Rich People Don’t Have Jobs

The news hook for this post is the Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney flap, but in truth just about every week offers some hook for the following observation: Rich people don’t have jobs, they have hobbies.

If any multi-millionaire CEOs and investment bankers read the Sift (love to hear from you), they’re probably screaming at me: “What do you mean I don’t have a job? I have the toughest job in the world! I work 80 hours a week, and the stress follows me home. Waitresses and coal miners are slackers compared to me.”

Maybe so.

Whenever the national conversation turns to inequality, the corporate media gives us gobs of stories about and testimonies from the hard-working 1%. Probably some of it’s exaggerated – waitresses and coal miners don’t have publicists, after all – but maybe a lot of it is true.

By all accounts, Bill Gates was very focused during those years when he turned his first Microsoft billion into fifty more. Warren Buffett may spend every waking hour researching Berkshire Hathaway’s next big investment. For all I know, Kobe Byrant and Tiger Woods train like maniacs.

It doesn’t matter. Rich people have always devoted a lot of time and effort to their hobbies. That doesn’t mean they have jobs.

You know what a job is? It’s something you do because you need to eat, or because your family is counting on you. You don’t necessarily hate it, and maybe you’d even keep doing it if you didn’t have to. (I used to get my hair cut by an 80ish guy who just liked feeling useful and talking to people. He told great stories about barbering on luxury trains back in the day.) But that’s the whole point: If it’s really a job, you do have to.

That’s the only test that counts. It’s not how hard you work, it’s what happens if you stop. If quitting means real hardship for you or your family, you have a job. If you keep at it even though you could spend the rest of your life skipping rocks at your house by the lake, you have a hobby.

I’ve got nothing against hobbies. The Weekly Sift is a hobby. One way to describe the Marxist vision of Utopia is that we’d all be hobbyists, and the world’s work would get done by people who just wanted the satisfaction of doing it. (That vision even works sometimes: Wikipedia, open source software, and so on.)

People have hobbies for fulfillment, for identity, to get out of the house, to make the world a better place, to test themselves against worthy adversaries, and for a lot of other creditable reasons. People have jobs because their kids need braces.

It’s not a difficult concept.

And that brings me to the Romneys.

Like most Republican politicians, Mitt Romney has been having trouble figuring out how to respond to the fact that women don’t like him. Across the country, Republicans have been pushing policies that (at best) are insensitive to the needs and desires of the vast majority of American women. Democrats have packaged that as a “War on Women”, and polls show that their message is working. In particular, it’s working against Mitt, who had to endorse a lot of War-on-Women policies to compete with Rick Santorum for the votes of social conservatives.

What to do?

Romney still has problems on his right flank, so he can’t just shake the Etch-a-Sketch and draw a more feminist set of policies. Instead he’s been touting Ann as his connection to the women of America. (That’s patronizingly close to a some-of-my-best friends-are-women defense, but it’s all he’s got.) Women, Ann tells him, don’t care about so-called “women’s issues” like contraception or equal pay:

My wife has the occasion, as you know, to campaign on her own and also with me, and she reports to me regularly that the issue women care about most is the economy.

On CNN’s AC360, liberal talking-head Hilary Rosen objected that even if we shift away from social issues to economic issues, Ann Romney is not the best person to represent women’s interests.

Guess what? His wife has never actually worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing.

And that brought down a hailstorm of outrage, because it allowed Republicans to brand Democrats as anti-Mom. How dare Rosen say Ann Romney has never worked? Ann raised five boys – that’s work enough for anybody! And so on.

All of which is beside the point, because the job/hobby distinction applies as much to within-the-home work as to work-for-money.

Yes, a lot of effort goes into raising five boys to adulthood, and Ann may have done a fair piece of it herself. For all I know, she could have changed all the diapers, nursed all the colds, and packed all the lunch boxes. If so, she must have been reasonably good at it, because the kids seem to have turned out fine.

But here’s what makes all the difference: She didn’t have to. If Ann lifted a finger around the kitchen or nursery, it was because she wanted to. She found it satisfying, it was part of her identity, or she had some other motive unconnected to necessity. If her search for fulfillment ever turned her in a different direction, an upscale domestic-help agency could have dispatched an armada of well-qualified maids and cooks and nannies to Romney Manor in no time at all.

So whatever vomit-wiping, homework-correcting, and cheese-sandwich-grilling Ann did was part of her hobby, not her job. If it ever became too much for her – for one night, a weekend, or forever – she had the option to become Lady Ann and have the servants call her whenever the boys did something cute or fun.

It isn’t like that for most American moms, whether they work inside the home, outside the home, or in somebody else’s home. They have jobs.

