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PERSPECTIVE | MAGAZINE

Why are we obsessed with the idea of hard work?

In the race to be seen as diligent, it’s easy to overlook what’s being worked for.

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In 1825, some 800 Boston carpenters assembled in Concert Hall on Hanover Street. For months, these journeymen had been discussing the need to establish a limit, of 10 hours, on the working day. The carpenters voted for a strike. With these Boston artisans, the 10-hour movement was launched. In the decades that followed, the shortening of the workday was the central demand of the American labor movement.

But the 1825 strike quickly disintegrated. Their employers—the master carpenters—condemned the “pernicious evils” of the 10-hour day. Boston merchants joined the fight against the agitators, warning of the “idleness and vice” that would follow.

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This moralizing was self-interested, sure. But it also appealed to a reigning belief in the sanctity of work. In Boston, this Puritan “city on a hill” whose prosperity depended, in the words of John Winthrop, on “the sweat of our brows,” work was seen, by many, as life’s central moral activity.

The residues of Puritanism are not easily rubbed off. Hard work can, of course, be laudable. Through our exertions we provide for others’ needs and develop our talents: Health care workers, teachers, and public defenders often work brutally long hours in service to the public good. But the obsession with work ethic can also perform some unsavory functions. As was the case with the Boston carpenters, our moral ideas about work can help to enshrine the status quo and fortify the power of the rich.

One strange feature of our present economic order—especially visible in an educated and economically productive city such as Boston—is the solidification of a caste of hard-working professionals at the top of the income pyramid. Lawyers, financiers, consultants, and specialist doctors, notes the legal scholar Daniel Markovits in his recent book The Meritocracy Trap, increasingly report very long work hours, sometimes north of 70 hours a week.

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Financial incentives help to explain this behavior: These elite professionals are often lavishly compensated (making up, in Markovits’s estimation, about one-half of the top 1 percent of the income distribution). But cultural pressures matter too. For the titular character of Jack London’s 1909 novel Martin Eden, a poor but hard-working sailor who yearns to be a writer, it was “a point of pride” that “no man should...outwork him.” Many of today’s high-performing workers share Martin’s attitude. They anchor their personal identity in a sense of themselves as diligent, conscientious, and able to withstand unremitting torrents of labor.

This workaholism has spawned all sorts of strange rituals. One banker friend tells me that it is implicitly mandated for employees in his office to exit, at the end of the day, in order of seniority, much like actors in a play or courtiers at Versailles. You are not supposed to leave until your supervisor does, otherwise you reveal your laziness.

Another friend, a lawyer, informs me that some of his colleagues schedule e-mails to send in the middle of the night, in a deceptive display of round-the-clock productivity. From attorneys sleeping under their desks (why bother commuting when your workday lasts from 6 a.m. to midnight?) to marketing managers rigging their laptops to make their Slack icons appear permanently active, there is evidence everywhere of a work ethic grown pathological.

My chief concern, however, is not that some privileged professionals have trapped themselves in what Max Weber called the “iron cage” of the Protestant work ethic—their richly upholstered offices coming to seem more and more like prisons, as gray hour passes into gray hour. I am concerned, rather, with how these practices impede clear thinking about how and why we work.

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The real problem is that the onerous workloads on display at law firms, investment banks, consulting firms, and similar companies can, in some instances, operate as a form of moral whitewashing. Elite workaholism can disguise bad behavior from firms, as well as greed, vanity, and status-seeking from individuals. All this frantic work might be seen as a strategy of legitimation: a way for professionals to justify and defend their high incomes and elevated status.

Americans are trained to see industriousness as an overriding virtue. Whether employees are manufacturing steel tubes or defending fossil fuel companies, the fact of their diligence deserves praise. This worship of industriousness leads to a false belief in the morally cleansing power of work. Exhaustion affirms a worker’s moral hardiness, even if that worker is stripping a company for assets or pumping pollution into the sky.

This way of thinking about work is misguided. If employees’ work is harmful—if their company makes its money, for instance, by extracting or destroying value, rather than creating it—wouldn’t it be better to work less, not more? What really matters ethically is the effects of work, not work for its own sake. In practical terms, this means judging companies by their business models, not by how hard their employees work.

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It is time to abandon our commitment to industriousness as a cardinal virtue. Diligence should be regarded, instead, as an instrumental or secondary virtue: good when harnessed for good ends. Rather than applaud the hard-working rich for their conscientiousness, we should make sure we know what they are working for.


Charlie Tyson is a PhD candidate in English literature at Harvard, where he is completing a study of idleness in modern literature. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.