Fast Company

Ranking Ourselves to Death

The link between control and contentment.

November is raw and cloudy, but at least we can sleep late Saturdays. The soccer season ends. When I first began attending games, I was surprised by the equal showing of soccer moms and dads at the afternoon matches. I decided to do some research.

Schmoozing with the dads, I asked such penetrating questions as "What do you do?" I live in rural Maine, so my survey included "Mainers" and dads "from away." (In Maine, there is no room for debate on these matters. If you weren't born there, you are "from away" forever.) Beyond some obvious differences, what they shared was that they all had jobs in which they felt a lot of control over their lives. Among the Mainers, the lobstermen, farmers, carpenters, clam diggers, and loggers all said, "I work for myself." One told me, "The ocean is my boss. I reckon a man's okay bowing to the ocean."

Among the "away" guys were a banker, dentist, carpenter, doctor, and baker. The doctor had migrated from a city teaching hospital in search of more control over his time and an outdoor way of life. So too the banker, who left long commutes and longer days on Wall Street for this small town's First National. One of the carpenters had been a scientist at a major research institution but wanted "time with the family." The baker had been an executive but found he loved bread more.

As far as I could tell, none of them had opted out because they couldn't hack it. Rather, their success had given them the confidence to live life on their own terms. From their point of view, they had opted in -- to what really mattered to them. These folks represent what demographers call "deconcentration." It's a historically unprecedented trend of recent decades in which people leave the regimentation of city and suburb, seeking more personal control and meaningful voice in a rural community.

A new book, The Status Syndrome (Henry Holt, 2004), helps to explain why my neighbors regard personal control as a necessary entitlement. According to author Michael Marmot, a professor of epidemiology and public health at University College, London, your position in the social hierarchy signifies how much control you feel over your life. And that position can predict your susceptibility to disease, even controlling for variables such as income, education, and access to medical care. He found that even tiny status distinctions matter. So not only would a factory worker be more likely to have heart disease than would a CEO, but someone with only a master's will have a shorter life expectancy than someone with a PhD.

What's going on here? In human societies, as in primate groups, lower status means less personal control. That leads to higher levels of chronic stress, which makes you sick and cuts life short. Since the most prominent experience of hierarchy in most people's lives is in the workplace, Marmot found that low levels of control at work consistently lead to more disease.

Worse yet, according to his analyses of UK and U.S. data, this situation has actually worsened since the 1970s. Even as everyone's health has improved, the gap in life expectancy between those at the top and those at the bottom increased from 5.5 to 9.5 years. The last generation, it seems, has created more people who feel less in control of their lives, with fewer opportunities for influence.

These last few decades have created millions of educated people who naturally have opinions and feel the need to control their own lives. But with organizations increasing in size and top-down pressures, there's no way most workplaces can fulfill so many people's desire for control. There just isn't enough space at the top of these pyramids. The result of this mismatch is chronic stress. As the gap grows, so does the stress.

Marmot says that more than cigarettes, sugar, and too many hours spent bench-pressing the TV remote, it's the lack of control in our jobs that's killing us. When our need for control is frustrated, the result is a vulnerability to disease that shortens life. But naming the source of stress is empowering. It alerts us to the real choices we have, and taking control begins with the recognition of choice. Some may renew their zeal for the climb to the top. Others will look for ways to enhance their sense of personal control outside the workplace. Some people will think more seriously about leaving the pyramid behind, forging new approaches to life and work for themselves and colleagues. A few may even discover the wisdom of bowing to the ocean.

Shoshana Zuboff is the coauthor of The Support Economy (Viking, 2002). Join her online discussion.

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