise, see you at work.

Tyler Cowen, George Mason University

Here is the whole symposium, which includes Diane Coyle and Daniel Hamermesh.  This was all inspired by Ryan Avent’s excellent recent essay on work-life balance.


Would a workaholic accept paid family and medical leave?

Sure. A workaholic has a whole list of chores that have been building up for years and this is the perfect excuse to knock them out.

I've always wanted to be an alcoholic but never have had the time.

Work is the bane of the drinking class.

"I’ve always wanted to be an alcoholic but never have had the time."

Well that seems like a prioritization failure. Priorities man, priorities.

"Facts are not merely finding a footing-place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything. They are vulgarising mankind."

Of course you workaholics are a danger. You suck up all the available income and you make us lay-abouts look really, really lazy and worthless.

I made a lot of money working for a workaholic, but I didn't like being expected to work like a workaholic.

I did not make a lot of money working for a workaholic, and I didn’t like being expected to work like a workaholic, so I got out of that situation fast.

It is the workaholics expectation that everyone else should do the thing that workaholics think are fun that is dangerous. Also you have a job that involves reading so your work/life balance complements both sides. That's great, but not easily generalizable.

How is it 'dangerous'?

Think Straussian.

"Work", "Labor", the "Disutility of Labor", and "Leisure" are intensely studied economic issues over the past two centuries ... how can any professional economist be seriously asking "What is work anyway?" ..... and then launching it into some casual chat about personal reading habits?

One needs to carefully read between the lines on the original post. What is unsaid is much more revealing than what is said.

Workahol, ahh workahol, how I love to hate thee. Am I the only one who finds the word "workaholic" ridiculous? It's almost as silly as as using "-gate" as a suffix to indicate a scandal.

The "aholic" part of X-aholic to me means, "doing so much of X that if affects your personal relationships."

So if your spouse and/or kids don't mind you working a lot, no problem.

You must not know any chocoholics.

I believe Cowen is making the point that, for him, there is little distinction between work and non-work (leisure). I understand he likes to travel, but even travel for him is simultaneously work and leisure, a learning experience that he converts into a sharing (teaching) opportunity, for which he is both paid and receives admiration among his peers. Life is good! I recall the observation that most people are so busy making a living they don't have the time to earn very much money. And it's equally true that most people are so busy with work they don't have much time for leisure. A friend asked why I would spend time during my work day writing comments on an economics blog that nobody cares to read when I could be billing (working) my time. My answer was that writing the comments is work, a way to practice my analytical and written advocacy skills, the "work" for which I am paid. Reading and writing for leisure is really no different from reading and writing for work, the former improving the latter. Life is good!

Obligatory comment about the likely quality of your work

He's already written a book on eating lunch. He hasn't done a travel book yet, has he?

I suppose most "workaholics" are lightly supervised with a lot of independence about what they will do day-to-day and hour-to-hour. Also, that they count a lot of activities like eating dinner or reading blogs as part of their work time. Are there assembly-line workers or supervisors who would work double shifts every day of the year if they could?

About 15 years ago, a couple of labor economists (who were of course working and playing at the same time) tried to measure the gap between hour reported working and hours of actually working. I can't remember the methodology, but those reporting 80 hours usually were not working close to that - also true for those reporting 60 hour work weeks. The closer the reported hours were to 30, the more accurate the claim.

Being at the office for 12-16 hour days is just a signaling. No one, repeat no one despite claims to the contrary, can work effectively for 16 hours day after day, week after week.


Once I showed up at home at 6pm.

My daughter asked my wife:

"What's wrong. Is dad sick?"

If you are more efficient, you do not need to work late and on every week-end. In fact, if you do, you get more inefficient because you think you have the time to do something later that you should do now.

"if you do not" you get more efficient.

I don't know how it is for you, but for me, work is theoretically infinite. There's always SOMETHING more to be done, and work will consumer every single waking hour (and sleeping hour!) if you let it.

"No one, repeat no one despite claims to the contrary, can work effectively for 16 hours day after day, week after week. "

My limit is 13 hour days, 12 days straight. Which is a routine installation schedule in engineering. You start on Monday, work through the "shutdown" weekend to the next Friday. Technically 12 hour shifts, but you have to overlap and update the guy working the opposite 12. So it generally averages 13 hours, despite exhortations to get everybody out on time.

