Dalton Conley Replies

The NYU sociologist elaborates on stress, work, and the rich.

In a recent column (“Stress and Class“), I chided New York University sociologist Dalton Conley for arguing that the rich experience the most stress in our society. Conley has filed the following good-natured reply:

In a New York Times op-ed that I published on Sept. 3 (“Rich Man’s Burden“), I argued that Americans in the top half of the income distribution are experiencing what I called an “economic red shift.” Like the shift in the light spectrum caused by the galaxies rushing away, those Americans who are in the top half of the income distribution (where inequality is rising) experience a sensation that, while they may be pulling away from the bottom half, they are also being left further and further behind by those just above them. One result of these forces is that perhaps for the first time since such records were kept, higher income folks put in more hours than lower earners. The more we earn, the more hours we put in, since the opportunity cost of not doing so is all the greater (and since the higher we go, the more relatively deprived we feel thanks to the exponential distribution of income). Add in a market for everything that used to be done outside the economic realm—food preparation, laundry, even grooming and physical touch—and wage earning is made all the more easy (and necessary).In a Chatterbox post, Timothy Noah took me to task for writing the following: “[I]t is now the rich who are the most stressed out and the most likely to be working the most.”Noah misses the thrust of the argument, which focused on the work-hours shift, not on stress. That said, Noah’s point is well taken. One of the things we surely need to think through is that there are many forms of being “stressed out”; likewise, there are many ways that folks react to stress. There is no doubt that sitting around the kitchen table these days discussing rising energy prices, balloon payments on mortgages, rising tuition costs and so on is a lot more relaxing when you are at the top of the earnings distribution (or if, like John McCain, you have seven kitchen tables from which to choose). And there is no doubt that the nature of the workday is quite different for the typical professional than it is for the average cashier or food service worker (the fastest growing low-wage job category). In fact, in order to induce professionals to work more and more hours, one of the more insidious tactics of savvy employers—such as Google—is to make the office environment very un-work like. As I report in my forthcoming book, Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, the Family Dinner and the Age of Affluence to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms and Economic Anxiety, at firms like Google, laundry service, volleyball courts, and even massages are all meant to make the office more attractive than going home. This is quite different, obviously, from Wal-Mart or other large, low-wage employers, some of which even regulate how often employees can urinate.Likewise, it is clear from the experiments that Noah cites that lower-status workers internalize the physiological effects of stress more than their higher-ranked counterparts.  The physiological association between rank, stress and health has been known at least since Britain’s famous Whitehall Study. However, it is not clear how much of the relationship goes from occupational standing to health and how much goes from health—and the underlying attributes and behaviors that produce salubriousness—to economic position.  For example, one clever study by Stephen Snyder and William Evans took advantage of an arbitrary social security “notch” to investigate the impact of income on life expectancy.  Individuals born before January 1, 1917 received higher social security payments than those born after the cut-off date. What the economists found was counterintuitive: The individuals who received the higher payments actually experienced higher mortality rates. The reason?  They were more likely to be able to afford to work less (or not at all).  Work for these older Americans trying to get by on Social Security is actually heath-promoting.  I bring this example up not to refute Noah’s claim that low-wage employees suffer more stress and indignation on the job (and off) but merely to hint that the sometimes-counterintuitive relationship between education, income, work, stress and health is not so easy to disentangle.That said, the rise in low-wage service sector jobs probably makes the psychological tolls of working at the bottom of our hierarchy worse (or at least different) than they were in the heyday of manufacturing.  So, indeed, I agree with Noah: The fact that the more earnings rise, the more folks report feeling relatively worse off, or more stressed out, may just be “yuppie kvetching,” as economists Hammermesh and Lee speculate. Along similar lines, Americans today report getting about an hour less sleep per night than they did back in the 1960s. I think these self-reported statistics on sleep and “kvetching” may reflect a new ethic: It is cool to appear over-worked, at least to a certain segment of society. This ethic, which I call the Elsewhere Ethic, is a far cry from both the corporate social ethnic of the mid-20th Century or the Protestant ethic of 100 years ago. And if this dimension of stress is subjective, how could folks be “lying” to survey takers? And why do we care if upper-income yuppies kvetch when things are really not so bad? Because their sense of anxiety is what is further driving the workaholic, spendaholic culture we all endure.

Conley wrote a little more about stress in his op-ed than he lets on. Otherwise, though, I can find nothing here to argue with.