Monday, January 08, 2007

Signs of the Economic Apocalypse, 1-8-07

From Signs of the Times 1-08-07:

Gold closed at 609.30 dollars an ounce Friday, down 4.8% from $638.80 at the close of the previous Friday. The dollar closed at 0.7691 euros Friday, up 1.5% from 0.7576 euros at the close of the Friday before. The euro, then closed at 1.3003 dollars compared to $1.3199 for the week. Gold in euros would be 468.58 euros an ounce, down 3.3% from 483.98 at the end of the previous week. Oil closed at 56.31 dollars a barrel Friday, down 8.4% from $61.05 at the close of the week before. Oil in euros would be 43.31 euros a barrel, down 6.8% from 46.25 for the week. The gold/oil ratio closed at 10.82, up 3.4% from 10.46 the Friday before. In U.S. stocks, the Dow closed at 12,398.01 Friday, down 0.5% from 12,463.15 at the close of the previous week. The NASDAQ closed at 2,434.25 Friday, up 0.8% from 2,415.29 for the week. In U.S. interest rates, the yield on the ten-year U.S. Treasury note closed at 4.64%, down six basis points from 4.70 for the week.

Gold and oil dropped sharply last week, oil more than gold, due in part to warm weather in the U.S. northeast. To early to tell if this is a mini-trend of a few weeks strengthening of the dollar and weakening of commodities or just a blip.

There seems to be a marketing campaign afoot to promote the cradle-to-grave rat race. The news media has been discussing the newly-coined phenomenon of “extreme jobs.” These are jobs where you work 100 hours a week and are never not available except during your two or three hours a night you sleep. A newsworthy trend, to be sure, but what is interesting is that the people they interview LIKE these hours. The implication is clear, we should work all the time and like it. Not only that, but alongside that story on National Public Radio, they ran one about how people in the United States are working way past retirement age and LIKING that.

Here is an example of an “extreme jobs” story from, no surprise, Fast Company. Like them all, they dutifully warn of the health and social dangers of these jobs, but the underlying message is clear, this is how the winners work:
Extreme Jobs (and the people who love them)

Eighty-hour weeks. Relentless travel. Unpredictable schedules. High risk, high stress. Your worst nightmare, maybe -- but a dream for a group of elite workers.

From: Issue 93, April 2005, Page 54

Sunday, November 7, 2004, was a slightly more energetic workday than usual for John Bishop, an investment banker on Citigroup's global energy team. After working until 10 p.m. the previous night, the 31-year-old rose at 6 a.m. and headed to Staten Island to run the New York City Marathon. Three hours, 49 minutes later (a time good enough to rank him 6,363 out of 35,562 runners), he dashed over the finish line in Central Park, then headed home to sack out for a few hours before heading back to the office for a 6 p.m. conference call. An important presentation to a client in Houston the next day kept him grinding through documents until 1:30 a.m. But after misplacing some research materials, he was back at the office copy machine by 4 a.m. before heading to the airport for his 5:30 a.m. flight. By 9 a.m., in Texas, Bishop met with the client, then headed back to New York, returning to his office by 7 that evening for a few more hours of work. Feeling a little weary, he decided to knock off early. He clocked out at 10 p.m.

Sure, this was a little over the top, even by the notoriously excessive standards of investment banking, but it wasn't so far off the charts that it earned Bishop any medals for heroism. "I might be a little skewed to the workaholic, but realistically, expecting 90 to 100 hours a week is not at all unusual," says Bishop, wantonly pausing for a cup of coffee late one Friday afternoon at a cafe near his office.
Time was when toiling 60 hours a week signaled that you were a corporate warrior, willing to put work at the top of your life's priorities. Now, with corporate downsizing forcing staffers to shoulder the load of fallen colleagues, and a job market still so frosty that workers know they go home early at their peril, folks far down the corporate food chain are often logging grueling hours, less because they're passionate about their work than because they're scared not to.

But the implacable effects of globalization, technology, and competition have also combined to create another class of jobs whose demands have amped these requirements up by several degrees. Investment banking certainly qualifies; management consulting, with its relentless travel, typically fits in this league; and a whole range of jobs that require constant communication and coordination with the Far East -- from manufacturing to software development to media -- are now joining these ranks.

Like daredevil athletes, the workers who gravitate toward these jobs often thrive on the challenge. Bombarded by information, tethered to technology that links them to global partners, vendors, and customers around the clock, they labor extraordinary hours, log staggering numbers of air miles, and juggle mind-boggling schedules.
Their jobs are often high stress and high risk -- the corporate version of an upside-down double spin on a half pipe. Sure, the money's a big part of the allure: These people don't exactly live paycheck to paycheck. Still, many of them are happier than a snowboarder in a foot of fresh powder. Welcome to the world of extreme jobs.

