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Ananda Pradnya Paramita and the culture of the workaholic

After sending that tweet, the 27 year-old copywriter at Young and Rubicam Indonesia fell into a coma and ultimately died. Criticism of the ad industry was harsh; a former senior copywriter in Asia wrote this online:

“Advertising culture must change,” she wrote, adding that she knows “many creatives who visit hospitals more often than they do the client.”

This came via Quartz. There’s a link to the “90 Hours A Week And Loving It!” story associated with some of the first Mac developers. There’s more here. Ad Age also weighed in. They mention other tweets, including this one:

I’ve always been intrigued by this. The prevailing logic is always that on a person’s deathbed, no one ever says “I wish I had attacked that spreadsheet differently,” but rather, they typically say “I wish I had spent more time with my family.” Yet, in certain industries (many, in fact), the workaholic culture continues to prevail, to the point that a 2am office night is almost a badge of honor. Why? (Also, if technology is getting smarter, why are humans actually working more, as opposed to less? Isn’t innovation supposed to ultimately make things easier?)

Here’s an article from the UK. It claims the simplest reason may be the right one: people pleasing. We work harder to make others happy and receive rewards in return. The inverse could be true, too: we work hard so that others don’t get ahead. There are papers on this topic, including here and here (the latter is a book). There’s this article from WonkBlog, which brings up some of the conventional Kenyesian arguments about the work week:

So how did Keynes get it so wrong? The Skidelskys argue that we don’t have the right policies to encourage people to kick back and work less. If we gave everyone aguaranteed income, or changed the tax code to penalize consumption, they argue, things would change. But U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner, whoreviewed the Skidelskys’ book in the New York Times the other day, doesn’t think that’s what’s up. The big issue, Posner argues, is that people don’t just want leisure, they want expensive leisure. Going on cruise ships and to movie theater and to bars with your friends is pricey, and people want to make more money to pay

So how did Keynes get it so wrong? The Skidelskys argue that we don’t have the right policies to encourage people to kick back and work less. If we gave everyone aguaranteed income, or changed the tax code to penalize consumption, they argue, things would change. But U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner, whoreviewed the Skidelskys’ book in the New York Times the other day, doesn’t think that’s what’s up. The big issue, Posner argues, is that people don’t just want leisure, they want expensive leisure. Going on cruise ships and to movie theater and to bars with your friends is pricey, and people want to make more money to pay for it. People today, he reasons, “have less leisure time than if their preferred form of leisure were lying in a hammock, but on balance they obtain more pleasure.”

There’s a series of articles on this topic in Psychology Today. All of them are interesting in their own right. I think the reason is ultimately pretty basic: to an extent, everyone’s mission on Earth is to find meaning for their life. By “meaning” in this context I’m referring to the broader reason why we’re here, outside of two people, married or not, deciding to have sex without protection. For most, the two ways to define why we’re here necessarily revolve around “work” and “family.” But family is a more precious, protected thing (again, generalization), whereas work can be tracked, can be competitive (promotions), and is where many tend to spend their most effective hours of the day. We did, logically, evolve from animals. We’re competitive and want to understand our rank and position in everyday life. Work and school are the easiest places to do that — promotions, bonuses, GPAs, ranks, etc. This all provides order amidst chaos (just like lists!) so we seek it out. Also, like a lot of things in different societies, sometimes we just do it because it’s what we understand — we saw our parents do it, we see others around us do it, etc.

Changing this aspect of culture would be like turning around 20 oil tankers at once in a confined space. It’s not going to happen, and if it does, it will be ugly and birds will be covered in oil. (WTF?) Sad stories like this one out of Jakarta are too few and far between for people to do anything except simply note it and move on (probably to working on something else).

If you were wondering, by the way, the top seven countries in terms of worker time off are all in Europe.

Ted Bauer

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