Brett Romero

Data Inspired Insights

Tag: productivity

The Darker Side of Meritocracy

Meritocracy. An ideal world where everyone is rewarded based on his or her individual qualities. The intelligent and the hardworking become the rock stars, the lazy and ignorant are doomed to a life of mediocrity. But would a true meritocracy be as idyllic as it sounds?

As was covered in Part I, there are a number of problems with defining and identifying merit. In Part II, we are going to overlook these issues and imagine what a real meritocracy might look like, and why, despite what they might say, the vast majority of people actively undermine meritocracy on a regular basis.

What Would a True Meritocracy Look Like?

Assuming we have some agreed upon way to define and identify merit, what would a true meritocracy look like? For a pure meritocracy (i.e. one in which the success of a given person is solely determined by their own actions and intelligence) to exist, each individual’s merit needs to be determined solely by his or her own individual quality.

The problem with this is, in the real world, parents have a huge influence on a child’s chances of success. This influence comes in an infinite number of forms, but includes intangible things like advice, help with homework, introductions to influential people, and being a positive role model, as well as tangible resources such as money and access to the best schools.

If parents have such a large influence on the success (or failure) of their children, how can a true meritocracy exist? Realistically, to achieve a true meritocracy, the government (or some independent body) needs to equalize parents’ influence on their child.

This equalization can take two forms. The first form is providing resources and assistance to less well off parents to try bring them up to level of parents in the upper classes. This typically includes things like welfare payments, subsidized/free health care and housing assistance, but also includes scholarships and other programs offered to help disadvantaged kids.

The second form of equalization is typically more controversial and involves reducing the ability of upper class parents to provide advantages to their children. These types of measures are far more rare, but they do exist – policies such as inheritances taxes and the removal or restriction of private schools[1] are two examples.

The reason this second type of measure is so rare is because it starts to reveal the underlying tradeoff. The tradeoff being that ensuring everyone gets the same quality upbringing means that, for some children, the quality of their upbringing has to decrease.

But even if we were willing to accept more extreme policies, they can only realistically go so far. No government can legislate to ensure every child is read to at night, and nor can they implement a ban on reading to children to make sure no child gets an advantage. No government can legislate away deadbeat Dads or Moms that get drunk in front of the kids. Which means that if you are going to create a true meritocracy, there is only really one option – take the parents out of the picture completely. This is where things start to get a little scary.

To guarantee every child receives the exact same upbringing and education, the government (or some independent body) would need to remove parents from their children’s lives. This could take various forms. A Logan’s Run style scenario where everyone is ‘terminated’ at age 30 – essentially creating a nation of orphans is one potential option. Another would be taking children at birth and raising them in industrial scale nurseries and boarding schools out of reach of parents, somewhat akin to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (without the presence of castes or the extreme social conditioning).

There a numerous ways that one can envisage removing a parents’ influence from their children, but the difficulty is imagining one that does not sound like a good premise for a movie about a dystopian future. In fact, the options are so unappealing that even the most repressive and extreme regimes in history have shied away from this kind of intervention.

If this is what a society would need to do to implement a true meritocracy, are there at least some upsides?

A Fairer System?

One of the key arguments made for meritocracy is that it is a ‘fairer’ system. But is it fairer (whatever that means), or are we simply replacing one lottery with another?

The current system is one in which your future success is dictated by some combination of who your parents and/or role models are (‘nurture’) and your own individual abilities (‘nature’). A true meritocracy, as we have been describing it, is simply a system in which the ‘nurture’ component has been standardized.

Is that actually fairer though? There will still be winners and losers, but now the people born with a dud genetic hand are probably worse off then in our current less meritocratic world. Unlike the current world we live in, there is no chance that a superior work ethic instilled by charmingly humble parents will get someone ahead. There are no inspiring stories of underdogs beating their better-credentialed rivals through pure determination. Rocky Balboa never even gets to fight against Apollo Creed. In a true meritocracy, the favorite always wins – that is the point of system.

A Better System?

By ensuring that the best and brightest are the ones that rise to the most influential positions, are we at least guaranteeing the fastest possible rate of progress for humanity? The answer to that question depends on how you believe progress is made.

Someone who believes that progress is only really made by rare transformative geniuses, like Einstein and Hawking, should be in favor of a more meritorious society. The risk is that a genius will be born to bad parents or in the wrong country, and as a result, that genius is wasted and substantial progress is forgone. To minimize the risk of this happening, a rational person should be willing to sacrifice certain freedoms (through more government intervention) to make sure that fewer geniuses are ‘wasted’.

On the other hand, if a person believes that progress is made by the cumulative effort of many, many intelligent (but not unique people), they should not be so worried about a true meritocracy. In this case, the loss of some geniuses to bad upbringings and poverty is much less consequential as they will be replaced by other equally or slightly less intelligent people. Maximizing the overall level of child welfare should be the priority, which, to most people, would mean allowing parents to raise their own children as far as possible.