…In the realm of extreme sports, Chuck Carothers is a champ. One of the world's leading motocross riders, he has broken 21 bones in his career. Yet he keeps competing, describing the rush he gets from sailing through the air on a motorbike as a "complete addiction." In a weird way, Irene Tse, the 34-year-old head of the government bond-trading desk at Goldman Sachs -- Jon Corzine's old job -- understands Carothers's passion. "I've done this for 10 years," she says. "And I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of days in my career when I didn't want to come to work. Every day I wake up and I can't wait to get here."

The bond market hasn't exactly been a lot of laughs during that decade. And overseeing a desk that trades billions of dollars daily, with profits and losses in the millions -- Wall Street's equivalent of Carothers's famous flying barrel roll -- can be hair-raising. "There are days when you make a lot, and other days where you lose so much you're just stunned by what you've done," Tse admits. But the exhilaration of her work, and the challenge of figuring out what forces are likely to next roil the markets, has kept her motivated through a decade of 80-hour weeks.

Indeed, there's an addictive quality to her work that has rewired her body. There are no broken bones, but Tse says she hasn't slept through the night in years, typically getting up two or three times to check on global market activity. "Through time, your body clock just wakes up when London opens," she says.

…The percentage of people -- let alone couples -- who inhabit this strange world of extreme jobs is still small. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that only about 17% of managerial workers worked more than 60 hours a week in 2004, and the bureau doesn't even track data at the upper fringes of the curve. But anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that it's a trend on the rise. "The 40-hour workweek is a bit of a myth now," says Allan Schweyer, executive director of the Human Capital Institute. "The 50- to 60-hour workweek is now the norm." Recent data from the Families and Work Institute indicate that women's reported workweek has risen to 44 hours from 39 in 1977, while men report spending 49.9 hours on the job, up from 47.1 hours. And those are just the rank and file.

James Waldroop, who codeveloped CareerLeader, the interactive career-assessment program used by more than 240 MBA programs and corporations, says work-hours inflation is growing, not just in the United States but globally. Last summer, he says, the newspapers in Madrid were ablaze with reports of the demise of the siesta, as Spanish workers scrambled to keep up with their E.U. counterparts. In Germany, workers at Siemens grudgingly agreed to an extension of their workweek to 40 hours. The French government is contemplating lengthening the 35-hour workweek established in 1998. In Japan, there were 160 official cases of "karoshi," or "death from overwork," in fiscal 2002, and another 43 people committed suicide because of overwork.

While there are still reports that long hours are part of a hazing ritual (one young analyst at Merrill Lynch recalls a supervisor saying, "When we ask you to work on Christmas Day, it's not that we're being mean. It's just building character"), most firms deny an attempt to wash out the less committed. "Sure, there's a natural selection process," says Melanie Karbe, a partner at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in San Francisco. "But I don't think it's a Darwinistic approach to see who survives. People will understand whether they really enjoy this and want to do this. We do not say, 'Let's be as brutal as we can, especially at the associate level.' "

Still, some experts think business-service firms in particular are caught in a predicament of their own creation. "When you're charging huge amounts of money, companies want you to dance to their tune, not yours," says Waldroop, whose own firm, Peregrine Partners, works with Fortune 50 corporations. "Frankly, consulting firms and I-banks have built up these expectations. In the 1950s, they didn't operate like this."

Stewart Friedman, who runs the Work/ Life Integration Project at the Wharton School, says he's seeing more students and workers who are looking for career tracks that don't require such sacrifices. "The problem is that there are certain unquestioned assumptions about what's required to be successful," he says. "And for every one of those people telling you 'I gotta do the 24-7-365-BlackBerry-travel-around-the-world deal,' I'm willing to bet a lot of money I could help them figure out ways of creating boundaries that could reduce some of that demand."

… The Human Capital Institute's Schweyer thinks more companies will have to find a way to reconcile draconian work demands with real-life needs. "The unsustainability is what companies have to prepare for," he says. "They've been able to put it off because the economy and the labor market have been weak for the past five years. But what happens if we get back to the point like in the late '90s, when the job seeker was in control? There will be a retention crisis."

But Bishop, who recruits for Citigroup at Wharton, isn't convinced. "Even if people leave, there's so much demand for people wanting to get into the system, it doesn't really matter. They can always find more." And Tse says the question is beside the point. Periodically, she says, she toys with the idea of giving it all up to study music at a conservatory in Florence. But she can't quite bring herself to step away. "If you're doing something you love, and you're great at it, life can't be better."

