America Is Built to Breed Elite Workaholic Men

Michael Bloomberg.Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

If there’s one thing more awkward than walking into the Harvard Club without a jacket on, it has to be nearly fainting at the 9/11 memorial (Hillary Clinton) or totally throwing up on the prime minister of Japan (George H.W. Bush). Indeed, the Great Hillary-Has-Pneumonia episode has thrust into the foreground how presenteeism — the resolution to show up to work every day, no matter what — is a national pastime, and it presents further questions about how American industriousness — or workaholism, depending on your perspective — shapes the culture. Or, perhaps more interesting, how the culture shapes people.

Psychologists and sociologists, not to mention novelists, have done a lot of work in this area, and one of the main themes that emerges is how much American society is built to breed elite, workaholic, and breadwinning men — even if they themselves might in some regard want something else. As Derek Thompson noted at The Atlantic, it starts even before the ruling class enters the workforce: A new study of a couple hundred NYU students found that male and female undergrads have super-different ideas about what their ideal working life would be like. On average, in their first jobs the bros wanted earnings growth, the ladies wanted stability and flexibility. It’s also reflected in how at elite colleges men are more than 50 percent more likely to major in economics than women. Nationwide, men are four times more likely to get a bachelor’s in engineering or computer science than women, a rate that got worse from 2004 to 2014.

The genders continue to diverge in marriage, even for would-be power couples. Thompson also notes a large-scale survey of Harvard Business School graduates, the ultra-powerful institution that churns out the Michael Bloombergs and Sheryl Sandbergs of the world. (Bloomberg, in one of the great moments of American industriousness, once said that the key to success is pooping less than your competitors.) In the HBS study, researchers found that for 25,000 grads — most of them MBAs — most women didn’t meet their career goals. A big reason for this was the gap between the marriages boomer and Gen-X women expected to have and what they ended up getting. At graduation, 17 percent of boomer women expected “traditional marriages,” where their husbands’ career would take precedence over theirs, and it ended up being 40 percent. For Gen-X women, 25 percent expected a traditional setup, but 39 percent got it. And for both generations, women expected their husbands to take equal responsibility for child care and largely didn’t get it.

But, as University of Connecticut sociologist Christin Munsch explained to Science of Us last month, that breadwinning arrangement probably isn’t the result of a man’s patriarchal view of the world, but instead grows out of the sexist structure of the economy. Since men earn $5 for every $4 that women earn, there’s an uncomfortable pragmatism in traditionalist arrangements: Somebody has to pick the kids up from school, and unless you have hired help, it makes financial sense that the lesser-earning partner would take over that responsibility. But, as Munsch’s study of 3,000 married people over 14 years found, breadwinning men were more anxious and less healthy than their peers in more egalitarian relationships. “When you’re a breadwinner, your family’s standard of living is very much dependent on your salary, much more so than your partner’s salary, and that’s a lot of pressure,” she said. That’s the thing about patriarchy: Not only does it harm women, it harms men, too — especially if they force themselves to never go to the toilet.