Regarding Three-Piece Suits, Breakfast Meetings and Overwork

No, this isn’t about “American Hustle”; it’s a commentary on James Surowiecki’s interesting article in The New Yorker on the cult of long working hours. I don’t exactly disagree with his argument, but I’d place the emphasis a bit differently.

First of all, he’s right that for what he calls knowledge workers – I’d just say elite workers in general – the whole time ethos has changed. When I was growing up on Long Island, there was a clear class hierarchy in commute times. Early trains were filled with menial workers; the later the train, the more and fancier the suits, with executives starting their day at 9:30 or 10 a.m. These days, if anything, it is reversed: There are a lot of hard-driving suits on the early trains, and the later trains are much more mixed.

So what is this about? Mr. Surowiecki emphasizes the incentives of employers, and their difficulty in taking the negative effects on productivity into account. My sense, however, is that the most important factor – which he alludes to but doesn’t put at the center – is signaling. Working insane hours is a sign of commitment, of willingness to sacrifice for the job; the personal destructiveness of the practice isn’t a bug, but a feature.

To be fair, my view is partly shaped by personal experience. I’ve never worked at an investment bank, thank God. In fact, the only time I’ve had a job with a regular commute that required me to wear a suit every day was my stint working for the Council of Economic Advisers under President Reagan in 1982 to 1983.

But during that time, the centrality of discomfort as a proof of seriousness was overwhelmingly obvious. If you were at all ambitious, you wore a three-piece suit every day. In Washington, D.C., in July, that’s completely crazy, but that was the point.

And then there were the breakfast meetings. I can understand why busy, productive people might sometimes want to meet at 7 a.m., but what soon became completely clear was that the people who insisted on those early meetings were the least competent and productive guys – the economics team at the National Security Council, which was totally hopeless in the Reagan years, the team at Agriculture, and so on. (No offense to current personnel, who I hope are in a completely different class; there were a lot of really strange people allegedly doing economics in the early Reagan period.) It was hard not to conclude that they were making a show of being incredibly busy and hard-working; they probably went back to their offices after breakfast and read Ayn Rand novels or something.

Meanwhile, people at the Office of the United States Trade Representative and the Federal Reserve, who really did know what they were doing, showed no similar fetish.

To the extent that this is a problem, I guess rules are the answer. But I wonder whether the urge to signal will just pop up somewhere else.