Further Readings

AN OPEN LETTER TO WORKAHOLICS

AUGUST 2011

We work very hard convincing ourselves that we work very hard. We tell ourselves we are a nation of workaholics. And we tell ourselves workaholism is very bad. I beg to differ.

[Important disclaimer before proceeding: This blog speaks to college-educated Americans in professional jobs, and is not meant to speak to the tens of millions of Americans in more difficult circumstances.]

First, we are not workaholics. True, we have less vacation time than our social-democrat friends in Western Europe; true that inventions like the smart-phone have expanded the reach of the office into our evenings and weekends. But we still manage to watch more television, patronize more sporting events, and attend more movies than nearly anyone. Evenings and weekends used to be for second incomes or urgent domestic responsibilities; now they’re for shuttling kids to electives, Facebook, and American Idol. I don’t begrudge time spent on these things, but if a few hours are lost on a Saturday to working late on a proposal, or if one of Junior’s piano lessons are missed because of a call with the CEO, it is hardly oppression. Our grandparents worked hard manual-labor jobs that mangled their limbs and shortened their lives. We work in air conditioned offices where the greatest occupational hazard is a big butt.

Second, our work is not bad—for those of us with advanced degrees, this is the golden age of work. Our bosses are generally nice and flex-time/flex-place policies give us choices. More important, work itself is more empowered— IT advances have freed us from typewriters, carbon paper and adding machines. While we all have our favorite peeve about computers, they multiply our productivity and creativity. When we work late, it is rarely based on a command from the boss, it is because we have a genuine interest doing a good job and find our projects interesting or important. We are the products of the first generation of parents who told their children “be what you want to be” and then wrote checks to enable it. At no time in human history has such a large cohort of people had the luxury of selecting their vocational track.

Yet the workaholic is a scourge. In the movies and TV, the workaholic is reduced to one of two caricatures: the amoral climber (i.e., Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock, Jason Alexander in Pretty Woman), or the nearly-irredeemable protagonist awaiting rebirth (i.e., Charlie Sheen in Wall Street, Nicholas Cage in The Family Man). We love slackers: Harold & Kumar, Mr. Deeds, Norm from Cheers, and pretty much every character from any Jud Apatow movie. Working hard for your employer is uncool, perhaps even a moral defect.

We’d all like a little more pay, vacation, job security, or stability in the 401K. But let’s not lose sight of how lucky we are: We selected our professions, work in jobs that don’t harm us, and are increasingly free from the drudgery and discrimination that dominated the office just two generations ago. Especially at a time of economic insecurity, pause and reflect on your good job and the many good people without one. And don’t complain if you miss a few innings of the baseball game because of the memo you stayed late to draft.