Powerball numbers: Why do lottery winners keep working?

Costco workers in New York won a collective $200 million by guessing the correct Powerball numbers. Chances are many will keep working.

Michael Conroy/AP/File
Todd Reardon (left) of Jeffersonville, Ind., and Daron Fox, of Clarksville, Ind., laugh as they hold checks representing the $221.7 million paid to the pair for winning the April 6 Powerball jackpot won in Clarksville at the lottery headquarters in Indianapolis, April 21, 2011. On June 2, 2011, 20 Costco workers in New York won a $200 million Powerball jackpot. Most Americans say that if they won the lottery, they'd keep working.

It's one of those potentially life-changing stories: A group of 20 workers at a Long Island Costco this week won the Powerball lottery jackpot worth $201.9 million.

They can turn in their sales badges and retire, sail around the world, or do whatever they want. But it turns out that notions of winning the lottery to take a perpetual vacation (leaving aside the social negatives associated with lotteries and gambling) are largely a pipe dream.

Most lottery winners keep working, studies suggest, because having a job is more than just about money.

"Certainly, money is important, but there are a lot of other aspects to work that play a big role: relationships, achievement needs that people have, status needs outside of money," says Scott Highhouse, psychology professor at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, and lead author of a 2010 study on workers and the lottery.

When Americans are asked if they’d keep working after winning the lottery, two-thirds consistently say they would, his study shows.

Of course, that’s a pretty theoretical response. Studies of actual lottery winners tend to involve small samples, so it’s hard to say for sure. But the evidence suggests that most winners do keep working.

"It is clear that winning the lottery does not automatically result in individuals’ stopping work," concluded a 2004 study (.pdf) of Iowa and Ohio lottery winners. Of the 185 winners' surveys examined in the study, 63 percent continued working full time at the same company after they won the lottery.

Others started their own business (10 percent) or cut back to part time (11 percent). In all, 85 percent stayed in the workplace.

There were some variations. The more people won, the less likely they were to stay on the job. Still, the study found that the average winnings of those who decided to keep working was a pretty hefty $2.6 million.

This week's Powerball winners should get about $10 million apiece before taxes and other charges.

Also, the decision to keep working depends on how one views the importance of work. The 2004 study found that those who see it as central to their lives were more apt to keep their nose to the grindstone.

There is some evidence that that work ethic has slipped a bit in the United States. From 1980 to 1993, 73 percent of Americans surveyed by the National Opinion Research Center said they would keep working if they won the lottery, Mr. Highhouse points out. From 1994 to 2006, that percentage had fallen a significant 5 points to 68 percent.

No one knows why, he adds. Some speculate that people are being more honest today and admit they'd stop working. Other researchers suggest that a more secular society is less likely to view work as a path to salvation.

"The Calvinistic view of work as meaningful in and of itself may have faded," he says.

For himself, Highhouse says his work is like a hobby, so he’s unlikely to give it up if he wins the lottery. “I'm afraid of retirement,” he says.

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