Generally, speaking, I always push to get everyone off on the second Friday. After 11 days of that everyone's productivity is declining, the last Friday will see little productive output and everyone will show up haggard if they don't get a 3 day weekend.

Sounds like your work is not your leisure. Sad!

I get the feeling Elon Musk is an exception.

The weasel word in that sentence was, of course : 'effectively', you can twist the definition in any way such that you are correct about any person.

In actual fact in many professions working more than 40 hours, in some cases far more than 40 hours per week, adds substantively to short term output and tremendously to long term productivity. It is this second term, the long term increase in productivity, caused by increased work experience, which is almost always ignored by those who argue against more than 40 hours of work.

Watch/study the work patterns of almost anyone who is doing well in their profession and you will find someone who earlier in their career burnt the midnight oil.

But hey, keep on believing that more hours are harmful. Continue believing that it was entirely luck that some are accomplished while you are not. Who am I to dissuade you from you core beliefs?

Most people I see "doing well" are shifting positions and job responsibilities substantially. They put in a lot of hours, but they are not gaining experience in any particular function. They are GSD: Getting Stuff Done.
No matter how much the GMU Economics Department glorifies business, this is how it actually works: "Hey, this file didn't balance. We deducted $1,000 from you for some reason. Can you tell us why we deducted money from you?"
And then it becomes a game of constantly following up, because lazy jerks don't want to do their job. If I am very lucky, I get to hold leverage over someone, and I get to pound them into the freakin' ground so they actually DO THEIR JOB.
And don't even get me started on that "offshore labor" that "handles" all our drudgery. There's a reason they are dirt poor, and it's because they are dirt dumb.

I've noticed just the opposite with colleagues and a couple friends. You should make a conscious effort to cut back your productive work time by about 20%. Depending on your profession, I bet you get a promotion and/or start bringing in more clients. I'm not saying working a bit less is actually better for your professional achievements, but it almost always helps in one's personal life and--again, just in my observations--it doesn't hurt your career long-term. So why work the ridiculous hours, if the standard 40-50 gets you to the same place? If you're like Tyler and work is leisure, sure. Otherwise doesn't make much sense.

Perhaps there are short periods of time where a 70-80 hour week is really needed to get something done. But if you're doing that on any regular basis, you should be booking in time to plan better. But in professions like law, accounting or medicine, I think a lot of that time is basically doing a lot of routine stuff, and the more time you spend doing routine stuff, in addition to the vast minor variations, the better you get at doing them quickly and correctly assessing how to quickly and correctly deal with the more minor variations.

I work as a teacher. If I taught twice as many classes, I would almost certainly be much less productive because I would be less patient and care less about each class.

I also work as a translator and editor. Especially in translating, the more work I do, the higher quality and faster output I can produce.

You don't know Jim Harbaugh.

"Are there assembly-line workers or supervisors who would work double shifts every day of the year if they could?"

LOL, yes, notoriously so. It's a common worker gripe that, X is always getting a ton of extra overtime hours. And the manager asks the worker complaining if they are willing to work this Saturday, and the inevitable response, is "No, I've got something to do on Saturday."

I know a maintenance tech who managed to work over 70 hours per week for a three year period, because he always volunteered to cover every open shift, weekend and holiday. The engineers were complaining because he was making decidedly more money than they were.

I think we need to make a distinction between idea work and manufacturing work. I think there's only a certain amount of new information a person can absorb in a day, and only a certain amount of new ideas they can have from what they have absorbed, so additional time spent beating your head against a problem is going to have steeply diminishing returns. For these people, a fixed wage per day seems right, without strict regard to hours at the desk.

On the other hand, when you're weaving fibers together or soldering components to circuit boards, your output is highly dependent and almost linear with time spent. And your compensation should be linear too.

The scientific definition of work requires physical change, "In physics, a force is said to do work if, when acting on a body, there is a displacement of the point of application in the direction of the force." By this definition, sitting around thinking isn't work, even if it's tiring. People get tired by simply being awake for an extended period. Furthermore, any and all thought is meaningless until it's been applied physically, which is work. Sitting in an office at a university thinking isn't work, because that thinking doesn't exist until it's applied in a physical environment. Tyler Cowen can ruminate for hours on the merits of a new form of taco but no actual work is done until somebody writes a recipe for that taco or actually makes one. Thinkers don't work, brick layers do.

