Mr. HalfFull subscribes to the Economist and often shares articles of interest with me. One entitled “Nice Work If You Can Get Out” piqued my interest. The author begins by comparing the leisure time of the rich and the poor in the past:
For most of human history rich people had the most leisure. In Downton Abbey, a drama about the British upper classes of the early 20th century, one aloof aristocrat has never heard of the term “weekend”: for her, every day is filled with leisure. On the flip side, the poor have typically slogged.
But today, the roles have reversed. Many wealthy people work long hours. According to the article:
Overall working hours have fallen over the past century. But the rich have begun to work longer hours than the poor.
Too Much Work
The Downton Abbey scenario of leisure was a bit ludicrous, but so is today’s workaholic lifestyle. Adopting that way of life encourages more people to compete on the same level. It’s become an expectation. Long hours are equated with status and rewards.
But what happened to working smarter and living a well-rounded life? It’s almost impossible to work around the clock and have time to sleep, exercise, and eat well…much less take time to relax.
How I Made Time
In 2009, one month before my wedding, I decided to drop down to 32 hours/week from a full-time schedule as a software engineer. I found it overwhelming to meet with different wedding vendors during the workweek and get all my work hours done.
Since I was single at the time and used employer-sponsored healthcare, I asked to change my schedule to the minimum number of hours per week that would allow me to maintain benefits. That turned out to be 32 hours/week.
I ended up working four days/week and took Wednesdays off. You may wonder why Wednesdays. Most people would probably pick Mondays or Fridays for a 3-day weekend. But I much preferred a break in the middle of the week, which provided me with 2-day workweeks. It was divine!
At the time, I worked for a small company. They were very supportive as long as my client didn’t mind. I wasn’t sure how my client would react since I was on a contract, but they also agreed and were happy that I wasn’t leaving completely.
I think the schedule made me a better employee because I was able to fully focus at work, knowing that I had a day to myself. Everyone has calls and appointments that can only be accomplished during business hours; I just scheduled mine for Wednesdays.
Once I got my 32-hour schedule, I never went back to full-time. For me, the time was more valuable than money. But I did meet with some resistance when the company was acquired.
We went through two acquisitions in two years, which took us from 50 employees to 450,000. It was a stark change of culture that was spelled out rather clearly from the start.
One of my first interactions with executives of the new company was during a half-day event to talk about the technical paths for advancement within the new company. In my breakout session, we ended up talking about schedule. The executive made it clear that part-time employees were not serious about their careers and had other priorities.
I took great offense at this. It was even suggested that perhaps women needed a more flexible schedule to care for children during certain times in their lives. But I didn’t have children, and children are not the only reason for a part-time schedule.
I knew I would not be taken seriously at that company. But I was grateful for my 32-hour schedule since their normal full-time schedule was even more than 40 hours/week (and no one got a pay increase for the extra hours). They reasoned that it was to make up for holidays and vacation.
But the point of holidays and vacation is to relax and rejuvenate to make you a better employee. Working more hours does not afford that wellbeing. Yet, my 32 hours protected my schedule and my sanity.
Why Do People Work More?
One of the reasons the author cites for longer work hours of the wealthy is the economic substitution effect:
Higher wages make leisure more expensive: if people take time off they give up more money.
I gave up 20% of my salary by going to 32 hours/week. Of course, having a higher salary is always nice, but I didn’t really need it. Sometimes a lower salary can put you in a lower tax bracket, so it could even out in the end.
Another reason cited for working more is that work is more interesting these days:
Work in advanced economies has become more knowledge-intensive and intellectual. There are fewer really dull jobs, like lift-operating, and more glamorous ones… Work has come to offer the sort of pleasures that rich people used to seek in their time off. On the flip side, leisure is no longer a sign of social power. Instead it symbolises uselessness and unemployment.
I don’t know about leisure being useless. People seem to brag about their beautiful vacations with plenty of photos on social media and stir envy in their friends.
I think the world will continue to toil for long hours around me. I just hope I’m not forced to join them at some point.
- Would you enjoy being a person of leisure in the Downton Abbey era?
- Does your lifestyle (balance between work, sleep, exercise, eating habits, relationships, leisure, etc.) reflect your values?
- If given the choice, how many hours would you work per week?
- How does your company feel about part-time workers?
- Do you work long hours because you have to or because you enjoy it?