How to Resist the Lure of ‘Greedy Work’

“Greedy work” is work that encroaches on an employee’s day, usually at the expense of family and personal time.

epicantus/Pixabay/CC0 (photo: Register Files)

“Greedy work” is a term used by Kay Hymowitz, a contributing editor at the Institute for Family Studies in Charlottesville, Virginia, and William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She attributes it to Claire Cain Miller, who described in an April 26 New York Times article the pay gap between two attorneys, married to each other, which she primarily spins from a “gender” perspective. They’re on to something.

By “greedy work” we refer to the tendency of work to ever more encroach on an employee’s day, usually at the expense of family and personal time.

Today’s vocabulary related to work, employment, and HR practices usually includes the expression “work/life balance.” Most employers will, at some time or another, pay the concept at least lip service. Behind “work/life balance” lies a basic Catholic social ethics perspective: people work to live, they do not live to work. Work exists to afford people a humane life.

But—as Miller and Hymowitz point out—“work got greedy.”

God is generous with His many gifts, but time is not necessarily one of them. As the old saw goes, there are “only 24 hours in a day” and, no matter how you cut it, no week will exceed 168 hours. God also made us in a way that, after a certain span of time, our bodies will give out to physical fatigue, i.e., we will have to go to sleep, regardless of how much willpower, coffee, and/or Red Bull we apply. Yes, our society is suffering from sleep deprivation and related sleep disorders (sleep apnea, etc.), and there are those fools who characterize sleep as wasted time rather than a Divine gift, but at least God has inserted a certain limit on our abilities to yield to “greedy work.” (The disappearance of Sunday as a day of rest is also indicative of the expansion of “greedy work,” but we’ll leave that aside for a moment). What that does mean, however, that hitting up against the barrier of physical endurance, the only place “greedy work” can suck out time is from personal and family life. And, as the old proverb observes, nobody says on his deathbed, “I wish I spent more time at work.”

Anybody who studied American history remembers that, as labor unions began to be formed in the late 19th century, one of their key and early demands was a fixed workweek. The “40 hour workweek” was a rallying cry of labor organizers and a demand of the Knights of Labor and the AFL. By the early 20th century, thinking had shifted far enough that the eight hour workday was more the norm than the exception in American labor which was, at the time, primarily manufacturing.

Contemporary political controversies roil about the decline of manufacturing as a sector of the American economy. There are, indeed, economists, public policy makers and opinion-makers who applaud manufacturing’s eclipse, arguing that America is now a “knowledge” and “service” economy. We can debate the merits of that transition, but one thing’s for sure: much of that “professional knowledge and service” economy is built on “greedy work.”

As I mentioned, Miller’s article describes husband and wife attorneys. He works routinely 50-60 hours per week (10-12 hours per day), up to 80 (i.e., 16 hours/day) when a “major deal” is in the making. She works part-time, about 21 hours per week (i.e., four hours a day if working weekdays).

Obviously, he makes a lot more money than she does, not because she’s a woman but because he works up to four times more. He’ll praise “work-life balance” but then salute the employee who sacrificed the kid’s birthday party for a revised agenda. The laissez-faire capitalist would say that’s how it should be.

Should it?

As a husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. Attorney may have other identities besides “lawyer.” One of those identities may be “parent.” But, as Hymowitz points out, if parent # 1 (to use preferred contemporary terminology) is out-of-the-house 16 hours a day, it’s likely parent # 2 is going to have to cut back on work time, especially when kids are young.

Apologists for this order of things will talk about “trade-offs” and the “nature of work.” They’ll point out that, in our globalized world, the top-of-the-line Mr. Attorney is not writing wills and deeds for the Jones but monitoring that investment deal in Shanghai, which is 12 hours ahead of New York, and Mr. Broker is watching the Frankfurt DAX which opens at 3 a.m. New York time. “The job just requires it.”

Does it?

Does the job require it, or does the employer simply not want to invest in the additional workers needed to create a humane order in his workplace?

When we pretend that the “job requires it,” we introduce all sorts of distortions into the workplace.

No longer do we measure or evaluate the employee by the standards of a humane workday, but by the standards of “greedy work.” The “ideal” employee is no longer the man or woman that puts in a solid, eight-hour performance. Suddenly, there are unspoken assumptions about “getting the job done” and “going the extra mile.” We measure performance not a work/life balanced performance but by the employee ready to give short shrift to all the other parts of his life to “prove” his “value” or “loyalty” to his institution. It is inherently unjust to create an evaluation or promotion standard that measures performance by one’s willingness to make one’s workplace one’s first home and one’s house a second home.

Hymowitz and Miller rightly brand this kind of employment “greedy work” because such employers often operate on the unspoken assumption that families (and their working members) are the “greedy” and “needy” side, taking away from “important” stuff—like signing that deal tonight instead of tomorrow—for school concerts or stuffy noses. Kudos to them for rightly identifying where the “greed” lies.

Catholic social thought has always taught that the family is the basic cell of society. The family—not the workplace. Healthy societies are forged in domestic hearths, not corporate boardrooms or around the firm’s partners’ table.

Millennials are sometimes unjustly the whipping boys for other social ills, but they have been identified as deferring marriage, declining interest in sex, and delayed family formation. Part of this phenomenon may very well be attributable to “greedy work,” into which millennials have been socialized since childhood.

Because I believe, with St. John Paul II, that the primary driver of any society is neither politics nor economics but culture, we have to ask ourselves: what kind of workplace are we allowing to exist, even thrive and set expectations? A workplace that is inimical to family formation? A workplace that does not need future consumers? A workplace that thinks it has no responsibility for mentally and morally healthy future generations, which generally does not come from “latch-key parenting?”

Obviously, “greedy work” has particular implications for women. As Miller notes, it’s Mrs. Attorney who’s taken the slower track and, thus, by the standards used to evaluate performance, “just doesn’t cut it.” This often exacerbates the “war between the sexes” and the question of division of labor which, professions of “equality” aside, still does not account for the unique impact maternity has on women. Professional ranking should not be downgraded because a woman chose the “mommy-track.”

Catholic social thought’s emphasis on the “family wage” has been lost on our society, which has transmogrified into a model where two full-time wage earners are typically required to try to reach “the American dream.” I won’t get into whether excessive consumerism might be part of that “dream,” but I do want to suggest that what has happened is that we have especially allowed “greedy work” to factor out the family as irrelevant to employers’ concerns and employees’ identities. There would seem to be a lot of common cause to be made with many other constituencies in favor of recovering the familial perspective in America today. Catholic social thought has something unique to contribute there.

All opinions expressed herein are exclusively the author’s.