Earlier I described the list of top regrets of the dying compiled by former hospice caregiver Bronnie Ware. In that post I considered the first such regret, namely that many dying people wish they had lived a life true to themselves rather than a life that others wanted them to live. This post is about Ware’s second regret, namely “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” Ms. Ware reports that all her male patients had this regret. Though the complaint was less common among her female patients, many hadn’t worked full-time. I wonder whether later generations of women will, like the men, eventually rue the amount of time devoted to their jobs.
Why do adults work so much? Is it about the money? I’ve worked roughly 50 hours a week for most of my adult life, and, if asked why I worked so much, I usually would have answered in terms of money. “I have a growing family to support,” I would have said; later, was “I’ve got to pay my kid’s tuition bills,” and, still later, “I need to save for retirement.” I did manage to provide reasonably well for my family and now have more saved for retirement than the average person reaching the end of their working years (but not so much that I regret having focused too exclusively on saving).
We work too much for reasons other than money, of course—we even desire money for reasons other than what it can buy. Ted Turner claimed, “Life is a game. Money is how we keep score.” For millions, the workplace is a playing field on which they can prove themselves. Even if their efforts are benign—trying to exceed one’s personal goals rather than trying to defeat or humiliate rivals—the very fact that work is a venue for personal accomplishment can result in too much fondness for the workplace. We call those for whom such fondness becomes extreme “workaholics.” The implication is that work has become an addiction, an attempt to quench a craving that can never be sated.
There are other non-financial reasons to work a lot besides trying to prove oneself or being a workaholic. Some people find their work highly enjoyable and prefer being there to anywhere else. Some feel an all-consuming calling to some particular endeavor; in the most extreme cases, this calling inhabits them to such a degree that that they give up all semblance of having a life apart from work. Did Mother Teresa keep any aspect of her life separate from her mission to help the poor? It seems not, yet I doubt that at the end of her life she would have told a hospice nurse that she regretted having worked so hard.
My reflections in the last two paragraphs pertain mostly to employment in middle class occupations. For some, working constantly is not about saving for the future or seeking to prove oneself, but about immediate necessity. A recent article in The Atlantic notes that advice provided to McDonalds employees on financial management assumes that, in order to meet basic living expenses, a minimum wage employee would need to work two full-time or nearly full-time jobs. Unfortunately, about half of newly created jobs in the U.S. are low-paying positions. It’s not difficult to imagine these low-wage workers nearing the end of life and realizing that, out of necessity, they had worked constantly. Will they experience regret, or will they just feel cheated?
As for me, I used to wonder whether I would eventually regret working as hard as I did, but I don’t wonder that any more. When I realized my parents would need assistance, I resigned from my full-time job and now work less than half of what I used to. I had wanted to work a while longer to bolster my retirement savings, but decided that my parents’ needs were more important. (I wrote in more detail about the decision here.) I did work long hours for lots of years, but putting my parents ahead of my job did help me resolve my doubts about my motives for working as hard as I did. I’m content with the choices I made.