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Is workaholism a sign of virtue, or the rotten fruit of an exploitative system?

To put it in the most pretentious way possible: the type of the workaholic has been undertheorized in our culture.

On the surface, the workaholic is simply a person who works too many hours, seemingly overvaluing work over leisurely or familiar pursuits, as the alcoholic overvalues the bottle. But stating the analogy explicitly leaves an odd taste in one’s mouth, because the emotional reactions we might have toward an alcoholic are utterly absent in the case of the workaholic.

The first thing one notices about the workaholic is that to label a person as such is not necessarily a criticism. While there remains some implication of being possessed by one’s work in the same way that an alcoholic is possessed by liquor, there is no tinge of hopelessness, despair, or pity attached to it. There is no social stigma for being a workaholic, because our society values paid work above most other things.

Frequently, being described as a workaholic is a jovial, backhanded compliment. We can easily imagine a young interviewee for a corporate position answering questions about his or her weaknesses with “I’m a bit of a workaholic,” precisely because for most managers this would be seen as no weakness at all. In fact, on the surface it would benefit the company to hire as many workaholics as possible.

And many companies do. But that too is strange, because there is little evidence that increased work hours actually result in increased productivity. In extreme cases, we have even seen that workaholicism can quite directly maim or even kill its victims.

The second major curiosity about the workaholic is that he is inevitably a white collar “professional,”   typically in the private sphere. While there exist workaholics dedicated to a mission in the nonprofit world, or in media, the prototypical workaholic is an investment banker, a consultant, a high level salesman, or some sort of business manager. Such people are in positions that are structured to make them think that the extra 20 or 30 hours they might put in each week are truly necessary for the success of the company, client, or organization.

This is the implied virtue and function of the workaholic: he is Atlas holding up the company and therefore the world on his shoulders. But have we ever heard of a janitor who is a workaholic? A workaholic cashier or daycare worker? Why not? Are blue collar workers and service workers less dedicated to their jobs or to the task of earning their daily bread?

Coupled with the empirical fact that workaholics do not contribute additional output, the absence of the “blue-collar workaholic” implies a deeper ideological function. Workaholicism is not simply a response to a system of incentives. It is a pillar in the cult of busy with a primarily social function: suppressing our conscience with regard to the work of those that we rely upon.

If a white-collar professional (note too the ideology in that word "professional") can be convinced that his excellence is located in his own 60-80 "workaholic" weeks, then he will begin to see the unchosen 60-80 work weeks of the waiters, cleaners, Uber drivers, TaskRabbits, and unpaid interns as signs of their virtue as well, rather than the rotten fruit of an exploitative system. "What hard workers, pulling themselves up!" the workaholic will say, believing himself to be delivering praise. This relieves people of middle or higher income from any need to explicitly look down upon the less fortunate, since their rhetoric towards others is benevolent on the surface.

The ambiguously voluntary work responsibilities of the workaholic—someone must hold up the world, after all—thus becomes a shield against forthright consideration of the economic situation of the less fortunate. In an outwardly egalitarian age, this is a very effective way to prop up an exploitative system of labor and social relations.


2 thoughts on “Workaholics and the cult of busy”

  1. Kara Beer says:

    The only problem with Matt Gerken is there’s not enough of his writing!

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