It wasn’t like that for my Mom, a housewife who differed from Ann Romney in about a quarter of a billion ways. Mom took pride in providing a good home for her family, but it was a job, not a hobby. Dad worked two jobs of his own, so most of the time there was no back-up.

Cooking in particular was a job. Mom took pride in keeping us well fed, but she rarely bought cookbooks or experimented with recipes. She had an adequate repertoire and stuck to it. Early in their marriage, she nixed Dad’s suggestion of camping or rent-a-cabin vacations. “If I have to cook,” she said, “it’s not a vacation.”

It’s too late to ask her, but I doubt Mom would have picked Ann Romney to be her voice in the halls of power. I don’t think they had a lot in common. Hobbyists and job-workers rarely do, even if (by all outward appearances) they’re doing the same things.

Maybe someday everybody will live in Wikipedia World, where the work gets done by hobbyists and nobody is driven by economic necessity. Some of us get to spend a lot of time there now.

But most people don’t. They have jobs – in the home, in the factory, in the office, or out in cyberspace somewhere. Working a job is a central fact about their lives — which is precisely why you won’t figure out what they want or need by talking to hobbyists. Not even hobbyists who work very, very hard.

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  • KimV  On April 16, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    You obviously do not have children. We have to raise them, wealthy or not, & those that choose to rely on servants to do that job, are not good parents. So, that made motherhood for Mrs. Romney a hobby? So, I guess having a lot of money means you don’t have to learn how to manage it? I guess those boys turned out so well out of pure luck? Managing a home is no different than a business, except you cant fire your kids…. You have no choice but to continue to train & love them. As a mother of 3 & accounting manager, I make the comparison between my job outside of the home & my job within it all of the time.

    • David  On April 16, 2012 at 2:59 pm

      Its not just about parenting. Its about cleaning. Its about cooking. Its about being forced to darn socks when you can’t chose to buy new ones. Its about having to fix your own car because you can’t pay a mechanic. Its about only having two house dresses to wear because the kids need clothes worse. If all parents had to do was parent the children, life would be wonderful.

    • weeklysift  On April 18, 2012 at 7:11 am

      You are correct; I do not have children. This woman does, though:

      Money doesn’t buy happiness but it sure can provide you a cushion against the anti-happy aspects of most people’s lives.

      What money buys is insulation.

      Ann Romney has indeed been insulated. There is no way, with millions a year in income, that she can have the slightest idea of any normal mom’s life. She knows nothing of being a stay at home mom except the percs: no nasty boss, no juggling work and home, no terror of leaving infants all day with sitters, no raggedy loss of sleep because of days that start at 5 a.m. and end near midnight.

    • Kim Cooper  On April 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm

      KimV — are you really wealthy? Do you know what it’s like to have kids and have the choice of doing the work or not doing the work, or doing just the parts of the work you want and getting someone else to do the parts you don’t want to do? Is that what you are saying here? That you are rich enough to have the choice but don’t feel you really do have a choice? I just wanted to be clear on what you are objecting to. So you are saying that being an accounting manager is a hobby? But you have to raise the kids? Is that what you are saying here?

      • Joaquin  On March 19, 2013 at 11:44 am

        Moving money to banks over? seas is grdeey? That’s not grdeey, that’s smart. What if someone wanted to take your hard-earned money, wouldn’t you want to keep it by any means necessary? Raising taxes won’t get more money to the government you know why? Because rich people are smart and they are mobile. Example: If rich people live in Florida, and the Florida State Govt. raised their taxes, they will move away to a lower tax-rate state/country. Don’t call him a weasel for being smarter than you.

      • Kimc  On March 19, 2013 at 9:26 pm

        does that mean that if a bank robber successfully gets away with a lot of money, he’s not greedy or dishonest, he’s just smarter than the rest of us?

  • KimV  On April 16, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    The hypocrisy is this, you are writing on a subject in which you are not an expert. Isn’t that the whole point Ms. Rosen was making?

    • weeklysift  On April 16, 2012 at 1:44 pm

      Blogging is not a claim to expertise. The ideas stand or fall on their own, independent of who I am.

      If a presidential candidate were defending his program purely on my authority, because I say it’s OK, that would be a mistake.

  • Stephanie  On April 16, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    I think you are sooooo right. This is a terrific description of the distinction between those who have many choices and those who have few.

  • John Bari Ramseyman  On April 16, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    I appreciate your point here. I like that you put this out for people to think about, even though you probably knew it would b e a harder sell than usual. Thanks. I just have 2 little objections here. One, I think you’ve bent the meanings of these 2 words all out of shape. My Merriam Webster Collegiate has nothing about necessity or optionality under either “job” or “hobby”. It’s a stretch aqnd probably would have made more sense with different, more accurate words. Two, I see after some reading that you’re trying to offer a defense to the publicists whose original gaffe seemed to suggest that Mrs. Romney is a shiftless bum whose motherly efforts over the course of a lifetime have meant nothing. Honestly, I don’t think these politicos ever thought of your rationale, or ever would have come anywhere near it. So my constructive criticism is that if a public issue prompts you to realize a neat theory about the nature of work, or something else, you’d do well to put it in your own terms rather than trying to make it fit the thought patterns of some political cog.

