The Adventures of Leisure Time Larry

From Slate comes an article pondering the strange mystery that lower-income people now seems to have significantly more leisure time than do upper-income people.

Will the harsh inequities of free-market capitalism never end!

The article puzzles over this historically unprecedented phenomenon. From my own personal experiences as a low-wage earner back during my extended college days (as with Zonker Harris, my junior year was the 3 best years of my life), I think the phenomenon arises because high-skill earners can easily raise their income by working a little more whereas low-skill workers cannot. High-skill workers therefore trade leisure for income and low-skill workers trade income for leisure.

Just to make myself clear, I am not saying I consider low-skill workers lazy. Far from it. Rather, I am saying that work rules and conditions simply don’t make putting in a lot more low-skill hours profitable enough for a reasonable individual to sacrifice their time.

For several years in misspent youth I ended up taking 12 hours of classes, working one full-time job and one or more part-time jobs. (I had discovered, much to my chagrin, that high SAT scores did not translate into marketable job skills.) I rapidly learned that many labor laws intended to “protect” me from exploitation actually made my life more difficult. For example, due to overtime requirements I couldn’t just work a 12-hour shift at one job and go home. Instead, I had to work an 8-hour shift at one job, then burn an hour or more traveling to or waiting for my second job and work 4 hours or less before going home. As a result, I ended up spending at least 1 unpaid hour more than I would have spent were I to have worked more hours at one job.

I also think that high-skill workers simply enjoy work more and find it easier to work extra hours. When I worked at Apple and other computer related jobs I enjoyed the actual work itself just as much as a recreational activity. Managers would have to toss me out of the building. I showed up every Monday morning, bright-eyed and eager to spend the next five days playing with the company-provided toys and getting payed to do so. (Having spent several years working scut jobs no doubt put all that into perspective.)

Combine those factors with better pay and higher-skill workers simply find it more rewarding in terms of both money and personal fulfillment to trade off leisure for work.

8 thoughts on “The Adventures of Leisure Time Larry”

  1. gee….um…lemme think…perhaps it’s because socialism is the enslavement of anyone with too much pride to not work.

  2. There’s also the fact that low skill work is generally boring, and no one wants to do more of it unless the pay is really good.

    I don’t think there is a conscious trade of pay for leisure, it’s more that low skill people aren’t intrinsically motivated in the same way that higher skill people are – and this has nothing to do with laziness, just ambition. When I worked for Mayflower, I knew plenty of guys who worked their 50 hours, and had no interest in the 51st – they wanted to pop a cold one and go fishing. I couldn’t blame them after a full week of humping other people’s refrigerators up rickety staircases. And a good many of them did have second incomes as grunts in the Reserves.

  3. John, you make a good point. When I was working thost types of jobs to earn money for college, I certainly didn’t find them interesting.

    You make the point that these people are making a choice not to work more. They have little ambition. If that’s the case, then why are they often the same people who scream about income disparities and how the “wealthy” are not paying their fair share? seems to me that Leisure Larry doesn’t have a case and needs to take responsibility for his own choices in life instead of having his free time and eating a portion of another person’s production as well.

    Milton Friedman appropriately said in 1980 “The affluent have figured out how to be subsidized by the wealthy”.

  4. John and Methinks,

    I’m not sure its just a lack of ambition. I think it might have more to do with the lack of return on low skill labor. Working extra means trading off other important things such a time with family. At the pay rate for low skill labor, it’s just not worth it.

    When I was working my ass off in college, I wasn’t doing so because I thought the income itself would raise my standard of living. I did so because it subsidized my education which would raise my standard of living. In the end, studying, not more low skill work, raised my income.

    High skill jobs also reward experience. Putting in extra time early in one’s career pays off big later down the line. This effect does not occur with low skill jobs. By their very nature, low skill jobs do not require a lot of learning and the difference in productivity between someone who just started the job and someone who has done it for years is relatively small.

    Low skill people might gravitate towards socialistic solutions such as unions because the rate of return on political solutions might be much higher for them as individuals than on simply working more. Perhaps they follow the most economically optimal (at least short term) strategy for themselves.

  5. I went to work for an ocean steamship line when I was 19. When I was 25 I was supervisor of our Chicago Import department. I had about 10-15 people under me. Some of those people were there for 20 + Years and STILL working at the same type of position the entire time. I had been there 5 years, worked in 3 different department and was a supervisor. A few of these folks were very cynical , very negative. There are people with bad attitudes everywhere of course, and I can certainly understand how anyone being in the same organization for such long time can view the constant change within as one mistake after another.

