The American Dream is founded on the belief that if you work hard enough, eventually you can earn your way to financial success. This rags to riches narrative is deeply ingrained in our culture. Many people have either been a part of it themselves or can name relatives that came from little and worked their way up to becoming much more successful than their parents. The American work ethic is part of what has made this country great, but when does working hard become working too much?
According to The Atlantic, the amount of workers putting in more than 50 hours a week has been climbing steadily for the past decade. For the middle and lower classes, this increase in work has been necessary to make the same amount of money, but even many professionals on Wall Street, whose take-home-pay is consistently in the six figures, are pushing themselves past the point of exhaustion and putting their health and lives at risk.
Their incentive for these dangerous work habits is to prove themselves to their superiors. The New York Times reports that, because many of their jobs do not require creative thinking, the only way to set those on Wall Street apart from the other workers is sheer endurance. Those who are willing to sleep under their desk, work several days without sleeping at all or sacrifice holiday time will climb higher in this competitive world.
After several accounts of seizures and suicides from younger, newer employees working under tremendous stress for several days on end, some of these firms have sought to put limits on how much employees can work. Goldman Sachs prevents its junior bankers from working from 9:00 p.m. Friday to 9:00 a.m. Sunday, and Barclay does not allow its analysts to work more than twelve days in a row.
Such limits seem like a step in the right direction, but the culture of overwork is so established that it is a source of pride among these young workers. They take pride in their strenuous work schedules.
When considering this culture of overwork in a broader context, it is apparent that this is a national issue as well, though it may make itself seem much more immediate in the high-stakes jobs found on Wall Street. The United States is the only advanced economy that does not require employers to provide paid vacation time for their employees.
In fact, almost one in four Americans lack any paid vacation time or holidays. When compared to places like Canada and Japan that guarantee 10 days of paid vacation time a year, and especially the European Union which guarantees workers 20 days of paid vacation time a year, the U.S. falls woefully short in providing for its workers.
This may be shifting in the near future though, as presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has been calling for paid maternity and sick leave, and candidate Bernie Sanders is also calling for these changes, as well as for the institution of paid vacation in the United States. Such campaign trail promises indicate that politicians have noted that the American worker needs respite from a demanding workplace.