Saying versus Doing

Stepping away from the theoretical, there is a lot that can be learned about people’s preferences in regard to meritocracy by simply looking at their actions in our world today. There is an Italian proverb that I enjoy reciting from time to time to make myself sound intelligent:

“Between saying and doing, many a pair of shoe is worn out”

Aside from the aforementioned reason, I bring this up now because people’s actions often reveal their true preferences much more accurately than their words. This is particularly true when it comes to meritocracy. In my experience, there are few people that do not actively attempt to give themselves (or those they care about) some advantage over others, and even fewer that would not take advantage of an opportunity that was presented to them.

A common example is private schools. These schools, by definition, are unmeritorious. Their business model is that parents will pay money (often large amounts of it) to send their children to a certain school exactly because they believe it will provide their child with an advantage over other children that don’t go to that school. If they did not believe it provided their children with an advantage, no rational parent would pay to send their child there.

Inheritances, giving someone a job because you know them, private tutors, moving to a better (i.e. more expensive) school district, helping out the kids with homework or even reading to them at night are just some of the endless ways that everyone, myself included, undermines a true meritocracy.

Summary

Despite the platitudes and mainstream acceptance, a true meritocracy is not what we really want as a society. Any serious thought on the subject quickly reveals a true meritocracy it is all but impossible to implement, and if implemented, the reality would be a dystopian world worthy of a George Orwell novel.

However, once the realization is made that a true meritocracy is impossible and undesirable, the remaining conclusion is that no one is truly arguing for or against meritocracy, everyone is simply arguing for a different shade of grey. The introduction and removal of various policies simply makes that shade slightly darker or lighter.

This is an important conclusion because it changes the perspective of the argument. There is no right vs. left, haves vs. have nots, good vs. evil. There is just people arguing for incremental changes. Each country, with every election, is simply working out what shade of grey they prefer.

 

[1] Many countries in Europe do not have private school systems, including education pinup nation Finland.

The Dark Side of Meritocracy

In recent years, discussion about economic concepts like inequality and income mobility has been everywhere. Thrust into the spotlight by the global financial crisis, they have rarely left the front pages thanks to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and a series of rolling financial crises in Europe. These days you can’t even enjoy your artisanal quail egg omelet and fair trade coffee without some bearded, tweed wearing, artisanal whiskey distilling, overgrown trust fund baby complaining about how unfair it all is, in between cashing rent checks from his parents.

When it comes to discussions of inequality though, one of the underlying assumptions that few are willing to challenge is that the drivers of inequality largely boil down to nepotism and inherited wealth, while the answer to most inequality based problems comes down to one idea: meritocracy.

What is a Meritocracy?

Meritocracy is a system in which the people who hold power (through democratically elected means or otherwise) are those that are most deserving based on individual merit. In common use, it is usually taken to be slightly broader than that – a world in which money and success are allocated, perfectly, to those who are deemed to deserve it the most.

In an increasingly polarized political system in the US, meritocracy – or ‘the right to rise’ – is often the only thing that politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to agree on. The ideal of meritocracy is so ingrained in the US that Americans are famous for their belief that hard work will be rewarded with untold wealth and success. But this belief is far from unique to the US. In Australia meritocracy has long been considered part of the national identity with politicians of all stripes often talking in jingoistic terms about ‘the fair go’.

For all the talk of meritocracy though, how feasible is it in the real world? What would be some of the major hurdles to implementing a more meritocratic system?

Defining Merit

The first question that should arise whenever meritocracy is discussed is how is merit defined? There are 4 basic criteria that most commonly are thought of as contributing to merit:

  1. Qualifications
  2. Work ethic
  3. Intelligence
  4. Experience

For almost all competitions where there are winners and losers – jobs, university positions or other – some combination of these traits will generally be used to decide a winner. To keep things simpler, let’s focus on the job market for now.

The first thing to consider when defining merit for a given job is that to have an accurate measure of merit, the criteria need to be modified for every position. Jobs requiring manual labor place a higher value on work ethic but little value on qualifications. Jobs in tech often place higher value on intelligence, but less on formal qualifications and, depending on the role, large amounts of experience can be seen as detrimental. Most jobs will require applicants to possess experience in one or more specific areas.

For the most part, this customization of criteria for each job is already being done – a job advertisement is essentially a statement of the criteria that merit will be assessed by. But the question is, are those criteria actually the correct ones to identify the best possible person for a given job? I believe the answer to that question is a resounding “no”. Let me explain why.

Let’s look at a common example that anyone who has tried changing sector, industry or country in his or her career will be able to relate to.

Imagine you have been working for around 10-15 years and have spent all of that time in one industry[1]. During that time you have picked up a lot of useful workplace skills, spreadsheets, experience with various applications, writing skills, general how-not-to-piss-everyone-off skills and so on. Now you want a new challenge that will require a lot of the skills you have, but in a different industry. You approach a recruiter, bright eyed and excited by the possibilities, but despite your best efforts to sell your skills as relevant, the recruiter basically discards your experience as worthless and tries to push you towards a low level role or something in your old industry.

This experience is a simple example that reveals an underlying truth – if we were being truly meritorious, there could be no fixed criteria for merit for any job because there is no way to preemptively identify what combination of skills and experience will ultimately prove to be the most valuable.

