Today's super-wealthy are just as lazy as the rest of us
In a recent analysis of luxury spending, Rana Foroohar of the Financial Times has noted that, despite plunging stock markets, luxury spending by the ultra-rich continues to grow. This elite group has accumulated so much wealth in the era of cheap money that not only can they absorb the drop in the value of their portfolios, but they can keep spending throughout. One interviewee estimated to Foroohar that, on average, the ultra-wealthy work only about six hours a day while also taking long holidays, thereby leaving plenty of time for shopping and leisure. According to them, the workaholic billionaire is a myth.
The rise of a sybaritic leisure class is nothing new. What is new, however, is a leisure class composed of people trying to convince us all how hard they work. Historically, the ruling class abhorred labour precisely because it was a dirty, menial and onerous activity associated with the lower orders, whether they were slaves, peasants or lower castes. Labour left no time for the refinement, education and self-cultivation that marked out the elite.
Not so today, where ultra-high-net-worth individuals and their hangers-on seek not only to flaunt how hard they work, but have also cultivated a social mystique of punishing work schedules. Marxists used to fret about the supposed ‘embourgeoisement’ of the proletariat, but what we’ve witnessed in the era of cheap money is the embourgeoisement of the bourgeoisie. Instead of aspiring to become dilettantes, decadent bohemians and aristocrats as per the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman, today the bourgeoisie seek to continue flaunting their virtue long after they’ve acquired their millions.
Perusing social media will quickly get you to accounts that recount the gruelling work schedules of the rich and famous, tacitly extending the fantastical promise that if you go jogging at 4am, have an ice bath every morning and survive on air and kale smoothies, then you too might just become fabulously wealthy and celebrated.
That such social media accounts have thousands of followers may not be surprising, but their influence extends much further — the ‘side hustle’ and the ‘rise and grind’ mentality speak to the pervasive reach of this ideology. Enter any university gym, and you will see it filled with youngsters who would prefer to film themselves pumping iron rather than being out enjoying more dissolute pastimes.
Of course there are plenty who are wise to the pomposity and hollowness of this trend — the popular social media account The State of LinkedIn identifies some of the most egregious offenders among the zealots of the new faith. Even the FT carried a piece gently lampooning this latest outgrowth of the cult of the CEO.
But satirising ‘productivity porn’ does not explain its existence and pervasiveness. The Protestant ethic was functional when it emerged in sixteenth-century Europe, as its prim, industrious and frugal outlook helped to lift humanity out of the sloth and squalor of the Middle Ages. But what good is an ethic of industriousness after the Industrial Revolution has already happened, and when we have the capacity to substitute technology for labour?
The sheer ostentation of the productivity cult makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that much of it is performative — but in a secular age it is a performance for the benefit of ourselves rather than for Calvin’s God. By participating in the Rise and Grind, we legitimise existing structures of rule — the cult of the CEO but also, indeed especially, the meritocracy — and the notion that the quantity and intensity of labour correlates with success and wealth.
Whereas the old ascetics sought to stave off sin and predestination through hard and virtuous work, through their ice baths and yoga contortions our meritocrats assuage their guilt over wealth that was won more from central bank policies than individual flair and effort. If the rich continue to keep spending as the era of cheap money comes to an end, perhaps we can pray that they will at least stop pretending to work so hard all the time.