Should we pity the rich?
Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images   

It is said that misery loves company, but what it really loves is in-depth journalism. If you’re feeling miserable, then there’s no shortage of long-reads that detail how other people are feeling miserable too.

I’m not talking about people living in miserable conditions or struggling with clinical depression, but the apparent ‘winners’ of our society – those firmly on the path to a successful career.

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The bitter truth about Millennial burnout

By Peter Franklin

I’ve unpacked much-discussed pieces about millennial misery here and here, but today it’s the turn of a slightly older age group – those in the prime of their careers. They feature in a New York Times article by Charles Duhigg, in which he focuses on a very privileged group – his fellow Harvard Business School graduates:

“A Harvard M.B.A. seemed like a winning lottery ticket, a gilded highway to world-changing influence, fantastic wealth and — if those self-satisfied portraits that lined the hallways were any indication — a lifetime of deeply meaningful work.

“So it came as a bit of a shock, when I attended my 15th reunion last summer, to learn how many of my former classmates weren’t overjoyed by their professional lives — in fact, they were miserable.”

There’s that word again: miserable. But why?

“Based on my own conversations with classmates and the research I began reviewing, the answer comes down to oppressive hours, political infighting, increased competition sparked by globalization, an ‘always-on culture’ bred by the internet — but also…an underlying sense that their work isn’t worth the grueling effort they’re putting into it.”

It’s true that some careers demand everything from those pursuing them, but then so does holding down two or three jobs just to get by on poverty pay. At least top-flight bankers and management consultants are well-remunerated for their efforts.

That said, there comes a point at which extra money isn’t worth it anymore:

“…once you can provide financially for yourself and your family, according to studies, additional salary and benefits don’t reliably contribute to worker satisfaction”

But why, given choices that the poor can only dream of, do the rich stick with jobs that make them unhappy?

There are many reasons – one of the most basic being social expectation and the funding requirements of an ‘enviable’ lifestyle.

Another reason is that some of them are saving enough money so that they can break free. In the Wall Street Journal, Anne Tergesen and Veronica Dagher write about the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement:

“FIRE adherents are often millennials and younger members of Generation X who have college degrees, above-average incomes and the discipline to adopt a strict do-it-yourself approach to retirement. Some say they are saving as much as three-quarters of their income, or five times the 15% savings rate conventional financial advisers often recommend…”

With enough money squirrelled away they hope to buy their freedom before they get old. Again, this is a minority pursuit for well-paid professionals – it’s hard to save any, let alone most, of your income when your monthly pay-check barely covers the rent.

Nevertheless, elite employers need to ask themselves why their expensively-educated, richly-rewarded employees see the workplace as a prison to escape from. Or rather, I should say they ought to ask themselves that question because, in practical terms, they don’t need to at all.

Clustered together in global cities, leading companies have access to a deep pool of eager recruits. The attrition rate of an ‘up-or-out’ career structure may be high, but when you can pick-and-choose from thousands of graduates hammering at your door that doesn’t matter.

One of Charles Duhigg’s most interesting observations is that his Harvard classmates were not uniformly miserable. Some of them had found careers that are “both financially and emotionally rewarding” – and what’s more they often had something in common:

“They tended to be the also-rans of the class, the ones who failed to get the jobs they wanted when they graduated. They had been passed over by McKinsey & Company and Google, Goldman Sachs and Apple, the big venture-capital firms and prestigious investment houses.”

In other words, they hadn’t been sucked up by the system. Not having shone in the preparatory stage of the elite career treadmill (i.e. university), they missed out on the next stage of the process – i.e. the high-status internships, graduate schemes and other means of producing perfectly-oiled cogs for the machine.

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What cost your free lunch?

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Unsupported by external sources of validation and guidance, the only path to success for individuals who don’t fit in is for them to find their own way. One can see how these individuals might be more fulfilled than those who surrendered to the machine.

One final question: why should the rest of us care? Are there not people in this world more deserving of our compassion? If the unhappy rich don’t like their jobs, they can do something else. After all, top employers don’t press-gang their staff, they open applications.

But, unfortunately, the workplace culture of the corporate class affects us all. It’s in the nature of elites to influence whatever they’re the elite of. They establish norms, and thus utter disrespect for work-life balance at the top undermines it at the middle and the bottom too. (We also see the trickledown effect with the perceived requirement for expensively-obtained academic qualifications.)

In their towers of glass and steel, it may seem as if the influence of the high-flyers is economic, not cultural. But work is most of our waking lives. If family, community and place become distant to those deemed worthy of the highest rewards, these things will be diminished in all our lives, too.