Prisoners of Overwork: A Dilemma

Prisoners of Overwork: A Dilemma

The New York Times has an illuminating article today summarizing recent research on the gender effects of mandatory overwork in professional jobs.  Lawyers, people in finance and other client-centered occupations are increasingly required to be available round-the-clock, with 50-60 or more hours of work per week the norm.  Among other costs, the impact on wage inequality between men and women is severe.  Since women are largely saddled with primary responsibility for child care, even when couples ostensibly embrace equality on a theoretical level, the workaholic jobs are allocated to men.  This shows up in dramatic differences between typical male and female career paths.  The article doesn’t discuss comparable issues in working class employment, but availability for last-minute changes in work schedules and similar demands are likely to impact men and women differentially as well.

What the article doesn’t point out is that the situation it describes is a classic prisoners dilemma.*  Consider law firms.  They compete for clients, and clients prefer attorneys who are available on call, always prepared and willing to adjust to whatever schedule the client throws at them.  Assume that most lawyers want sane, predictable work hours if they are offered without a severe penalty in pay.  If law firms care about the well-being of their employees but also about profits, we have all the ingredients to construct a standard PD payoff matrix:

There is a penalty to unilateral cooperation, cutting work hours back to a work-life balance level.  If your firm does it and the others don’t, you lose clients to them.

There is a benefit to unilateral defection.  If everyone else is cutting hours but you don’t, you scoop up the lion’s share of the clients.

Mutual cooperation is preferred to mutual defection.  Law firms, we are assuming, would prefer a world in which overwork was removed from the contest for competitive advantage.  They would compete for clients as before, but none would require their staff to put in soul-crushing hours.  The alternative equilibrium, in which competition is still on the basis of the quality of work but everyone is on call 24/7 is inferior.

If the game is played once, mutual defection dominates.  If it is played repeatedly there is a possibility for mutual cooperation to establish itself, but only under favorable conditions (which apparently don’t exist in the world of NY law firms).  The logical solution is some form of binding regulation.

The reason for bringing this up is that it strengthens the case for collective action rather than placing all the responsibility on individuals caught in the system, including for that matter individual law firms.  Or, the responsibility is political, to demand constraints on the entire industry.  One place to start would be something like France’s right-to-disconnect law.

*I haven’t read the studies by economists and sociologists cited in the article, but I suspect many of them make the same point I’m making here.

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