A nice post at the HBR blog by Silvia Bellezza, Neeru Paharia and Anat Keinan describes how being busy is now celebrated as a symbol of high status.
This is not natural. Marshall Sahlins has shown that in hunter-gather societies (which were the human condition for nine-tenths of our existence) people typically worked for only around 20 hours a week (pdf). In pre-industrial societies, work was task-oriented; people did as much as necessary and then stopped. Max Weber wrote:
Man does not “by nature” wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose. Wherever modern capitalism has begun its work of increasing the productivity of human labour by increasing its intensity, it has encountered the immensely stubborn resistance of this leading trait of pre-capitalistic labour. (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (pdf), p24)
The backward-bending supply curve of labour was normal.
E.P. Thompson has described (pdf) how pre-industrial working hours were irregular, with Mondays usually taken as holidays. He, and writers such as Sidney Pollard (pdf) and Stephen Marglin, have shown how the working day as we know it was imposed by ruthless discipline, reinforced by Christian moralists. (There’s a clue in the title of Weber’s book). Marglin quotes Andrew Ure, author of The Philosophy of Manufacturers in 1835:
The main difficulty [faced by Richard Arkwright] did not, to my apprehension, lie so much in the invention of a proper mechanism for drawing out and twisting cotton into a continuous thread, as in…training human beings to renounce their desultory habits of work and to identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automation. To devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory diligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Arkwright…It required, in fact, a man of a Napoleon nerve and ambition to subdue the refractory tempers of workpeople accustomed to irregular paroxysms of diligence.
Today, though, such external discipline is no longer so necessary because many of us – more so in the UK and US than elsewhere – have internalized the capitalist imperative that we work long hours, as Bellezza, Paharia and Keinan show*. Which just vindicates a point made by Bertrand Russell back in 1932:
The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.
In some cases, though, such long hours are inefficient even by capitalistic standards. In fund management, for example, laziness can pay off**. Shann Turnbull’s idea of the cybernetic company suggests that a well-run firm should in many respects run itself without the need for busy management. And I suspect that in many creative occupations, we get our best ideas in the bath or just chilling.
Russell said that “a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work.” I suspect the harm isn’t just cultural – important as that is – but also economic. In fact, most economists agree we'd be happier of there were more public holidays.
All of this is, of course, a fancy way of saying that I’m going on holiday.
Happy Christmas everyone.
* Personally, I believe the opposite. If a man still needs to work hard after an Oxbridge education and thirty years of house price inflation, there's something wrong with him.
** One reason for this is that fund managers have only a handful of good ideas and time spent looking beyond these encounters diminishing returns. In fact, the returns might be negative, if research causes the manager to chase noise rather than buy genuinely under-priced assets.