The possibilities for what combination of skills and experience lead to the best performance in a role are endless. Many successful business owners do not have MBAs. Many of the best investors on Wall Street do not come from finance backgrounds. Some of the best NFL punters are ex-Australian Rules Football players. What people who excel tend to have in common is a combination of skills and experiences that allows them to bring a different perspective to a problem.

Yet, despite history proving time[2] and time again[3] that different perspectives are often vital to important insights, it is a rare employer or recruiter that will take a bet on a candidate with ‘unusual experience’ rather than a candidate who ticks all the boxes. The reason for that is simple – it is safer. Choosing the candidate that ticks the boxes provides cover (“I gave you what you asked for”) and it gives a better guarantee of an acceptable level of performance. The unusual candidate could be fantastic – but they could also be a complete flop who turns out to be way out of their depth.

Unfortunately, this is only the first hurdle for a true meritocracy – if merit is a difficult thing to define, it is an even more difficult thing to measure.

Measuring Merit

Once we get past the step of deciding what criteria will determine the most deserving applicant, the next step is deciding who best meets those criteria. A quick look at the application process for college admission or a technical job will give you an instant appreciation for the lengths that people will go to try and get an accurate assessment of an applicant’s true merit.

Tests, interviews and essays are probably the most common tools used to assess merit but all can be (and are) gamed by people who understand the system. Material for tests can be rote learned with little to no understanding necessary. Interviews are notorious for being poor predictors of talent, which makes sense when you consider that the most confident people are often delusional. Essays, aside from providing evidence of basic writing skills, are assessed subjectively.

Even if these tools for assessing merit were designed in such a way as to prevent gaming the system, these are still three very narrow tests of ability. As Megan McArdle explains, the experience in China shows that selecting for people who do well on exams gives you… a selection of people who do well on exams.

Assumptions and Prejudice

One interesting side effect of the difficulty in determining merit is it leads to people basing their assessment on completely superficial qualities (at least partially). A good dress sense, physical attractiveness, and being an eloquent speaker are just some examples of relatively superficial qualities people use to assess intelligence and merit. As frustrating as this can be for the unshapely, poorly dressed, mumblers out there, these are all things that can be improved and worked on (at least to some degree). Others are subject to prejudices that cannot be addressed – the impact of race on the ability to get interviews, for example, is well established.

Another concerning trend is the increasing use of someone’s current level of success/wealth as an indicator of merit. That is, if someone is wealthy and/or successful, they must be someone who is highly intelligent and works harder than everyone else. This line of thinking is dangerous for two reasons:

  1. Too much value is placed on the opinions of wealthy and successful people – particular on topics outside their domain. Anyone who has listened to Clive Palmer or Donald Trump speak should know that is a mistake.
  2. The implicit assumption made when you believe wealthy and successful people are fully deserving of their place in the world is that anyone who is poor and unsuccessful is also fully deserving of their situation.

Evidence of this thinking is present everywhere to some degree, but seems particularly prevalent in the US[4], where TV shows like Shark Tank are extremely popular and prominent CEOs are regularly asked for their opinions on public policy issues.

This belief system can largely be explained as the flip side of the optimistic view American’s have of their economic prospects. As this paper from the Brookings Institution highlights, American’s are far more likely to believe hard work and intelligence will be rewarded and yet are second only to the UK in terms of how closely correlated a son’s earnings are to his fathers (i.e. hard work has the least chance of improving your situation). If you truly believe that hard work and intelligence is all you need to be successful, you must also believe that people who are currently experiencing success have those attributes.

Best Person for the Job

Going back to our problems with creating a meritocracy, everything discussed so far has overlooked a key factor in this endless quest to find the most deserving – people are not cogs that can be simply transferred in and out of a machine seamlessly. The person who ‘deserves’ the job on merit (provided we can define it and measure it accurately) is often NOT the best person for the job. The best person for the job is often determined by qualities such as:

  • how that person fits in with the team culture,
  • their personality type, and
  • how they respond to authority (or the lack thereof).

These traits are all key factors in how well someone will perform in a given role and yet none would typically be thought of as meritorious qualities.

This realization is not new. Employers and hiring firms have been pushing the idea of the ‘beer test’ (asking yourself which of the candidates would you most like to go for an after-work beer with) for some time now. But it does beg the question – what would happen if a company simply hired the ‘best’ candidates for each position without considering whether these people will work well together? Would that team be more productive than a team that hired less ‘deserving’ candidates but aimed to build a harmonious work place? The entire body of management knowledge (and every buddy cop movie ever made) would tell us otherwise.

Summary

One thing that becomes obvious when you start thinking about how a true meritocracy would actually work is how difficult it would be to implement:

  • Many of the criteria we associate with someone being deserving of a role or position are subjective or exclude applicants who would in fact be far superior.
  • Our methods of assessment are often deeply flawed, subject to gaming and our own prejudices.
  • Selecting the most objectively deserving candidates is not guaranteed to provide the best results anyway.