So let me understand this. You think that the virtual reality our overlords supply is superior to the "fiction" generated within that virtuality? Am I understanding you correctly?

"If I worked less, I would read more fiction and less non-fiction. Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps the fiction enriches me more as a human being, but I enjoy reading the non-fiction (including The Economist) just as much, sometimes more."

This doesn't make sense to me. If you enjoy the non-fiction more, why not keep reading it even if you don't have to for work?

I like pointing out you count The Economist as non-fiction. There's something subtle in that.

Somehow I hink you'd get different answers if, instead of asking academics you asked middle class people trying to put their kids through college on a median income. Being a workaholic isn't really an option for a lot of people - not if they are trying to be good parents and good citizens.

Of course, we could always tell them to find a better 'work/life balance'. Reality and your kid's futures can wait while you find yourself.

Of course it's an option. Many, many people save nothing for college and retirement, and they get by just fine. Their choices are constrained: you don't retire to the beach-house on SS, and you don't get the best options for college if junior isn't really clever, but nobody dies.

Honestly, I'm just surprised TC likes Star Wars....

There are those for whom work is not work, but most workaholics work to avoid the rest of their lives.

Yes, i agree with you. I know people like that.

Not to be THAT guy, but the work of a tenured college professor often borders on leisure.

If he won a $5 million lottery, Professor Cowen would undoubtedly continue to maintain this blog, conduct research, create Podcasts, etc.

If my bus driver won a $5 million lottery, I doubt she would continue to wake up at 5:30AM every day to ride a bus for the city.

There's work and then there's "work".

Yes, it's easy to "work" when you don't actually do drudgery. Thing is, many office or "knowledge" jobs are still drudgery. One of my most career-hating friends is a nuclear engineer. That's not mindless piece work we can send to China.

A few problems with The Economist essay that inspired Cowen:

1) Again, we won't know if Keynes was correct for another 13 years in 2029 when laptops (or whatever computers look like then) will be well beyond the "human brain equivalent" that should begin by 2023. Virtual reality will also be everywhere in the early 2020s, both of which will be enough to turn all jobs including professional ones upside down. What will emerge should be much better. Maybe.

2) Ryan Avent wrote: "As productivity rose across the rich world, hourly wages for typical workers kept rising and hours worked per week kept falling – to the mid-30s, by the 1970s..." No, it held steady. I see for white males: 1929 - 50 hours; 1945 - 40 hours; 1960 - 43 hours; 1970 - 43 hours; 1980 - 43 hours. (White females dropped from 41 hours in 1950 to 36 hours in 1980 but since women worked outside the home much less often then, the typical worker hours hardly changed.)

3) He also wrote, "But as hours have lengthened..." But again, this isn't so and there has been a small decline from 2000.

Otherwise, I thought it was a good essay.

Is everyone here childless or something? Tyler is describing a dichotomy of work vs leisure. Sure, maybe some child-rearing is work and some child-rearing is leisure; however, some of our leisure is child-rearing and none of our work is child-rearing. To the extent that one's work interferes with whatever the optimal child-rearing would be for a given kid, too much work could end up being bad for society.

The idea that people like Ryan Avent and Tyler - no offense to them personally - could have anything useful to say about "work-life balance" to a normal person borders on the preposterous. Of course being a well-known academic or a writer for The Economist is fun and generally pleasant! This fact is of essentially no use to the mass of people who do not have access to such jobs.

And I'm not even just talking about your factory workers or your retail salespeople. I, like most people I know, am an educated professional with a white-collar job that falls within the realm of "knowledge work" or "creative work." The fact is, most people in this category are not well-known academics or journalists affiliated with prestigious publications, or even software engineers at Google or Facebook. Most of them have jobs that *sort of* look like those jobs, but aren't really. They work for a niche news website, or a small law firm; they do security audits for a manufacturing company rather than product development for Google. The experience of having a job like this isn't bad, per se, and can even sometimes be interesting. But it is very very different from the kind of work that Ryan or Tyler does.

The problem comes in when people confuse the two, and expect that the large number of people with workaday knowledge jobs should behave like the small number of people with prestigious knowledge jobs. Conflating the two is quite easy, and so this is a common misconception. Most people do not have the luxury of being able to say "I enjoy answering emails at 11pm, because this likely entails an interesting discussion of the issues of the day." This is not how most work, even most work that is ostensibly creative or knowledge-based, well, works. There is simply not enough well-paid, interesting and engaging work to go around for all the people who would like to do that.

