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The myth of the workaholic billionaire

Jeff Bezos looking for the next opportunity to show off his grindset credentials. Credit: Getty

January 26, 2023 - 1:00pm

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.


Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London. He is author or editor of eight books, as well as a co-author of Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (2023). He is one of the hosts of the Bungacast podcast.

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Chris Hume
Chris Hume
1 year ago

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

It would surely be more instructive to examine the work rate of a billionaire before they amass the fortune, rather than after. You would hardly expect Bezos to work as many hours as he did when he was starting out

Chris Hume
Chris Hume
1 year ago

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

It would surely be more instructive to examine the work rate of a billionaire before they amass the fortune, rather than after. You would hardly expect Bezos to work as many hours as he did when he was starting out

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago

I’ve never minded billionaires, but what I do mind is the way some of them try to buy influence and political power by donating to so-called philanthropic causes that on the surface appear noble, but in actuality cede more wealth and power to themselves.
I wish we could send them all to some tropical island retirement home where they are waited on hand-and-foot by androids and never hear from them again.

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Little St James?

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago
Reply to  Robbie K

New Zealand?

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago
Reply to  Robbie K

New Zealand?

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Little St James?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago

I’ve never minded billionaires, but what I do mind is the way some of them try to buy influence and political power by donating to so-called philanthropic causes that on the surface appear noble, but in actuality cede more wealth and power to themselves.
I wish we could send them all to some tropical island retirement home where they are waited on hand-and-foot by androids and never hear from them again.

Nigel Rodgers
Nigel Rodgers
1 year ago

‘Sloth and squalor of the Middle Ages’! Have you ever been inside a medieval cathedral? Look around you the next time you do.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Nigel Rodgers

Good point. Canterbury took my breath away.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Nigel Rodgers

Good point. Canterbury took my breath away.

Nigel Rodgers
Nigel Rodgers
1 year ago

‘Sloth and squalor of the Middle Ages’! Have you ever been inside a medieval cathedral? Look around you the next time you do.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 year ago

What a ridiculous piece. How about this for a title. “Once people are really wealthy they don’t have to work as much”. My brother is worth several 10’s of millions of dollars. He started his first business in 1994, his second about 10 years later. He spent the first 15-20 years working 100 hour weeks, having no vacations, and at one point taking a second mortgage on his house to make payroll for his employees.
Now after all that time busting his ass he has well over 400 employees between the 2 businesses. All of them can thank him for being solidly employed in our community. And now that he is rich he can do things like spend a month of each winter away somewhere warm (mind you, still doing meetings and putting out fires remotely).
I wonder if you average the hours that Jeff Bezos worked in the years up until he was wealthy with the hours he works now that he IS wealthy, what his average week would actually be.
We also need to keep in mind that (in North America at least), there are as many prime-working-age men out of the workforce (with things like anxiety, sore backs, sore necks) than there were during the great depression. So there is a whole underclass of people who work far less than billionaires. Their lifestyle is enabled by the wealth that billionaires and other entrepreneurs has created.
This piece smacks of envy and nastiness, and shows no insight into just how hard and stressful it is to be an entrepreneur, what percentage of them fail, etc. My guess is that far more entrepreneurs crash, burn, and commit suicide than ever have the kind of success that a Jeff Bezos did.

Last edited 1 year ago by Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 year ago

What a ridiculous piece. How about this for a title. “Once people are really wealthy they don’t have to work as much”. My brother is worth several 10’s of millions of dollars. He started his first business in 1994, his second about 10 years later. He spent the first 15-20 years working 100 hour weeks, having no vacations, and at one point taking a second mortgage on his house to make payroll for his employees.
Now after all that time busting his ass he has well over 400 employees between the 2 businesses. All of them can thank him for being solidly employed in our community. And now that he is rich he can do things like spend a month of each winter away somewhere warm (mind you, still doing meetings and putting out fires remotely).
I wonder if you average the hours that Jeff Bezos worked in the years up until he was wealthy with the hours he works now that he IS wealthy, what his average week would actually be.
We also need to keep in mind that (in North America at least), there are as many prime-working-age men out of the workforce (with things like anxiety, sore backs, sore necks) than there were during the great depression. So there is a whole underclass of people who work far less than billionaires. Their lifestyle is enabled by the wealth that billionaires and other entrepreneurs has created.
This piece smacks of envy and nastiness, and shows no insight into just how hard and stressful it is to be an entrepreneur, what percentage of them fail, etc. My guess is that far more entrepreneurs crash, burn, and commit suicide than ever have the kind of success that a Jeff Bezos did.