Yet, despite the reasons above hopefully being enough to give pause the next time someone begins expressing frustration with the current lack of meritocracy, all of these issues are only really logistical problems.

There is a good argument to be made that we can and should try to improve on all of these things – that we should aim to get better at identifying the right people and refine our methods of assessing skills. We should pay more attention to team fit and personalities when selecting the best candidate. It is hard to imagine the world being a worse place if employers were more open minded about what skills might be valuable to their company and sociopaths were less likely to impress during an interview.

However, the next question is how far should we take this. What does a truly meritocratic society look like and is it something we really want? That is the subject of discussion in Part II in this series on meritocracy.

 

[1] You can easily replace ‘industry’ in this story with ‘company’, ‘field’ or ‘country’.

[2] Einstein famously worked at a patent office where his work often exposed him to the transmission of electric signals and electrical-mechanical synchronization of time. Exposure to these topics helped him to arrive at his conclusions about the nature of light and the connection between space and time.

[3] Steve Jobs often talked about the importance of a calligraphy class he took in shaping what fonts were best used in operating systems.

[4] Australia’s proclivity to tall poppy syndrome does have some positive side effects

Hours Worked Are Going Up – Here is the Evidence

A couple of weeks back, I posted a blog that seemed to tap a nerve. The blog addressed what many white-collar workers, particularly in the private sector, have been feeling for some time: pressure to put in longer hours at the office. This week, I wanted to look into the statistics to see if there is evidence to support the anecdotal stories of increasingly common 60-hour weeks.

To address this question, we are going to look at data from a range of sources, including Australia, the US, and the OECD.

The Picture in the US

Starting in the US, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) produces data on average weekly hours. This data has a lot of fine level detail on average weekly hours by sector and subsector, but unfortunately, only goes back to March 2006. Still, if there is a trend towards longer hours in recent times, it should be apparent.

Chart 1 – Average Weekly Hours by Industry

Chart 1 above shows the average weekly hours for the three main sectors for white-collar workers, Financial Services, Information, and Professional and Business Services. The first thing that stands out is there does appear to be an upwards trend in the average weekly hours for Financial Services workers and for Profession and Business Services workers. Both sectors look like they have added an extra hour on average over the past 9 years. Given the short time frame and the number of people involved in those sectors, that should be considered substantial. Multiplying extra hour by the number of employees in those sectors, (approximately 8 million and 19 million respectively), works out to an additional 3,375,000 working days (assuming 8 hours a day) every week – between those two sectors alone.

Drilling down into the detail, Chart 2 shows the Professional and Business Services sector broken down into its various subsectors.

Chart 2 – Average Weekly Hours – Professional and Business Services

At this level of detail, the data shows us that the increase in the sector as a whole is far from uniform:

  • Accounting, Tax Preparation, Bookkeeping and Payroll Services, Advertising and Related Services, and Other Professional Scientific and Technical Services have added around 2 hours per week
  • Legal Services and Management, Scientific and Technical Consulting Services have added approximately 1 hour a week
  • The remaining subsectors have remained flat, or even declined slightly.

Interestingly, data for the most infamous subsectors for long hours, Legal (Legal Services) and consulting (Management, Scientific and Technical Consulting Services) show employees averaging between 36 and 37 hours a week, which would seem to be very normal. This is probably indicative of two things:

  1. People in legal and consulting generally aren’t working as many hours as we assume (or they tell us).
  2. The people working long hours in these subsectors are limited to a few top tier firms. Their long hours are being drowned out by large numbers of people working normal hours.

There is also another thing to keep in mind when looking at this data. These statistics are based on surveys that are voluntary for people to respond to. As a result, there is likely to be some bias in the data towards lower hours due to people who do work long hours opting out of the survey altogether. This bias would impact all sectors and subsectors, but could be masking more dramatic increases in the averages.

What about Technology?

In Chart 1, the average weekly hours for the information sector (of which technology based industries are subsectors) barely moved over the last 9 years. However, as seen previously, looking at the information sector in aggregate can be deceiving. Chart 3 shows the information sector broken down into its various subsectors.

Chart 3 – Average Weekly Hours – Information Sector

Looking at this breakdown, the expected increase in average hours worked becomes more apparent. The Data Processing, Hosting and Related Services subsector has added close to 3 hours a week since 2006, while the Other Information Services subsector has added around 2 hours a week.

An interesting point to note is that for the Other Information Services subsector, the average weekly hours have been decreasing for the past 12-18 months. Looking at the period 2006-2013, it looked like this sector was on course to add 4 hours a week. However, after peaking at 36.4 hours a week in December 2013, the subsector has steadily lost hours to the point that for the first 6 months of 2015, the average was just 34.6 hours per a week. Whether this is the result of more work friendly policies, more competition for staff or some other factor remains to be seen.

Hard Working Aussies?

Moving on to Australian data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the dataset available is longer than what was available from the BLS, but it is lacking fine level detail. The ABS data goes back to 1978 and is split by different brackets of hours worked. For example, 1-15 hours, 16-29 hours, 60+ hours and so on. Chart 4 below shows the percentage of employed people in each bracket[1] (based on a 12-month moving average).