And, like I said, this isn't even getting into the masses of people who do not have knowledge jobs at all, who are even further from the likes of Ryan and Tyler than I am (and are probably not the intended audience for an essay in 1843). People, like me, with knowledge jobs are an elite; people, like Ryan and Tyler, with *prestigious* knowledge jobs are an elite inside of an elite. Extrapolating their experiences out into the general population - even the general population of well-paid knowledge workers - is silly, and useless for anyone outside their small caste.


Or, you can assume Tyler was just signaling that he works hard and reads a lot, but so does a night nurse at a hospital who belongs to multiple book clubs.


To be fair, I'm quite sure Tyler does read a lot. And I don't think Tyler or Ryan are wrong in their own estimations of how work fits into their lives. I just think their views on this are of limited - or arguably even negative - usefulness for most people.

Workaholic as a concept, seems a sort of beldn of a couple of naturally disaggregated things.

Hobbyholics, who are obsessed with a special interest and will devote a great deal of time to it, seem like they have useful benefits to others.

Cashaholics, who are obsessed with the number on their bank balance and how much they own, are of more dubious value.

Hard to think the world would necessarily be worse off with fewer cashaholics. Same rat race, maybe slightly smaller numbers on the money. I suspect most of what is worthwhile in our world would still exist if people pursued only what was necessary to ensure survival, or what was of a special interest to them and had little specific interest in or affection for money.

Mind, even with the Stakhanovite hobbyholics, I do see a risk, that society can become so dependent on their high level, high input labour, that it is never forced to the crisis where it tests whether it can do without them, and finds that, yes, it can. An excess of dedication and focus can disguise fundamental inefficiencies.

I probably fall into the workoholic category. But I don't know if it's because I love my work, I think its more that I am a highly conscientious person. I can't just do my job, I feel I have to the best job I can. I don't mean I am perfectionist, if I need to I am perfectly capable of cutting things short. But I always think I can always be more prepared and always there are more projects and opportunities that I can check out for my company. So I end up feeling guilty if I leave on time or don't work at weekends. I think that means I probably can retire when/if I decide to do so, I simply will transfer this high conscientiousness to other things. But for the time being, my personal defect is providing me with a nice living.

Good comment and interesting observation. I'm curious if you were taught from a young age to work hard, and always do your best? I wonder if we are trained. My suspicion is most of us are taught the value of hard work with only far secondary emphasis placed on doing the things we love. In some ways, we're probably taught to not do follow our interests.

No, my parents were basically dirt poor hippies, after he left the services my dad didn't work for anyone ever again (he tried lots of business ideas but none of them really worked). I had lots of brothers and sisters and my parents basically left us to do what we wanted. And the village I lived in was highly rural with low expectations for anyone - I was literally the first person from my school to graduate from college. I think it is one of those innate tendencies - I did my homework even when no-one was bugging me to do it. It was hard, all the other kids would be off playing or watching TV, but somehow I decided that this needed to be done if I was ever to make something of myself.

Chris, thanks for that. I was betting on nurture, but in your case it sounds more like nature.

When I was 19 I worked in a union shop. My job responsibility was the only one that basically consisted of "whatever the boss wanted me to do". Everyone else did their own job only and never performed the labor of another employee. One day when one of two workers who operated the measurement equipment was out sick my boss had me and my co-worker run the measuring machine. I noticed we were getting the evil eye from the other worker. After awhile he came over to us and told us we were going too fast and it made everyone else look bad. What did we want? to make the union have to renegotiate the wage rate?

Another time my co-worker and I were asked by the boss at 4:30 to load a big truck so it could get out of there by 5:00 pm. So we did, it was a simple matter of hustling and working in tandem to get the truck loaded and out of there. BUT in the process we did what the union described as two hours of work each in a half an hour. So we were told to stay and sit in the break room for an hour and a half (on overtime) before we clocked out.

The union ran the company into the ground. The buildings were were in once mployeed thousands of people, the grounds and empty building were so extensive you could literally get lost wondering around. But when I worked there there were maybe a 100 or less still working there. A few years later the company moved those jobs offshore along with the thousands they had already exported.

Clearly workaholics are a danger to unions.

