Last year for Labor Day, we did a little history of work and labor in the U.S., but now that early retirement is so close for us, we have been feeling perhaps more keenly than usual just how fast everything moves these days, and what a detrimental effect that has on us. As I’ve started to put it, I no longer get actual work done, I just show up for things. Or at least that’s how it feels some days. I bet plenty of you can relate. So we’ve been wanting to quantify that feeling that we all share, that work moves at an unsustainable pace now, a feeling that drives many of us to pursue early retirement and financial independence in the first place.
So today, a breakdown on just how fast everything is moving, and reflections on how we’re longing to slow things down. Lots of charts and graphs ahead!
Productivity, the Double-Edged Sword
If you are invested in any stocks or stock funds, then you have no doubt benefited from productivity gains. Productivity has been a major driver of GDP gains, which translates into higher share prices and market growth.
In this chart, from McKinsey, the blue portion represents the portion of world GDP made up not of more workers entering the workforce, but of individual workers producing more output:
And all of that extra GDP should be good for everyone, resulting in a higher standard of living all around. Unfortunately for the masses, that hasn’t been the case in recent decades. Beginning in the mid-70s, workers’ wages began stagnating, even as productivity continued to climb. This chart from the Economic Policy Institute tells the story:
What does that mean? It means that the extra money that has been coming in at companies from historically huge productivity gains in the U.S. has largely not gone to the workers, but has instead gone to higher salaries and bonuses for the top 1 percent of earners, as well as higher dividends paid out to shareholders. Here’s a chart on the difference in wage growth for the bottom 90 percent of workers and top 1 percent over that same period, also from EPI:
So if you’re a big shareholder of stocks or a one-percenter, congrats. You’re doing better than others. But if you’re a 90 percenter, you’re probably doing worse.
The Imposition of Modern Work
Of course, while some productivity has certainly come from newfangled things like computers, all of those productivity gains can’t be explained away by technological improvements. At a certain point, work began to intrude more into our lives, sucking up more and more of it, and placing more impositions on workers — what we’d describe as that feeling that things were and still are speeding up.
The “40-hour workweek” used to mean something, but now the average American worker works 47 hours, according to a recent Gallup poll. What’s more, 40 percent of workers report that they actually work more than 50 hours per week, with almost one in five working upwards of 60 (um, two guilty hands up over here). Among salaried workers, who work those extra hours for free, fully half work more than 50 hours per week, with a full quarter reporting working more than 60 hours per week.
Is it any wonder productivity is up if so many of us are working so much more than we’re supposed to, without earning an extra penny?
And that’s not even addressing technology and how it impacts all of us now. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center showed that 61 percent of workers say they need email to do their jobs, but even more telling is this statistic from the topline: In response to the question, “Have technologies such as email, the internet and cell phones increased the amount of time that you spend working?” Thirty-five percent of workers said yes, more than a third of the workforce. When you consider that a big portion of the workforce is still made up of hourly jobs like manufacturing, retail and food service, that means that the remaining “knowledge worker” jobs must make up a disproportionate share of those who say that technology makes them work more.
So we’re all working more without getting paid more, and we’re checking our email and engaging with our phones for work purposes at all hours. We could assume that this recent era has just been the growing pains as we collectively adjust from an economy that makes stuff (manufacturing-based economy) to an economy that knows stuff (knowledge-based economy), and that all of these demands on our time will level off. But could that possibly be true? Given how reliant our economy has grown on productivity gains, a leveling off of productivity would send shockwaves into corporate earnings, share prices and wages, with potentially catastrophic effects on the global economy. Much more likely is that this pressure to increase productivity will continue for the foreseeable future.
How Much More Will Things Speed Up?
Something that’s clear from the data is that this feeling that we’re failing at least a little bit at work is not something that only a few of us experience. It is nearly universal. As far back as 2004 — ages ago in the internet era — 89 percent of workers reported to the Families and Work Institute that “I never seem to have enough time to get everything done on my job.” This bears repeating and bolding:
Nine in 10 workers feel like they don’t have enough time to get everything done at work.
Despite working more hours. Despite working without meaningful pay increases. Despite this stat being old at this point and almost certainly worse now. We still don’t feel like we have enough time to do our jobs, and that’s something that many of us likely believe is a reflection on us, not on the state of work today.