Chart 4 – Australian Employees by Average Weekly Hours

The most striking aspect of the chart is the decline in the number of people working between 30 and 40 hours a week – or what most people would consider a regular full time job. As late as January 1986, more than half of Australian workers were working between 30 and 40 hours a week. By the turn of the century, that percentage was closing in on 40%. From the data, most of the people who moved out of the 30-40 hours a week category appear to have moved into the ‘less than 30 hours a week’ category. This substitution of full time jobs for part time and/or casual employees is sometimes referred to as ‘casualization’.

In Australia, the ‘casualization’ of the workforce has been a much-discussed topic. Some argue that it is the natural result of more modern, flexible working arrangements. Others see negatives in reduced job security and reduced benefits (casual employees do not get access to paid leave for example). One thing that is for certain is the number of people affected continues to increase.

Moving on to the other end of the spectrum, those working 50+ hours a week, there are two distinct phases. The first phase, from 1979 through to the year 2000 shows a strong increase in the number of people working 50+ or more hours. The second phase, from 2000 onwards shows a decrease in the number of people in this category that almost completely unwinds the previous increase. Another interesting observation is that the decrease in people working 50+ hours from 2000 onwards is almost exactly mirrored by the gain in people working 30-40 hours a week over that period.

It is difficult to say what exactly is driving this change. Are employees leaving jobs that require longer hours for jobs with better work life balance? Are companies becoming more serious about looking after their employees? Has the recent mining boom, which has led to huge economic changes, caused a shift away from industries that have longer hours? All these questions are a topic for another blog post.

What can be said is that, at a high level, there is little to indicate that longer hours are becoming the norm for Australian workers. But, like the US example, without looking at the data at a sector and subsector level, this data tells us very little about what is happening in legal offices and tech startups in inner city Sydney and Melbourne.

The International Perspective

The OECD also provides statistics on average yearly hours across a range of countries. Looking at yearly hours worked is slightly different to weekly hours because of differing leave allowances and expectations between countries, but it does allow us to look at how things have changed over time within each country. Chart 5 shows the average yearly hours for a selection of countries.

Chart 5 – Average Annual Hours Worked – Selected Countries

Again, this data is at the highest level (all sectors, all employees), making it difficult to detect a small increase in average hours worked that is limited to some subsectors. However, this chart does provide some perspective on how much average hours worked a year has declined in pretty much all developed nations over the past 60 years. The decline in hours worked in France in particular is striking – falling from over 2,300 hours a year (almost 48 hours a week if 4 weeks of leave is assumed) to under 1,500 hours a week (just over 31 hours a week).

The other interesting point to note is the increase in hours in Sweden since the early 80s. Not having any knowledge of Swedish history outside of the recent Thor movies (which I assume are completely factually accurate), any explanation anyone could offer about what is happening here would be very welcome.

The Long Term Perspective

The final data source for comparison is a paper[2] released in 2007 by Michael Huberman and Chris Minns. The paper takes a look at the question of how hours worked have changed over time from a very long-term perspective. Chart 6 shows a summary of the main results from the paper.

Chart 6 – Huberman and Minns; Hours of work per week; 1870–2000

Similar to the OECD data, this data provides perspective on how far the average hours worked has fallen over time. The biggest gains were made in the interwar period as Henry Ford and other business owners realized lowering the hours of their employees actually ended up boosting output, and many countries adopted statutory hours.

We also see how cultural and policy differences in France has led to continued declines in hours worked post World War II, while the Anglo-Saxon nations have essentially had no real change.

Table 1 – Huberman and Minns; Hours of work per week; 1870–2000

  1900 1913 1929 1938 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000
U.K. 56.0 56.0 47.0 48.6 45.7 44.7 42.0 40.0 42.4 40.5
France 65.9 62.0 48.0 39.0 44.8 45.9 44.8 40.7 39.9 35.8
Australia 48.1 44.7 45.5 45.0 39.6 39.6 39.6 39.2 40.1 40.6
U.S. 59.1 58.3 48.0 37.3 42.4 40.2 38.8 39.1 39.7 40.3

Another thing that is not so obvious from the chart, but is clearer in the underlying data (see Table 1), is that in Australia and the US, there has been an increase in hours worked from 1980 onwards. Although not significant when compared to hours worked by previous generations, this could be representative of more recent trends. One caveat on that is that this data series only runs to the year 2000, and, at least in the case of Australia, there were declines in the number of people working 50+ hours from 2000 onwards.

Wrapping Up

Overall, the evidence that people are working longer hours is mixed. When drilling down to specific subsectors in the BLS data from the US, the data indicates there has been an increase in average hours worked in most of the expected places. However, the gains appear small (1-3 hours a week) and no sector or subsector analyzed averaged over 40 hours a week.

The ABS data from Australia did show a significant increase in people working 50+ hours from the late 70s through to the turn of the century, but that trend then stopped and reversed. Meanwhile, the longer-term perspective provided by the OECD data and Huberman and Minns showed significant declines over the last 150 years, with little indication average hours worked were going back up in recent years.

