When you ask a professional friend or colleague how they're doing these days, the most likely answer you're going to hear is some version of "insanely busy." But when scientists ask Americans to meticulously document how they spend their days, they discover that collectively we all still have ample time for kicking back, watching TV, and plenty of sleep.

What's going on? Are Americans all lying about how busy they are? Or are your "slammed" friends really putting in the insane hours they're claiming?

Maybe a little bit of both, suggests a completely fascinating new article by Jeff Spross in The Week (hat tip to Business Insider for the pointer) covering new research by Heather Boushey and Bridget Ansel of the Center for Equitable Growth. Their work looks into who exactly works long hours, and compares today's patterns to those of the past.

It's crazy busy at the top

In short, Boushey and Ansel discovered that these days long workweeks have become both a status symbol and sometimes a necessity if you want to reach the top of some of the country's most coveted professions.

"The jobs where people are most likely to work over 40 or 45 hours a week are highly-paid professional positions like lawyer, business management, engineering, and finance. Low-income service jobs in health care, office support, the food industry, and the like are where people are the least likely to work long hours," Spross says, summing up the research. Men and white people in general are also more likely to keep crazy schedules.

That means long hours have become synonymous with reaching the pinnacle of career success, which makes talking about your crazy schedule (whether or not you really have one) a great way to subtly boast about your importance--kind of the professional equivalent of carrying a pricey designer handbag (which may or may not be a knockoff).

"Bankers' hours" no longer

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the article, though, is the section where Spross compares today's work patterns with those of the past. Not too long ago, he reminds readers, a leisurely schedule was a prize the successful wanted to show off.

"The groups working the longest hours are the ones who enjoy the most privilege," he writes. "That's striking, since more leisure time has traditionally been associated with privilege. As Boushey and Ansel point out, 'If you Google the definition of bankers' hours, it refers to the short working hours bankers used to enjoy, which is certainly not the case today.'"

In short, "in America over the last few decades, the association between leisure and privilege has been flipped on its head," Spross notes. Why is that? Check out the complete article for all the details, but a big part of the answer seems to be that high-status professions have become more cutthroat, with the gap in pay between the best practitioners and mediocre ones widening significantly.

"This intra-occupational income inequality means professional offices are able to demand longer hours even from highly paid workers," notes Spross. Other factors are in play too, but the outcome, in Spross's memorable words, is stark: "The American workplace has basically become a Thunderdome where the victors are rewarded with long hours."

So next time someone humblebrags to you about their long hours, spare a thought for these findings. A couple of realities could be behind their boasting, but neither option is particularly cheering. Either they're inflating their hours to inflate their own importance or they're actually the "winner" of a brutal workplace tournament that insists on insane hours as the price of admission. It's enough to make anyone nostalgic for bankers' hours.

Published on: Aug 18, 2016