    I never looked down on those folks.. like someone else said… not everyone WANTS to move up. Some people just want to do their job and get out of there for the day and live their life. Some people dont want the risk and responsiblity of management.

    I know after supervising people, I hope I never have to again. I did not like it, I was more of a babysitter for adults than anything else. It also cleared by naive thoughts of what it meant to be adult and I’ve come to expect so little from people now.

  6. I think Shannon is wise to throw light on these discrepancies. And that higher paid jobs are differentiated in a way that lower paid ones are not – we’ve probably found ourselves in a niche with which we are comfortable.

    On the other hand, some of the lower paid jobs are taken by people to whom the job is not as important as the commitments outside work. When I hired a great worker, her demand was that she never have to work Saturdays – these were the days her kids played soccer. I thought that was weird, but it didn’t make much difference – that position was 8-5 M-F anyway. By the time I’d sold the business, her two daughters had received complete college scholarships because of their soccer ability. In terms of family cohesiveness, long-term financial gain, and wanting the best for her kids, her choice not to work on Saturdays was wise.

    This is another place – like minimum wage and women’s unequal pay – where the stats can be read in a lot of ways and those that read it as if all hours worked, employees, and employers are the same are missing the reason we really want a free market – that in general we want people to be able to choose as much as possible and fit work to life.

  7. Here is an interesting essay on the ambition point.

    On the one hand, a bouncer initially looks for work because he’s not making enough money working just one job. Something went wrong for him somewhere along the line. He didn’t get enough education, or he knocked up his girlfriend or incurred a debt, and now he has to supplement his income with hired thuggery. Fuck me sideways, but I know some of those feelings all too well – sans sonogram, of course. At least that I’m aware of, in any case.

    It’s not so much abition per se as the sense that persoanl ambition can be parlayed into personal gain – people at the bottom of the ladder stay there sometimes becuase, let’s face it, the lower rungs are covered in glue – so of course they turn to socialist thinking. A couple of things that get in the way of the American Dream are that we’ve let our school system slide and big corporations aren’t all that healthy a place for innovative people. Those who do take control of their lives often find something better, however. To further quote from that post:

    Believe it or not, “the club” is the most positive environment in which I’ve ever worked. This is because I’m surrounded by competitive people who are trying their best to get ahead in a place – New York, if you haven’t been paying attention – where getting ahead is the only thing that counts. You don’t take a second job doing the sort of shit we do unless you have some degree of belief in yourself and your future. If you don’t have hope that you can take control of your situation and make things better, you don’t put yourself through this nonsense.

  8. John, Of course you’re right about the school system. However, we haven’t “let it slide” so much as left it in the hands of government. Government monopolies are not accountable to anyone and parents are left with no choice. Particularly poor parents who are most in need of a choice. Of course the government monopoly and the apposing labour monopoly (teachers union) opposes the right of people to choose the best schools for their children.

    Shannon, you say that workers lower down on the rung are attracted to unions because the returns on such political capital are higher than on actual work. The sad reality is that nothing could be furher from the truth. Unions are, in effect, a labour monopoly. Unions result in a higher rate of natural unemployment. If companies have to fire employees in an economic downturn, for example, those people are no longer represented by a union. When things get better, the Union will agitate only on behalf of its members – the already employed. Thus, the Union will demand higher wages for those it already employs rather than allow the company to higher more workers and the unemployment rate remains high. Individual workers also lose their right to negotiate wages for themselves and that right has value. Particularly when you think about the way Union workers get paid. Union pay scales are usually based on things like seniority, not productivity. Thus, very productive workers have no way of making more money by doing a better job and are underpaid. Usually, they will adjust their productivity downward. When workers adjust their productivity downward, the industry’s productivity also declines and the economy becomes less vibrant and competitive, leading to further unemployment and a lower standard of living. For this pleasure, workers are forced to pay hefty Union dues. In light of this, I don’t see how the return on “political options” is higher.

    One of the things that we have to consider when talking about return is investment and opportunity cost. Opportunity cost (which is what I suspect Shannon really means by “return on investment”) is different from investment and we cannot know it because we don’t know individual values placed on family versus work (for which we also need to have wage data). It depends on the specifics of the individual situation.

    In terms of investment, lower skilled labour doesn’t have the requirement of finishing universities and does not suffer the cost of the time, money and foregone wages to attend college. Thus, the investment upon which to make a return is usually pretty close to nill.

    Regardless, the work/leisure trade off is made by each of us individually and each of us individually should bear the whole cost of that decision.

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