Would You Work If You Won the Lottery?
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
The question is simple: If you were to win the lottery (also known as the lottery question), would you continue to work? The answer might surprise you because most people say yes. In fact, a survey of lottery winners showed that even those who won the lottery continued to work!
The General Population
Responses from 7,871 men and 7,549 women to the General Social Surveys conducted by the NORC for 1980, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987-1991, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2006 were analyzed by Scott Highhouse and his colleagues (2010).
Each person answered the following question: “If you were to get enough money to live as comfortably as you would like for the rest of your life, would you continue to work or would you stop working?”
Over a 26-year period, the researchers found that, while there has been a decline in people who said they would keep working, most of the people responded said they would keep on working. 72.8% (1980 –1993) and 68.1% (1994 –2006) of people responded that they would continue working (Highhouse et al., 2010).
Highhouse and colleagues said the responses to the lottery question seems linked to economic conditions. That is, when the economy is doing well, people are more inclined to give up work. However, during tough economic times the idea of giving up work might be seen as final (i.e., permanent, irreversible).
My unscientific poll seems to confirm this. In 2010, I posted a poll on WorkplacePsychology.Net which asked, “If you had enough money so that you never had to work again, would you continue to work or would you stop working?”
After three years and more than 4000 votes, results indicate that the majority of people who participated in my survey (56.49%) said they would, in fact, continue working even if they had money to never have to worry about working again.
These numbers are lower than the 72.8% (for the period 1980 –1993) and even the 68.1% (1994 –2006) reported in the Highhouse study. Indeed, when I posted the poll in 2010, the U.S. was just emerging from a very long recession. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (2010), the U.S. recession lasted 18 months (from December 2007 to June 2009), making it the longest of any recession since World War II.
Since the posting of that survey, the U.S. economy has seen only tepid improvements. Thus, even during tough economic times, it was surprising to see that 56% of people who took the survey said they would continue working even if they had money to never have to worry about working again.
Returning to the Highhouse et al. study, researchers are not sure why there’s a decline (although there is indication that it is leveling off) in people saying they would work if they were to win the lottery. According to Highhouse et al. there are many possible explanations: (1) it might be a decline in work ethic, (2) it might be that participants now are more candid/open about their responses compared to 30 years ago, or (3) it might be a change in the way people view the role that work plays in contributing to a productive life (e.g., result of a literate and progressive population).
“One of the reasons for the decrease in affirmative responses to the lottery question is not that the work ethic itself has declined but that the attractiveness of life after work has increased in the United States” (Highhouse et al., 2010, p. 356).
The Lottery Winners
Ok, so what about people who have won the lottery? Would they be more likely to quit their jobs, instantly retire, and spend the rest of their lives relaxing and drinking margaritas on an island somewhere? Not exactly.
Arvey, Harpz, and Liao (2004) conducted a survey of lottery winners in which they asked these lottery winners whether they had kept on working even after winning. The researchers also asked the lottery winners how important work was in their life. The researchers predicted that lottery winners would keep on working depending on their level of work centrality and on the amount of their winnings.
Arvey et al. (2004) reviewed responses from 117 people (they removed those who had retired before winning the lottery or who had missing information), average lottery win was $3.63 million (1999 U.S. dollars), 37% women and 63% men, with an average age of 43 (at the time that person won the lottery), 17% were managers, 26% were professionals, 26% were in other white-collar jobs, and 31% were in blue-collar jobs.
“After controlling for a number of variables (i.e., age, gender, education, occupation, and job satisfaction), results indicated that work centrality and the amount won were significantly related to whether individuals continued to work and, as predicted, the interaction between the two was also significantly related to work continuance.”
Results revealed that the overwhelming majority (85.5%) indicated they continued working after winning the lottery, while 14.5% chose to quit working. Arvey et al. explained that “the percentages of different options do not add to 100% because several respondents indicated more than one option. However, respondents who chose the first option (i.e., stopped working altogether) did not check any of the other options” (p. 412).
“The results of this study confirmed the main hypothesis that lottery winners would be less likely to stop working if work was important or central in their lives relative to those who viewed work as less central in their lives. Lottery winners were also more likely to quit working as a function of the amount of their winnings. The greater the award, the more likely they were to stop working. . . It is clear that winning the lottery does not automatically result in individuals’ stopping work” (Arvey et al., 2004, p. 415).
Why do people continue to work when they do not have to work (for instance, winning the lottery)?
When we consider the amount of time we spend at work (8+ hours a day, 5 days a week or more), or even the time spent outside of work celebrating work successes, contemplating work responsibilities/duties, or stressing over issues in our workplaces, it is easy to understand the major role of work in our lives.
With regard to lottery winners who continue working, King (2011) wrote, “The behavior of the typical lottery winner tells us that work is more than a way to earn money. It is an opportunity to use our skills and abilities and to feel successful and effective. It also provides a context in which to have meaningful relationships with other people” (p. 455).
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D. Organizational & Leadership Development Leader
Arvey, R. D., Harpaz, I., & Liao, H. (2004). Work centrality and post-award work behavior of lottery winners. Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 138(5), 404-420. doi:10.3200/JRLP.138.5.404-420
Highhouse, S., Zickar, M. J., & Yankelevich, M. (2010). Would you work if you won the lottery? Tracking changes in the American work ethic. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 95(2), 349-357. doi:10.1037/a0018359
King, L. A. (2011). The science of psychology: An appreciative view (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
National Bureau of Economic Research. (2010). Business Cycle Dating Committee. Retrieved from http://www.nber.org/cycles/sept2010.html