Taking all this data into account, there are two main conclusions to be taken away:

  1. When looking at data aggregated across sectors, there is little indication that average hours worked are increasing. That doesn’t mean average hours worked are not increasing anywhere, but that it is not happening on a big enough scale to move the high level aggregate numbers.
  2. When drilling down into specific subsectors where anecdotal evidence suggests there should be increases, the data indicates that average hours worked have been increasing. Although the averages still seem low (i.e. less than 40 hours a week), when you take into account the spread of hours making up those averages, even a 1-2 hour average increase represents an increasingly large proportion of people in those subsector working very long hours.

 

[1] Note – I have aggregated some of the brackets to simply the picture.

[2] M. Huberman, C. Minns; The times they are not changin’: Days and hours of work in Old and New Worlds, 1870–2000; Explorations in Economic History 44 (2007) 538–567

4 Reasons Working Long Hours is Crazy

I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review about why working long hours is bad for business. This article resonated with me for several reasons, but mainly because over the past 2-3 years, I have been concerned with, and viewed first hand, the growing cult of working long hours.

Unfortunately, there are an increasing number of people who equate productivity and working hard with spending long hours at work. Consulting and Legal are arguably the worst culprits, but finance, tech, and various other sectors can be just as bad. Many in the tech startup world in particular seem to consider it a badge of honor to work excessive hours and sleep as little as possible.

In a lot of cases, companies have been making genuine attempts to improve work-life balance with various initiatives. These range from sending corporate communications to shutting down the office for a period each year to force people to take leave. Yet despite this, unused vacation leave reached a 40-year high in 2014.

Anyway, in an effort to fight this rising tide, I thought I would put together 4 good reasons why working long hours is detrimental and a waste of time.

1. Longer Hours Means Reduced Output

When I say reduced output, I don’t mean that each extra hour worked is less productive then the previous one (although that is also true). I mean your actual total output falls – you work longer and produce less. And the longer you work long hours, the less productive you become.

There is an exception here of course. Working longer hours for a short period (e.g. a couple of weeks to meet a deadline) can boost productivity – but this boost quickly erodes and then reverses. A good illustration of this was provided by a report from the Business Roundtable Report from 1980. The report detailed how the initial gains from extra hours were quickly eaten up by increasingly poor productivity. From the Executive Summary:

“Where a work schedule of 60 or more hours per week is continued longer than about two months, the cumulative effect of decreased productivity will cause a delay in the completion date beyond that which could have been realized with the same crew size on a 40-hour week.”

For physical workers this is one thing (the report was based on construction projects), but what about office workers? Unfortunately the story only gets worse. Shifting concrete mix or laying bricks when you are tired is one thing, but problem solving, complex reasoning and the intricacies of office politics require a higher level of focus.

Think about managing a software development project and having a team that is mentally exhausted after working long hours for months. It is not hard to imagine a scenario where the productivity of the team actually becomes negative as important files are mistakenly deleted or code is committed with catastrophic errors that then require significant time and effort to fix.

There are many reasons for this drop in productivity including mental exhaustion, depression and declining health. However the biggest driver of lost productivity is sleep deprivation.

2. Sleep Deprivation Is the Silent Killer

In addition to being a serious productivity killer, the biggest issue with sleep deprivation is that, as Dr. Charles A. Czeisler [1] explains in this interview with Havard Business Review, people consistently underestimate its impact. He goes on to explain that a person averaging four hours of sleep a night for four or five days has the same level of cognitive impairment as someone who has been awake for 24 hours – equivalent to legal drunkenness. Within 10 days, the level of impairment is the same as someone who has gone 48 hours without sleep.

The problem is, in many cases, very few people are taking this productivity loss as seriously as they should be. Consider how your boss would react if you decided to start dropping Jaeger bombs in the morning before coming to work. They are likely to be pretty unhappy, and not just because of your juvenile choice of drink. In fact, you would probably be lucky to keep your job. Yet, work long hours for an extended period, which has a similar impact on your productivity (and is a lot less fun), and you are more likely to be promoted than get a reprimand.

Again, there is a caveat here. An estimated 1-3% of people can function at a normal level on 5-6 hours sleep a night. But before you start reassuring yourself you are that person – research also shows that of 100 people who think they can function with 5-6 hours sleep, only 5 actually can. The rest have no idea they are even impaired. Which takes us to reason number 3.

3. People Do Not Realize When They Are Not Productive

A simple mistake that many people make is confusing being busy with being productive. Anyone who has spent any decent amount of time working in an office will know at least one person who seems to be perpetually busy, but never seems to get anything done[2].

The fact is that ‘busy’ and ‘productive’ are often very different things. Frantically sending emails, multitasking, scheduling pointless meetings or just doing a bunch of work that is completely unnecessary are not productive activities, but they are often the hallmarks of busy people.

But it is not just the frantically busy people who are not being productive. There is a limited amount of time that everyone is productive during a day. Consider the following scenario, which I am sure many people will recognize.

