Why capitalism is good for your health

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The economist John Maynard Keynes, writing in 1930, famously predicted that by 2030 most individuals would be working no more than 15 hours a week. He thought most human wants and needs would be satisfied, work was mainly a drag and people would be seeking more leisure time. But he underestimated the pull of more money and the pleasures of work. He overestimated the value of leisure — at least for the American public.

If we consider weekly work hours per American, that number rose from 22.34 in 1950 to 23.94 in 2000, hardly a sign of work falling out of fashion. Over this period, too, large numbers of women came into the workforce, many because they wanted to work and earn their own incomes. The reality is that preferences for work haven’t declined nearly as much as commentators had been predicting earlier in the 20th century. Earning and spending money is fun, and many jobs are more rewarding, more social and safer than they used to be. Even with much higher living standards now than in the immediate postwar era, Americans still basically want to stay on the job.

The data on stress also puts work in a pretty favorable light. A study by Sarah Damaske, Joshua M. Smyth and Matthew J. Zawadzki asked 122 adults in a midsize American city in the Northeast to swab their cheeks six times a day to measure their levels of cortisol, a hormonal marker of stress levels. Those measurements were to be taken both at work and at home. The results were pretty clear: A majority of these individuals seemed to experience higher levels of stress at home than at work.

Furthermore, women were more likely to report feeling happier at work, quite possibly because so many women are responsible for child care. (That said, the likelihood of experiencing lower stress at work actually was greater for individuals who did not have children at home, so perhaps in many cases the spouse was the bigger problem.)

Another surprising feature of these results is that the “work as a safe haven” effect was stronger for poorer people. We don’t know if that is true more generally across larger samples of people, but it points to a potentially neglected and egalitarian feature of life in the workplace. In contemporary American society, poorer individuals are more likely to have problems with divorce, spousal abuse, drug addiction in the family, children dropping out of school and a variety of other fairly common social problems. These problems plague rich and poor alike, but they are more frequent in poorer families and, furthermore, very often wreak greater devastation on poorer families, which have fewer resources to cope with them.

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