Stress and Class

An NYU sociologist claims, preposterously, that it’s more stressful to be rich than poor.

Dalton Conley, chairman of the Sociology Department at New York University, has written extensively about race, poverty, and social class and was himself raised in a housing project on New York’s Lower East Side. This ought to inoculate him against the popular notion, cherished by the professional classes, that the BlackBerry-punching haves experience more stress in their daily lives than the indolent poor. Apparently, it hasn’t. In a Sept. 2 New York Times op-ed, Conley writes:

[I]t is now the rich who are the most stressed out and the most likely to be working the most. Perhaps for the first time since we’ve kept track of such things, higher-income folks work more hours than lower-wage earners do. Since 1980, the number of men in the bottom fifth of the income ladder who work long hours (over 49 hours per week) has dropped by half, according to a study by the economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano. But among the top fifth of earners, long weeks have increased by 80 percent.

Now, it may be true that the bottom fifth is working fewer hours while the top fifth is working longer hours. The authors of the study in question (PDF) claim no insight as to why this should be so and note that because the observed shift took place fully two decades ago, it “is not likely related to advances in communications technology (such as the Internet) that facilitate additional work from home.” Scratch the BlackBerry and the easy availability of wireless Internet off your list of possible culprits. Remember, too, that these findings may be distorted by the survey’s exclusion of women and the self-employed. Still, for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the haves are now working longer hours than the have-nots. How does Conley make the leap from saying the haves consume more time on the job to saying, “[I]t is now the rich who are the most stressed out”?

Such a connection may seem intuitive but only if you ignore the difference between the workweek of the typical high-earner and that of the typical low-earner.

For the haves, what does a longer workweek mean? More meetings, almost certainly. Meetings are often dull, but they are seldom stressful. More conversations with the people you manage. These may be exasperating, but when a boss addresses an underling, odds are it’s the underling who’s going to experience whatever stress the exchange generates. That stress tends to diminish as you work your way up the organizational chart, so an increase in a high-earner’s conversations with his own boss won’t likely fray his nerves very badly.

For the low-earner, the workweek is an altogether different proposition. It’s much likelier to entail physical labor, which is more taxing and almost always more dangerous than mental labor. It’s also likelier to involve more petty supervision of the quantity of the low-earner’s output, the courtesy that the low-earner extends to the public, and the frequency with which the low-earner makes personal use of his phone and/or computer. If any of these are found wanting, the low-earner faces serious danger of being fired, because employees near the bottom of the organization chart are always easier to replace than employees near the top.

In stating that wealthier Americans are more stressed out than poorer ones, Conley cites two pieces of evidence. The first is a  study (PDF) by economists Daniel Hamermesh and Jungmin Lee that found women with higher earnings reported experiencing higher levels of stress than women with lower earnings. The other is a poll of New Yorkers that found people earning more than $200,000 a year were likelier than those in any other income group to feel poor when “seeing other people with money.” But the only thing these two data points really prove is that high-earners are likelier than low-earners to bellyache about whatever stress they experience, possibly because they feel more entitled. As Hamermesh and Lee point out in their conclusion, “Whether one should be concerned about these complaints or simply view them as yuppie kvetching is a matter of values.” Scratch values and substitute common sense.

Twenty years ago, journalist John Tierney (whose politics skew libertarian rather than redistributionist) found a much more effective way to compare the stress experienced by America’s haves and have-nots. In a classic piece for the New York Times Magazine (“Wired for Stress“), Tierney reported that scientists at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center’s cardiovascular center had hooked up two people in high-stress jobs to a device that measured their blood pressure every 15 minutes. One was a 48-year-old Caucasian named Gianni Fidanza who worked on Park Avenue as a stockbroker. The other was a 34-year-old African-American single mother named Cathy Collins who worked at New York Hospital as a clerical aide.

By mere happenstance, the day chosen to record for posterity Fidanza’s varying blood pressure was Oct. 19, 1987 (“Black Monday”). On that day, the stock market set a record for the largest one-day percentage decline: The Dow fell 508 points, or 22 percent. In all likelihood, it was the most stressful day Fidanza ever experienced in his working life. The day chosen to record Collins’ blood pressure, meanwhile, was “a perfectly ordinary Wednesday.” Yet during their respective workdays, the increase in blood pressure experienced by Fidanza as he watched the stock market crash matched that experienced by Collins as she went about her daily chores. And while Fidanza’s blood pressure dropped back to normal once he got home, Collins’ rose 10 percent after she returned home and started tending to her two children.

What did Collins experience at work that could match Fidanza’s Black Monday stress? Tierney, who followed Collins around that day, recorded a typical stress-inducing moment:

At 10:26 A.M., she was standing, the phone cradled on her shoulder, and contending with the following:* One patient at her desk, waiting to talk to her.
* One secretary with a question about another patient’s chart.
* Two lighted buttons on her telephone, indicating incoming calls, and one buzzing intercom.
* Two forms on her desk, which she was filling out as she punched back and forth between phone calls.
* A three-inch-thick stack of paperwork in her ”In” box, above which she had taped a sign, ”Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”
* Her boss, who had just emerged from his office with a sheet of paper and said, ”Cathy, I need this Xeroxed right away, please.” At that moment, a beep sounded, the machine at her waist started drawing in air, and the cuff on her arm tightened. The monitor showed her pulse, which had been 71, to be 82; her blood pressure was 116/72. (Researchers don’t agree which of these three numbers is the best indicator of stress, but the one that has traditionally received the most attention is the diastolic blood pressure—the second figure given, in this case, 72—which is used to diagnose hypertension. It measures pressure in the arteries between heart beats; the other reading, the systolic pressure, here 116, measures peak pressure while the heart is pumping.) Collins’s diastolic pressure had risen 26 percent, an even greater percentage change than Fidanza had registered that first hour of Black Monday. And, as it turned out, this wasn’t even the biggest surge of the day for Cathy Collins.

There is no reason to believe that American working-class life has become more easeful since Tierney published this article in May 1988. Nor am I aware that respective health outcomes for rich and poor—surely a reasonable measure of stress—have altered since I cited Britain’s Whitehall Study, a medical survey of British civil servants, in this column in 1999. That study (mentioned in Helen Epstein’s excellent 1998 essay in the New York Review of BooksLife and Death on the Social Ladder“) found death rates to be lower for civil servants in the highest ranks even when smoking and cholesterol were taken into account. As Epstein put it, “Simply being a senior assistant statistician, rather than chief statistician, increased one’s risk of having a fatal heart attack nearly twofold, even if one led an apparently salubrious life.”

It’s easy to imagine that “It is now the rich who are the most stressed out” is what readers of the Times op-ed page want to hear. But that doesn’t make it true.