You are working late at night on a problem. You are spending hours trying to fix a seemingly intractable problem (for example, searching for the source of a bug, or trying to identify why the numbers do not add up). Eventually you give up, resolving to get in early the next day and fix it. Then something amazing happens. You get in the next morning, and within 10 minutes you have fixed the problem. In fact, you are amazed you spent so long worrying about something that was so simple to fix.

When you were trying to solve the problem the night before, did you feel impaired or less productive? Tired, frustrated, sure, but did you believe you were any less capable of solving the problem?

Here is where the downward cycle can start. People who consistently work 60-80 hours a week are (with some exceptions) mentally exhausted, but are not aware this is the case. All they see is that they have a significant amount of work that needs to get done and not enough hours to finish it. What is the first solution that comes to a weary mind in that scenario? Put in a couple of late ones and get over the hump. Maybe spend Saturday working and try get ahead a little bit.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to work, and as they continue to increase their sleep deficit, they are increasingly likely to make mistakes and/or fall further behind.

4. We Have Already Learnt This Lesson

“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” ― Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

The tragedy of this move towards longer hours is that we have been down this path before. The conclusion that shorter hours actually boost absolute productivity is not new, or even controversial. Ernst Abbe as early as 1900 moved his workers from a 9 hour to an 8 hour work day and noted that overall output increased. Henry Ford is another famous example. In 1926, he moved his workers from a 6-day to a 5-day workweek and again saw output increase.

These are not one-off cases. Although this push initially came from the union movement, business after business found that the overall output per worker actually increased with shorter hours.

What Can You Do?

It is easy to blame a highly competitive labor market and/or evil corporations for this trend towards ever-increasing hours. The fact is we all have some power to change the culture of our workplaces through our own actions.

As an employee, you are somewhat limited by your surroundings, particularly if you work somewhere that judges your performance on hours rather than productivity. However, assuming you do not work in a place that thinks work life balance is a list of priorities in descending order[3], there is still a lot you can do to improve your situation:

  1. Get your rest. If you want to get back to a 40-hour week, you need to be well rested and switched on when you arrive at the office.
  2. Be prepared to actually work. Working does not include reading blogs, regularly checking Facebook/Twitter, getting into pointless arguments, or wondering the hallways. If you turn up to work and are focused on work, you will be amazed how much you can get done in 8 hours[4].
  3. Be organized. Making the most of your 8 hours means being organized. Make lists, prioritize, plan well ahead and finish tasks early to get them off your plate. Whatever method(s) works for you, ensure when you turn up to work, you already know exactly what you need to do.
  4. Know when to leave. It is hard to understate the importance of this. Spending hours and hours late at night trying to solve a problem is possibly the single biggest time suck in the modern workplace. If it is not due that night, leave it for the morning. Go home, relax and have dinner. You will be doing everyone a favor.

Employers and managers obviously also have a key role to play. If you really want to encourage better habits in your employees (and you really, really should want to), you need to lead by example. This means:

  1. Cut down your own hours. At the very least, work from home outside business hours. If you say one thing and do another, your staff will choose to follow actions over instructions every time.
  2. Schedule emails for business hours. If you find yourself writing emails after hours or on weekends and you do not need a response immediately, schedule the emails to go out during business hours.
  3. Push for realistic deadlines. If you repeatedly provide unrealistic deadlines for tasks and projects, staff will be forced to put in extra hours to meet them, and will often fail anyway. Set generous deadlines and aim to finish early.
  4. Tell people to go home. If you see staff repeatedly staying late and you know there is no real reason they should be staying late, send them home. Every hour they stay working late is decreasing what you will get out of them the next day.
  5. Address poor time management. Consulting, for example, is littered with examples of people being praised for pulling all-nighters to finish off a piece of work. Sure, they met the deadline. Congratulations. Now let us talk about the weeks of poor time and resource management that led to that situation in the first place.

 

[1] Dr. Czeisler is the incumbent of an endowed professorship donated to Harvard by Cephalon and consults for a number of companies, including Actelion, Cephalon, Coca-Cola, Hypnion, Pfizer, Respironics, Sanofi-Aventis, Takeda, and Vanda.

[2] If you work in an office and do not know anyone like this, it is probably you.

[3] If this is your case, consider an alternative job. Or alternatively, start planning for your Eat Pray Love moment to strike in a few years time.

[4] A side effect of this is you are likely to become a lot less tolerant of long pointless meetings. Be wary of anyone who doesn’t mind long pointless meetings

 

 

Eurozone Perceptions

It has long been a perception held by many in the western world that the people of southern Europe (Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece for the purposes of this article) have a particularly easy-going approach to work, life and financial responsibility. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on who you ask and even what time of year you ask them as Ed Vulliamy describes.

However, with the onset of the European debt crisis, these perceptions have taken on a new prominence as they are now used to justify the harsh austerity being forced on Southern European nations, with special scorn and head shaking reserved for Greece in particular. At the deepest level, the enforcement of austerity is being spun as a moral tale – the people of Southern Europe are suffering for their laziness and financial irresponsibility. The financial irresponsibility aspect of this is a topic for another article, but here we will look at the evidence supporting the proposition that people in Southern European nations are ‘lazier’ than their northern European neighbors.