Linda Tischler is a Fast Company senior writer.

One of the things left unsaid in all of these articles are the political implications of increasingly extreme jobs. Democracy, since ancient Athens, has depended on citizens having enough free time so that they can inform themselves and participate. How many of us have time to get involved in politics? Instead, we donate money and hire full-time professionals, who work their own political extreme jobs, to do it for us. A much easier system to control.

The Christian Science Monitor’s coverage of the trend is more critical:
'Extreme' jobs on the rise

All-consuming careers play to popular notions of success. But critics say a business model that requires 70-hour workweeks leaves women behind.

By Christian Science Monitor

Eleven hours a day, seven days a week, Cynthia McKay maintains a clockwork schedule. From 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., she is in her office as CEO of Le Gourmet Gift Basket in Castle Rock, Colo. That adds up to a 77-hour workweek, not counting her time at home on 24-hour call for clients around the world.

But don't feel sorry for McKay. Her long hours are "absolutely my choice," she says, adding, "I love being at work. It becomes a lifestyle as opposed to a job."
That kind of schedule puts McKay in the rarefied company of a growing group of highly paid professionals who hold "extreme" jobs. One-fifth of high earners surveyed in the United States have such jobs, according to new research.

In addition to logging 60 or more hours a week, many travel regularly, maintain fast-paced, unpredictable schedules and respond to clients' demands around the clock.

Although workaholics have always existed, their image has been glamorized. Today's overachievers are cast as "road warriors and masters of the universe," says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president and founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York. Yet those burning this midnight oil run risks to earn their impressive financial rewards, she says.

Warning that their pace is not sustainable, Hewlett says, "There's a lot of risk attached. The fallout in private lives is huge." In addition, she says, women are being left behind because many cannot put in 70-hour weeks.

Hewlett's report, "Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek," was published in the Harvard Business Review. What distinguishes these overachievers is their passion for their work. Two-thirds of high earners in a range of professions in the United States and three-quarters of top managers in multinational corporations say they love their jobs.

"The big surprise of the data was just how much these extreme professionals love their work," Hewlett says. "It is a knowledge economy. Millions of people are amazingly challenged and stimulated by their work. That is good news."

Extreme jobs exist everywhere: in large manufacturing companies and small firms; in law, medicine, entertainment, media, technology; and on Wall Street.
Beyond extreme workers' personal ambitions, several cultural factors are helping to drive the trend, Hewlett says. One is globalization, which requires professionals to work across multiple time zones. Communication technology also plays a role, allowing workers to stay in constant contact. Increased competition for high-level positions and declining job security also encourage excessive work.

"There's something deep in our culture right now which really admires over-the-top pressure, over-the-top performance, over-the-top pay packages," Hewlett says.
Extreme jobs do not exist in a vacuum. "We're not just in an age of extreme work, we're in an age of extreme culture," says Catherine Orenstein, a cultural critic in New York. She points to the popularity of extreme sports, extreme parenting and extreme-reality shows.

In the beginning, Orenstein says, extreme sports offered "high risk for the fast and the few." Now they also appeal to those with ordinary skills. "We have reality TV shows like 'Fear Factor,' where average people do death-defying stunts. Even at the gym you can see sort of a trickledown of this."

Today the extreme metaphor has spread to work and popular ideas of success, Orenstein says. " 'American Idol,' 'Project Runway' and 'The Apprentice' are all shows about how you make it in America: Anyone with hard work, determination, risk, individualism and bravado will be rewarded. But there's only one winner, so it's a jackpot idea."

In the 1950s, the popular cultural ideal of work and success was far different. "We had a notion of moderation," Orenstein says. "You can see it in 'Ozzie and Harriet.' For a reasonable amount of work over a reasonable amount of time, you have a reasonable amount of security and a reasonable amount of success. Now we have a more extreme notion of success and the amount of work that should go into it."
But these nonstop schedules require sacrifices that intrude on personal and family life. More than one-third of high-earning individuals work more than 60 hours a week, and most report that they are putting in an average of 16.5 hours per week more now than they did five years ago. "There's a big undermining of personal health, whether it's addiction to sleep medications or crazy diets because you're traveling all over the world," Hewlett says. More than two-thirds of professionals surveyed do not get enough sleep. A significant number overeat.

Michael Bernstein, a physician in New York, sometimes works 80 hours a week. During those periods, he says, "There's no time for cooking and preparing food in a healthy way. We eat out or order in."

