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America’s rich: workaholics no longer?

Christian Bale putting his feet up in American Psycho (2000)

It was one of the “weirdest economic stories of the past half century”, says Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. In general, poor people work more than the rich: this is true across countries (Cambodians put in much longer hours than the Swiss) and across time (Germans in the 1950s worked “almost twice as much as they do today”). But in 1980s America, “in defiance of expectations or common sense”, this trend began to reverse. Between 1980 and 2005, the richest 10% of married US men increased their working week by five hours, or 250 hours a year. In a time of declining religiosity, many were using their career to “fill the spiritual vacuum” in their life. “Their desk had become their altar.”

Then the pandemic happened. Since 2019, rich Americans “have worked less. And less, and less.” The highest-earning 10% of men worked 77 fewer hours in 2022 than in 2019, or 1.5 fewer per week. The same isn’t true of Americans lower down the pay scale, who are typically working the same hours as they did before Covid. So what’s behind this shift? Presumably the pandemic made these high achievers reassess what was important in life: work, or everything else. Whatever the explanation, this development is surely worth celebrating: parents will spend more time with their kids; lawmakers might be pressured to provide more parental and sick leave. “The fever of workism is finally breaking among the most workaholic Americans.”