Last edited 1 year ago by Chris Milburn
Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago

Sweeping generalisations in this piece make it hard to take seriously. Billionaires are not a homogenous population. There are those who inherited wealth (aristocracy), those who acquired it by dubious means (oligarchs), those who made it by investing wisely (Buffet), those who climbed the greasy corporate pole (bankers) and those who created it (entrepreneurs).
Most of those in the last category (including Musk and Bezos) will most certainly have got where they are by being workaholics, and will continue to be until they drop, rather than becoming part of what Mr Cunliffe calls the ‘sybaritic leisure class’. Just because they are worth billions does not mean they lose their entrepreneurial drive.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago

Sweeping generalisations in this piece make it hard to take seriously. Billionaires are not a homogenous population. There are those who inherited wealth (aristocracy), those who acquired it by dubious means (oligarchs), those who made it by investing wisely (Buffet), those who climbed the greasy corporate pole (bankers) and those who created it (entrepreneurs).
Most of those in the last category (including Musk and Bezos) will most certainly have got where they are by being workaholics, and will continue to be until they drop, rather than becoming part of what Mr Cunliffe calls the ‘sybaritic leisure class’. Just because they are worth billions does not mean they lose their entrepreneurial drive.

Zack Jones
Zack Jones
1 year ago

Subscribed on the back of this piece (and others shared on Twitter recently…)

The delusional billionairism concept is one that really irks on me when I discuss ambition with old friends and ambitious acquaintances. Perhaps it’s an overly cynical position I hold personally that the unreachable wealth of our overlords is a deluded fantasy for almost every one of us on this planet and it is a poisonous ideal to be chasing.

I prefer to view these ambitions for what they are, a fantasy of astronomical individual wealth, perpetuated throughout social media by grifters and beneficiaries that serves either their own selfish journey to this ‘pinnacle’ or keeps their own idealiazations within believable touching distance to invest their lives into chasing this unattainable and frankly disgusting level of affluence.

Last edited 1 year ago by Zack Jones
Zack Jones
Zack Jones
1 year ago

Subscribed on the back of this piece (and others shared on Twitter recently…)

The delusional billionairism concept is one that really irks on me when I discuss ambition with old friends and ambitious acquaintances. Perhaps it’s an overly cynical position I hold personally that the unreachable wealth of our overlords is a deluded fantasy for almost every one of us on this planet and it is a poisonous ideal to be chasing.

I prefer to view these ambitions for what they are, a fantasy of astronomical individual wealth, perpetuated throughout social media by grifters and beneficiaries that serves either their own selfish journey to this ‘pinnacle’ or keeps their own idealiazations within believable touching distance to invest their lives into chasing this unattainable and frankly disgusting level of affluence.

Last edited 1 year ago by Zack Jones
Jim R
Jim R
1 year ago

This article is simplistic. Of course its a myth that all billionaires are workaholics. Does that mean no billionaires are workaholics? What exactly does an average of 6 tell you when the range of inputs is 0-18? It is not a homogenous group. The ideal society would be one that handsomely rewards hard work and penalizes sloth – but there’s been a dramatic decline in social mobility and that’s the real problem. How many ultra rich people are rags to riches success stories and how many married (or divorced) into wealth or were born into it? Wealth should be the reward for a life of hard work.