As Mother Jones reported, Americans used to be well versed in the term “the speedup,” when factories would temporarily boost production to meet a big order or businesses would impose overtime to meet an important deadline. But now that speedup mentality is just how we’re all expected to operate, day in and day out, never mind whether that’s good for us or sustainable. As one source for the story said, “Our culture has encouraged me to only feel valuable if I’m barely hanging on to my sanity.” (You don’t have to go read those economic studies, but we definitely recommend the MJ story.)
One of the most interesting trends of the ever-speeding work environment is how it has flipped over time for knowledge workers, something that those under 30 may not realize, because you guys haven’t known it any other way. This story on overwork from the New Yorker sets up the problem well (and is also totally worth a read):
Thirty years ago, the best-paid workers in the U.S. were much less likely to work long days than low-paid workers were. By 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating. A 2008 Harvard Business School survey of a thousand professionals found that ninety-four percent worked fifty hours or more a week, and almost half worked in excess of sixty-five hours a week. Overwork has become a credential of prosperity.
— James Surowiecki, “The Cult of Overwork,” The New Yorker, 2014
This overwork is not without consequence. It’s well known now that any work we do after about 45 hours a week starts to decrease in quality. This line from Harvard Business Review is gold: “In sum, the story of overwork is literally a story of diminishing returns: keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.”
We’re also sleeping less as a society from all this work, which kills productivity and increases health care costs. And we’re not just producing worse work, we’re also getting lost in the weeds, failing at management and making bad judgment calls, all as a direct consequence of overwork.
Yet despite all of that massive evidence that overwork is crushing the workforce slowly while also hurting business, few employers seem willing to change anything. Most are still looking at the bottom line, and figuring that even if my work is crappy at 60 hours, it’s still cheaper than hiring a second one of me, times every worker out there, assuming they can even find the workers they need, given how badly we’ve underfunded education for decades now. Until we see meaningful change on this front (which, oh yeah, will probably hurt share prices), we can all expect that things will only continue to speed up.
We’re Longing to Slow Down
We’re not remotely old (late 30s), but we still remember a time in our careers when things did not move quite so fast. When a companywide internet outage was a pain but not catastrophic. When it wasn’t expected that everyone was reachable at all times, including on vacation. When we could tell people “we’ll be out of cell range next week” and not cause a conniption.
But it definitely feels to us like those days are long gone.
Maybe it’s just where we are in our careers (much more senior than we were in the days when we could still go fully offline), but it feels like it’s also the larger force at play: the forward march of the great speedup.
There’s so much happening in society right now that tells us that nearly everyone is feeling this longing in some way. The back-to-the-land movement. The tiny house movement. The rise of minimalism. Pretty much the entire FIRE blog community. We all seem to be craving the same thing: to slow down, to simplify, to stop feeling like we’re bad at our jobs.
We would never describe ourselves as minimalists, but we’re still longing for a simpler life. For many people, big houses and too much stuff are the symbols of our too-fast lives that they wish to discard. That’s awesome. If it’s weighing you down, get rid of that stuff, and more power to you.
In our case, the thing we want to get rid of most is the feeling of failure. Though high salaries and multiple promotions tell us that our employers value us greatly, our gut feeling every moment these days is that we are constantly failing at work and at life. We need ever-more-sophisticated apps just to keep our to do lists straight, but even then, they only ever get longer. And we rarely have time to think beyond the emergency task right in front of us to prepare well for the thing that will come at us next.
And did we mention we work for really good companies? We don’t even want to think about what it would all be like if we worked for employers who actually tried to take advantage of their employees.
One of the things we love most of the FIRE community is that we can all be open about how much we’re craving a slower, more sustainable pace of life. And I don’t mean sitting in rocking chair on a farm for 12 hours a day. I just mean a healthy pace of life, where we get plenty of things done but don’t have to feel like we’re constantly drowning. Shouldn’t that be a reasonable thing to want?
Share Your Take
Do you have that constant feeling of failure too? Or just feel like you can never catch up on sleep, or get enough fun time outside of work to feel refreshed? Or are you a robot who just wonders what we’re all bellyaching about? Either way, let us know in the comments!
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Categories: we've learned