    • allison  On April 16, 2012 at 10:30 pm

      I was going to leave a similar comment about the exact terminology. I think it makes sense to the segment of the population who’s thought about the “Marxist utopia” you refer to. Though, it’s true that my dad’s brothers have always given him grief about “never working a day in his life” because of how much fun he has at his job (he is a research scientist; they’re a lawyer and a construction foreman/rancher; none are probably wealthy enough to skip rocks the rest of their lives).

      Also, most of us are in the middle somewhere… I work for pay, as does my spouse. Either of us could quit working and nobody would starve, but our lives would look pretty different. We could both quit working for a couple of years, probably, and have our basic needs met, if we played our cards right. Does that mean we have jobs or hobbies? Do we have some combination, like 20% hobby and 80% job?

    • weeklysift  On April 17, 2012 at 7:07 am

      In regard to the more accurate terminology, I find it interesting that there isn’t (as far as I have been able to think so far) a pair of words for the distinction I’m making — even though it’s a pretty basic idea. I think this is part of our society’s general denial about class differences.

      About the original gaffe: Having looked at the tape, I don’t see an implication that Ann Romney is a “shiftless bum”. I hear Rosen saying something similar to what I’m saying: that Romney’s life is very unlike that of most women. After all, even most stay-at-home moms have had to earn a paycheck at some point in their lives.

      Allison’s objection — basically, that I’ve turned a difference of degree into a difference of kind — is something I thought about while I was writing. I ended up deciding that I couldn’t fix it without losing my point. My own experience is similar to hers: My wife and I both had jobs we liked. At the beginning, we also needed the money, but as time went on that became less and less necessary. There wasn’t a morning when we suddenly had hobbies. I tried to suggest that possibility with the example of the 80-something barber.

  • JAmes B.  On April 17, 2012 at 11:59 am

    More class warfare rhetoric. Ho-hum

    • Kim Cooper  On April 20, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      If you don’t see the class warfare out there — that the upper class has already won — then you are practicing blindness. If you don’t think it matters to you, you aren’t very good at seeing the big picture.

  • Dan  On April 18, 2012 at 11:30 am

    I think when considering the difference between a hobby and job, you need to take into account other factors aside from the financial impact to the family. If, for example, a man runs a business which employs 30 people, and he can sell that business and retire comfortably, but he know that if he does, those 30 people would be out of work; that man has a job. Meaning, if he is an ethical person, he has to consider the financial impact to his employees before he gives up his position.

    As another example, President Obama is wealthy enough to never have to work again (I’m assuming). However, I doubt he considers the Presidency just a hobby. If he chose today to walk away from the position, the backlash would be significant enough that he most likely feels a moral obligation to remain in the role.

    The same could be said for those providing vital services to people in need; or people dedicated to protecting the environment, etc. Just because there may not be a personal financial need for the position, there may be other moral obligations keeping them tied to their job.

    • KimV  On April 19, 2012 at 12:26 am

      Great points!

    • Allison  On April 19, 2012 at 10:13 am

      I’ve been thinking about the difference between “hobby” and “volunteer.” Neither is paid, but a hobby is only for yourself; volunteer work also helps others. It would probably be more accurate say that the independently wealthy congressperson is a volunteer, rather than a hobbyist.

      I wonder if “vocation” would be a more accurate word to use, since it implies that you feel a calling to do the work, and doesn’t comment on whether the work is paid or unpaid.

      • Kim Cooper  On April 20, 2012 at 1:58 pm

        The independently wealthy congressperson may be a volunteer, working for the good of his or her beloved country, or he or she may be a soldier in the class war, protecting his or her wealthy classmates. Is that a hobby?, a job?, a volunteership? a paranoid fantasy? a slavery to money?

      • weeklysift  On April 22, 2012 at 7:42 am

        Obviously, there are many different ways to take this subject. The kind of clergy who take on a lot of student debt to qualify themselves for a low-paying pulpit (as opposed to the wealthy televangelists) talk about having a “calling”.

        I’ve done a lot of volunteer work for my church — teaching classes and so forth — but even there I’ve noticed a considerable difference from when I had a job. When, for example, my wife got cancer, everyone immediately understood that I was going to cut way back on my activities. If I’d been loading trucks for a paycheck, though, I’m sure my supervisor would sympathize with me — but he’d still expect me to show up and load trucks.

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