Relationships can suffer

Extreme jobs can hurt relationships, Hewlett finds. Laura Stack, author of "Leave the Office Earlier," notes that the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers identifies a preoccupation with work as one of the top four causes of divorce.
McKay appreciates the flexibility of her husband, Paul Gomez, who is an assistant attorney general for Colorado. Calling him "a saint who tolerates the schedule well," she notes that they talk often during the day and spend time together in the evening.

For those with extreme jobs like hers, other activities must go. "I used to play golf but I've given that up to do the work," she says. "We never go out, so we splurged and built a movie theater in our house." And vacations? Not a chance.

McKay has plenty of company. Among extreme job holders, 42% take 10 or fewer vacation days a year. More than half say they regularly cancel vacations.

Although Susan Cunningham works long hours as a vice president at an interior architecture firm in New York, she takes vacations. "It is imperative to find time outside of work to de-stress," she says.

Alexander Southwell, a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York, typically logs 70-hour weeks. "When I'm on trial, it can be 80, 90, 100 hours a week," he says. "It can be 8 a.m. to midnight every day, often seven days a week."

It is a pace he has kept up for about five years, the typical length of time people stay in his office. "It's very intense. It's very hard to keep up with things in your personal life," he says. I don't go to the gym. I often skip meals. It's hard. It's very draining."

But the professional tug remains strong. "Part of the reason I stay and part of the reason I do it is it's an amazing job. I feel very passionate about it," Southwell says.

He and his wife have two young children. "I try to get them dressed and fed in the morning to let my wife relax," he says. "It's important to spend that time with them. Sometimes I will take my older child to nursery school."

A problem for the kids

For some children, parents' all-consuming careers pose problems. "Kids are very conscious that many of their parents are stressed and tired," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, who interviewed children of working parents for her book "Ask the Children."

When family problems do arise, women are much more likely to notice the problems than men are.

"Both men and women see that children are underperforming at school, eating junk food and watching too much TV," Hewlett says. "Men don't take this personally. But maternal guilt is alive and well. Women draw a straight line between problems in their own lives and their jobs." That makes them more likely to leave their careers. Fifty-seven percent of women holding extreme jobs do not want to continue the pace for more than a year.

"A business model that requires top people to put in 70-hour workweeks for decades at a time seriously excludes women," Hewlett says. "It kind of explains why progress has stalled for women."

Noting the need to rethink careers, Galinsky says, "We need to create more flexibility in careers so you can step sideways or go full steam ahead for a while."
Hewlett describes a program at American Express called Project Embrace. "An individual who needs a breather or needs to step back from one of these intense jobs for two years can do a project that is not full time."

Stack argues for attitudinal shifts as well. "We overindulge in work to the exclusion of life. What will happen to these people if they get a pink slip? They have gotten to the point that they don't know what life is, because work is their life.

"Overwork has become a competition," she says. I don't think it's a competition worth winning."

This article was reported and written by Marilyn Gardner for The Christian Science Monitor.

© 2006 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.

It’s interesting that the Booz-Allen partner in the Fast Company piece mentioned Darwinism and the weeding out of “unfit” associates. This is vulgar 19th century Social Darwinism. Real 21st century Darwinism tells a different story. Ran Prieur wrote last week about Idle Theory:

The general idea is that the purpose of life is not to accomplish something, but to do as little as possible. There's a section on evolution, which reverses industrial-age mythology:

All living creatures have to work to stay alive. Some have to work harder than others. Those creatures that need do little work to stay alive are more likely to survive periods of difficulty than those that must work longer. The fittest are the most idle creatures, not the strongest or fastest or most rapidly reproducing.

And there's a great section on ethics:

The primary ethical task for humanity (and any living creature) is to become as far as possible idle and free... Every part of human society -- its division of labour, its tools, its trade, its codes of conduct, its laws, its political organisation, or any other custom or practice -- are all to be judged according to whether they increase or decrease idleness.

Near the top of that page is one of the most important sentences I've ever read, something that everyone in industrial society is screaming from their bones, but that no one ever speaks: "Any creature that is continually busy stands at the threshold of death."

Lest all this be construed as an argument for laziness and inaction, I would argue that what is really damaging are extreme efforts in the service a destructive, exploitative system. Making such extreme efforts just to increase one’s personal wealth and to satisfy one’s appetite for thrills and challenge is not a good thing, especially if one’s efforts accelerate a process of destruction. If, however, a person, with the proper awareness, can situate themself in a strategic position, extreme efforts may have a great impact. The devil is in the details. Excessive efforts are not good in and of themselves, only in connection with goals and outcomes. If the goals are misguided and the outcomes bad, working harder will only make things worse. A major problem with neoliberal capitalism, is that it by its very nature avoids questions of goals and outcomes.


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