Jim R
Jim R
1 year ago

This article is simplistic. Of course its a myth that all billionaires are workaholics. Does that mean no billionaires are workaholics? What exactly does an average of 6 tell you when the range of inputs is 0-18? It is not a homogenous group. The ideal society would be one that handsomely rewards hard work and penalizes sloth – but there’s been a dramatic decline in social mobility and that’s the real problem. How many ultra rich people are rags to riches success stories and how many married (or divorced) into wealth or were born into it? Wealth should be the reward for a life of hard work.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Ya. I’m not so sure most people think billionaires got there through blood, sweat and tears. Of course, you can always point to people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. The majority of the wealthiest people inherited it, like Saudi royalty, or those who were gifted access to Ivy League schools and the connections those bring.

On the other hand, almost everyone born and raised in the west have been gifted a comfortable lifestyle. Not so much if you were born in Somalia. IMO, many people have forgot how blessed they are just to be born in the west.

The work ethic myth has value in a free society because it creates hope that people can succeed, and rise above their station in life.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Ya. I’m not so sure most people think billionaires got there through blood, sweat and tears. Of course, you can always point to people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. The majority of the wealthiest people inherited it, like Saudi royalty, or those who were gifted access to Ivy League schools and the connections those bring.

On the other hand, almost everyone born and raised in the west have been gifted a comfortable lifestyle. Not so much if you were born in Somalia. IMO, many people have forgot how blessed they are just to be born in the west.

The work ethic myth has value in a free society because it creates hope that people can succeed, and rise above their station in life.

Neil Anthony
Neil Anthony
1 year ago

Is “Labor” solely to be measured by how much one uses their arms and legs? What about the muscle between the ears? You know the brain. Actually that muscle works best during … leisure. That’s right. Think about that for a second. Learn to use your brain, create something of use and let the rest of your comrades build it with their hammers and sickles.

Neil Anthony
Neil Anthony
1 year ago

Is “Labor” solely to be measured by how much one uses their arms and legs? What about the muscle between the ears? You know the brain. Actually that muscle works best during … leisure. That’s right. Think about that for a second. Learn to use your brain, create something of use and let the rest of your comrades build it with their hammers and sickles.

Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
1 year ago

Sour Grapes!

I can tell you from experience that hard work and self discipline all but guarantees one will be at least fairly economically well off if not rich. Sure true wealth requires a fair amount of luck and some do everything right and still unfortunately end up in a poor state, but more typically, you get out what you put in
.

I suspect if the author happen to be highly paid for his work his opinion would change – But he must understand that if he is able to make even a modest living as a commentator he is well off as he could, I am sure, do something more lucrative if less rewarding
 I choose the more rewarding economic path at the cost of hard work at something I enjoy less than I would being an author of children’s books for example 


Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Sylvestre

And I’ve seen people who work much harder than me but have much less than I do, often for reasons outside their control. By the same token I’ve met many more who are absolutely useless, yet starter higher up the ladder than most people finish simply because they were born wealthy and had good contacts. Meritocracy is a largely a myth in my eyes. At least the old class system was honest in the way it kept people in their lanes. Now we promise the world to youngsters, tell them that if they work hard, pay for their education they’ll have a good job and a decent life, and then wonder why they get angry that after doing all that they’re stuck with stagnant wages of which they lose half to wealthy landlords because they’ve been priced out of even basics such as a family home

j watson
j watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Sylvestre

So tell me MS – ITU nurses, dealt with the risk of Covid with fortitude and professionalism while rest of us hunkering down, doing shift work, dealing with technical and emotional challenges every day many of us don’t experience in a lifetime, and here they are having real pay cuts and c10-15% less well off than 10 yrs ago? Whilst data released today suggests pay has risen twice the rate of inflation in Finance. Sour grapes you say?
The degree of unfairness is much more extensive than those of us who’ve been successful like to admit.
I think you played the man not the ball there in going at the Authors profession. Always a cheap tackle that one.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Sylvestre