The first step in analyzing this proposition is defining how we measure ‘laziness’. In general, laziness refers to a lack of willingness to work or expend energy. Given we have no quantitative way of comparing how much energy people are expending, or their willingness to perform work (what a different world it would be if we could!), a good proxy to determine relative energy expenditure, and therefore laziness, is the number of hours worked. Conveniently, the OECD produces statistics on average hours worked per person per a year for most OECD nations, which includes most of the European nations we are interested in.

An argument can be made about the productivity of the respective workers but productivity has its own larger distortions due to the impact of differing levels of capital investment. A German working in a car manufacturing plant controlling a high tech automated assembly line will be much more productive (in terms of the value of his output) than an Italian waiting tables in a coffee shop – but this tells us nothing about the level of effort (or lack thereof) being expended, and also nothing about the time being spent at work.

So looking at the OECD statistics on hours worked, what do we see for the countries we are talking about?

Table 1

prod_table_1

What we see is actually the opposite of the commonly assumed situation. The famously hardworking Germans are averaging less than 1,400 hours a year of work or under 27 hours a week averaged over 52 weeks. This is actually the 2nd lowest of all countries in the OECD in 2012. Meanwhile, the Greeks, often held up as the epitome of laziness (at least in Europe) actually work some of the longest hours in the OECD – the third longest in fact, behind only the Koreans and the Mexicans. In 2012 the average Greek clocked up 2,034 hours of work, or the hours of almost 1.5 Germans. So how do we explain this? How can the perception be so different to what we are seeing here?

When we look at the data, some trends begin to emerge that explain some of the differences in hours worked. The first and most obvious trend that emerges when we expand our dataset to the full OECD and for all years covered is a negative correlation between hours worked and GDP (PPP) per capita (a rough proxy for wealth – see Chart 1). The trend is clear, both across countries and across time, and intuitively this makes sense – as people get wealthier, they feel less need to work long hours.

Chart 1 – GDP per capita (PPP) Vs. Average hours worked per person per year – OECD Countries, 2000-2012

prod_chart_1

Asides from the negative correlation between GDP (PPP) per capita and average hours worked, there are a few other observations we can make looking at this chart. The first observation is that the minimum hours that people work seems to bottom out at around 1400 hours a year – more or less where Germany and the Netherlands sit currently. Again this conclusion checks out logically. Subject to the social expectations and the demands of a given job, people aim to reach a comfortable balance between work and leisure time. Once this is achieved, they generally let any further increases in income accrue to their wealth rather than further reduce their working hours.

The second observation is that at any given level of GDP (PPP) per capita, there is a still a high level of variability between countries as to how many hours the average person will work. More than anything, this shows there is a range of factors that create variances in hours worked between countries. Labor force restrictions, minimum wage, unemployment benefits, education levels, inequality and the general structure of the economy will all affect the hours worked at a given level of GDP (PPP) per capita.

What else can we determine looking at this information? If we believe wealth to be a major factor in how many hours a person will work, what would it look like if we could remove the impact of wealth? In fact we can remove the wealth effect from this data by building a simple linear model that estimates the average amount of hours a person would work given a certain level of GDP per capita. From there we can then see where countries lie relative to the model prediction, effectively telling us which countries are working more hours than we would expect for their relative level of wealth, and which countries are working less. The 2012 data, with a linear model applied is shown in Chart 2.

Chart 2 – Average hours worked per person per year Vs. GDP per Capita (PPP) – OECD Countries, 2012

prod_chart_2

What this model tells us is that for every extra $1,000 of GDP (PPP) per capita, the average person will work 16.4 hours less per year. When we use this model to predict the number of hours the average person will work per year based on the GDP (PPP) per capita of their country, we come up with an estimated hours worked per person per year for each country, which we can then compare to the actual value for each country. The results of this comparison are shown in Chart 3.

Chart 3 – Average hours per person per year – Actual vs. Forecast, 2012

prod_chart_3

What we see is that even if we remove the differences in wealth from average hours worked per person per year, the average citizen in many northern European countries (particularly Germany and Denmark) are still working less hours than we would expect. The verdict for Southern European nations is more mixed. People in Portugal and Spain are also working fewer hours than we would expect, the Italians are more or less in line with expectations, while the Greeks are again well ahead of what would be expected.

So what is the bottom line here? What conclusions can we take away from this? The answer is surprisingly little. There are a huge range of incentives and disincentives that are unique to each country that we are completely ignoring in this analysis. We also have no way of identifying how effective or productive different people are while they are at work, which as I’m sure anyone who has worked with another human being can testify, can vary pretty dramatically. So, despite the above evidence, no one should be prepared to believe the people of Germany or Denmark are ‘lazier’ than people in Mexico, the US or Korea. What we can say though is what evidence is missing from the above analysis – and what is clearly missing is any evidence that the people of southern European nations are ‘lazier’ than their northern European counterparts.

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