Gene Expression

The wealthy work harder?

In response to a Conor Friedersdorf post on hard-working high earners I decided to look around for some data on the differences between socioeconomic categories in terms of hours worked weekly. In the GSS I found a modest association between higher income and more hours, but the N’s were rather modest as well. Looking through google scholar I stumbled onto a different issue. Below the fold is a table from The Overworked American or the Overestimated Work Week?


Many years ago I did some QA data analysis for an engineering firm. More specifically it was a company which designed truck parts. Not only did they design specific parts, but they had small foundry right next to the engineering office. I was in an annex office with a few older engineers, and because of building maintenance we had to go use the bathroom in the foundry quite often since the one for the main office always seemed booked and ours was out of commission. In any case, I noticed that whenever I entered the foundry everyone was working hard (though since I saw the data which pinpointed who produced a disproportionate number of defective parts I had an idea who was always focused and who was more facultative).The overseers, uh, I mean supervisors, would swing by constantly to make sure that the foundry workers were doing their job. Meanwhile, back at the office one of the older engineers quite clearly worked “Saudi hours,” if you know what I mean. When his supervisor showed up he was busy enough, and he always stayed later than the factory workers, who were always running out the door at 5. Soon enough I realized that everyone in the annex office had an “understanding,” if you know what I mean.


  1. #1 speedwell
    October 30, 2008

    My friends and I have long had an informal theory that you’re paid not for the work you do so much as a bribe to not hurt the company as much as you could do with the responsibility you’re given. Heh.

  2. #2 Ole
    October 30, 2008

    Just arrived in the US private sector a year ago after working several years in academia and government in the UK, Canada and Denmark previously. I certainly think that Americans and Canadians spend more time at work than anybody else; however, they also seem to take much longer (working?) lunches than anywhere else I’ve worked.

    In Denmark I never, ever, once went out for business lunch in 10 years. Lunch was 20-30 minutes in the cafeteria and then back to work, with a ~15 minute coffee break at 3pm. In the US and Canada business lunches are much more frequent, and every time there’s a couple of hours gone right there driving to a restaurant, waiting for a table, ordering, eating and then driving back. This is counted as work but very little actual work is done during this time.

    Same in the UK, although where I was the lunch was mainly confined to the Friday – down to the pub for lunch and then Friday afternoon until 5pm was usually a bit of a blur…

    In Canada we usually had at least a 30 minute coffee break around 10 am; quite frequently it extended upwards to 45-60 minutes. In the UK we had a ~15 minute tea break around 10am and another around 3.30pm. Those rather short breaks were usually quite productive where everybody would chat about work and what was generally going on at work.

    Bottom line is, if the time spent doing working lunches is subtracted I think the number of hours worked would come down substantially, especially for the higher earners.

  3. #3 Josh
    October 30, 2008

    My friends and I have long had an informal theory that you’re paid not for the work you do so much as a bribe to not hurt the company as much as you could do with the responsibility you’re given. Heh.

    So true…

  4. #4 razib
    October 30, 2008

    lots of jobs have things you need to accomplish. reports, presentations, dev. deadlines, etc. i think one issue is that some people are just faster, smarter and more efficient at being productive. but because of expectations no one wants to leave the office first everyday. so you just pretend you’re working when you’re chilling. as long as you meet your deadlines and don’t humiliate yourself at meetings, you’re good. sometimes labor oriented jobs can be a lot more stressful because they pay you per hour and don’t want you to work more than X hours. if you have to work more hours to do the same work you’re liable to get fired. if you’re salaried, you can compensate for inefficiency by just putting in more hours.

  5. #5 bioIgnoramus
    October 30, 2008

    Poorish people who work two jobs may not always declare the second one, either to investigators or to the taxman. Ole’s suggestion that businessmen claim sluicing and browsing as “work” seems pretty plausible to me.

  6. #6 dougjnn
    October 30, 2008

    In general it’s far easier to fluff in a staff position than a line one.

    In the arthritic industrial model, which still does exist and trades on the street, most managerial positions are basically staff ones, save perhaps engineering and industrial design, etc. which actually aren’t really managerial, though they’re often in the same office building and have sorta similar status, at middle levels.

    But in most service firms, which most high tech thing making firms also are more or less as well, very smart people work in the line positions, where there’s a real measure of your productivity.

    Razib’s observations are right, though in some organizations there’s also the alternative of not just “doing your work” but a whole lot more, and getting rewarded accordingly. Those orgs. tend to be good investments.

  7. #7 Half Sigma
    November 2, 2008

    Poor people work hourly jobs, and most employers don’t want the hourly employees to work overtime so they don’t have to pay extra money.

    The middle class and above have the dubious benefit of being “salaried” employees, which means they must work more than 40 hours per week to demonstrate their proper commitment.

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