And I’ve seen people who work much harder than me but have much less than I do, often for reasons outside their control. By the same token I’ve met many more who are absolutely useless, yet starter higher up the ladder than most people finish simply because they were born wealthy and had good contacts. Meritocracy is a largely a myth in my eyes. At least the old class system was honest in the way it kept people in their lanes. Now we promise the world to youngsters, tell them that if they work hard, pay for their education they’ll have a good job and a decent life, and then wonder why they get angry that after doing all that they’re stuck with stagnant wages of which they lose half to wealthy landlords because they’ve been priced out of even basics such as a family home

j watson
j watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Sylvestre

So tell me MS – ITU nurses, dealt with the risk of Covid with fortitude and professionalism while rest of us hunkering down, doing shift work, dealing with technical and emotional challenges every day many of us don’t experience in a lifetime, and here they are having real pay cuts and c10-15% less well off than 10 yrs ago? Whilst data released today suggests pay has risen twice the rate of inflation in Finance. Sour grapes you say?
The degree of unfairness is much more extensive than those of us who’ve been successful like to admit.
I think you played the man not the ball there in going at the Authors profession. Always a cheap tackle that one.

Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
1 year ago

Sour Grapes!

I can tell you from experience that hard work and self discipline all but guarantees one will be at least fairly economically well off if not rich. Sure true wealth requires a fair amount of luck and some do everything right and still unfortunately end up in a poor state, but more typically, you get out what you put in
.

I suspect if the author happen to be highly paid for his work his opinion would change – But he must understand that if he is able to make even a modest living as a commentator he is well off as he could, I am sure, do something more lucrative if less rewarding
 I choose the more rewarding economic path at the cost of hard work at something I enjoy less than I would being an author of children’s books for example 


j watson
j watson
1 year ago

The Billionaire deserves his/her reward because they have worked harder? The narrative exists to justify. And conscious or sub consciously we know that in truth the good fortune far exceeds real desert. That is not to say there shouldn’t v significant reward and benefit for innovative, hard working exceptional people. But we also know a fair meritocracy, one without cheating or bribery or special privileges for the wealthy, induces the mistaken impression that we have made it on our own. Luck is always a factor.
Are the winners of globalization justified in the belief that they have earned and therefore deserve their reward?  Or is this a matter of meritocratic hubris which eventually kills the goose that laid the egg?
The more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these who cares about civic society until too late. 

j watson
j watson
1 year ago

The Billionaire deserves his/her reward because they have worked harder? The narrative exists to justify. And conscious or sub consciously we know that in truth the good fortune far exceeds real desert. That is not to say there shouldn’t v significant reward and benefit for innovative, hard working exceptional people. But we also know a fair meritocracy, one without cheating or bribery or special privileges for the wealthy, induces the mistaken impression that we have made it on our own. Luck is always a factor.
Are the winners of globalization justified in the belief that they have earned and therefore deserve their reward?  Or is this a matter of meritocratic hubris which eventually kills the goose that laid the egg?
The more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these who cares about civic society until too late. 

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Actually, the number of super rich in the hedge fund, property and investment world who are in their 60s, 70s and even 80s is amazing, so the premise as expressed above is not actually true.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Actually, the number of super rich in the hedge fund, property and investment world who are in their 60s, 70s and even 80s is amazing, so the premise as expressed above is not actually true.

Alex Colchester
Alex Colchester
1 year ago

I asked a toilet attendant how he achieved his position in life and he replied – ‘hard work!’
It just goes to show- in life, hard work can get you anywhere.

Last edited 1 year ago by Alex Colchester
Alex Colchester
Alex Colchester
1 year ago

I asked a toilet attendant how he achieved his position in life and he replied – ‘hard work!’
It just goes to show- in life, hard work can get you anywhere.

Last edited 1 year ago by Alex Colchester
Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

“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?”

This quote made me think. Maybe the work ethic myth is inappropriate now. I don’t think so, but maybe it’s an outdated ideal and maybe it becomes even less relevant when AI becomes ubiquitous.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

“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?”

This quote made me think. Maybe the work ethic myth is inappropriate now. I don’t think so, but maybe it’s an outdated ideal and maybe it becomes even less relevant when AI becomes ubiquitous.