Tyler talks about work here and why we haven't seen Keynes' predicted 15 hour work week:

and concludes that (if I'm remembering correctly) people like to work more than we think, people like money perhaps more than we think. Also, perhaps we like work better than being around our family, and not attributing much of the idea of workaholics to status seeking. I enjoyed the talk quite a bit.

I have a hard time reconciling the conclusion with the observation that so many of my friends "say" they don't really like their jobs, and it seems to me there is much status seeking involved in work. On the other hand, I agree that for many people being around family for long periods might be quite stressful and not always an improvement.

We haven't seen Keynes's 15 hour work week because it ain't 2029 yet. 13 years to go is *yuge* when on an exponentially increasing computer power curve.

Ray Kurzweil said that he and Larry Page discussed this a few years ago where Page thought coming automation would significantly increase leisure time. But Kurzweil countered that people don't need or want so much leisure time - they want to do jobs that gives they enjoy.

I think Tyler might be worried that it will be 2029, and he'll still be stuck in his dead end job, surrounded by TAs, where he is forced to blog, give talks around the world and eat at great restaurants. But I think Uncle Ray is correct that there really is a better future out there for the Cowens of the world.

How can an brazen hype merchant like Kurzweil fool the rubes for so long?

I have had many criticisms of Kurzweil since 2004 when I first heard of his predictions. Many of his predictions coincide with mine.And both of us have been off. But the point is that almost no one thinks about exponential computer power so they think cancer cures and machine translation are 50 or 100 years away.

Robert Gordon thinks driverless cars are 35 years away. Paul Krugman thinks the ideal time to live was in the 1950s. Tyler Cowen thinks that there is a mythical "Great Stagnation" until 20 flippin' 40!

Sigh. social scientists with absolutely no background in science or technology. But they are good people ! (grin)

Tons of people think about "exponential computing power". It's called Moore's Law. And it's over. Growth is no longer exponential.

This is a misunderstanding.

Growth is still on the exponential curve. Moore's Law began with the transistor but vacuum tubes came before that and along the same curve. Moore's Law will likely end around 2022 but there are many alternatives that will keep the "Law of Accelerating Computer Power" for at least to 2030.

Without jobs the losers that make up the overwhelming majority of modern technological society wouldn't have any idea of how to spend their day. In fact, those that are currently unemployed devote their time to youtube cat videos, Seinfeld re-runs, text messaging and eating. In the pre-electronic age they were engaged in weeding potatoes, shoveling coal and washing clothes by hand. Perhaps aimless leisure is a good thing. Who knows?

I think this post and the contribution to 1843 is just to conceal that Tyler is really Elena Ferrante. I won't tell.

Fiction from the second half of the 20th century sucks as do all existentialists. Doing what you love and making money at it is heaven on earth.

If I worked less, I would read more fiction and less non-fiction. Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps the fiction enriches me more as a human being, but I enjoy reading the non-fiction (including The Economist) just as much, sometimes more.

How do you find novels to read? I feel like the older I get the more disappointed I am with most novels, and the harder it is for me to find novels that are just competent, let alone good. I'm a third of the way through Alexander Chee's The Queen of the Night and it's okay, but the retrospective structure is all wrong and all the characters are empty. I get the callbacks to Moll Flanders and Madame Bovary and other fun pieces, but the narrative is just not quite right.

It's difficult to define how self-directed work is different than leisure, if you really enjoy your work. I think that is Tyler's point. If others are willing to buy down your leisure by modestly shifting your activity mix, that makes being a workaholic fairly painless. That's a pretty satisfying position to be in. To have bet on oneself and to have won is a fairly deep reward.

"Also, most fiction isn’t that good. In fact, it isn’t even true. Or if it is true, it is true by coincidence or accident. That’s not a complaint, but I don’t see why I should give up cash income for the privilege of giving up reality. Can it be such a winning bargain to give up cash and reality at the same time? It’s not, and I won’t. Unless it’s Star Wars or Elena Ferrante."

What is your definition of "true"? And are you saying that all non-fiction resides within this definition and all fiction does not?

Yes, really: this contention is bizarre. It strikes me as similar to "Most sculpture isn't true" or "Most symphonies aren't true." These are not things making truth claims, and thus true and not-true don't apply to them. Because most affection is not larger than 17 doesn't mean it is smaller than 17: it means you are asking a nonsense question.

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