When Did Busy Become Cool?

A brief history of a new brag.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Though it used to be a necessary evil, busy is now cool. It’s even become a weirdly aspirational bit of American culture, and the sort of thing that upwardly oriented brands have attuned to: “People who don’t have time, make time to read the Wall Street Journal,” reads a recent campaign for the staid paper, complete with testimonials from Karlie Kloss and British business executive Sir Martin Sorrell. Ivanka Trump traffics in “glambition.” While rappers used to brag about being “up close and personal with Robin Leach,” host of Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous, now they “ain’t got no … time to party on the weekend.”

This isn’t how things were supposed to turn out, at least according to prominent economic theory. Not having to work was supposed to be the reward for having made it. That’s what economist Thorstein Veblen saw in this formative 1899 text The Theory of the Leisure Class: the toiling classes, who were not cool, took labor to be their “recognised and accepted mode of life,” and they had no choice but to take “pride in a reputation for efficiency in their work,” since that was the only avenue of satisfaction available to them. To be at the top was to be a member of the leisure class, for whom abstaining from productive work was part of the deal. Laboring was “a mark of inferiority” for the upper crusters, Veblen writes, and “to be accounted unworthy of man in his best estate.” Veblen, famous for coining “conspicuous consumption,” said that the elite also also engaged in “conspicuous leisure.”

This was seen in earlier, pre-capitalist societies — in feudal Europe or Japan, the upper class would occupy its time with palace intrigues and courtly hunts, rather than rising and grinding. It was also part of old Hollywood glamor, and what celebrity used to be — Errol Flynn helming his yacht or Elizabeth Taylor dangling her feet in the waters of Venice. “In the 1920s and 30s if you had a tan it was a status symbol, it said you could afford to lie on the beach and take a vacation,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, an organizational behavior professor at Stanford. “Now status comes from being so busy that they have to always be connected,” he adds. “There’s this competition to see who works more hours.”

It’s enough to make you reconsider getting a ticket to the top from an elite business school: The higher up you go, the busier your calendar gets. Yahoo president Melissa Mayer says she used to do 130 hours workweeks, General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt claims to have worked 100-hour weeks for a quarter century, and Apple CEO Tim Cook gets up at 3:45am every morning. It’s similar at the top of pop culture — late last year, Kanye West checked himself into a mental hospital for “temporary psychosis” stemming from being overworked and underslept — and in the professional class, too. References to “crazy schedules” in holiday cards have reportedly shot up since the 1960s, and a recent study of 8,000 baby boomers found that the wealthiest 10 percent eat just about as much fast food as everybody else, since they just don’t have the time. All those hours do, in a narrow sense, pay off: overworkers reportedly earn 6 percent more per hour than those who are merely fulltime, a number that becomes less tantalizing when you consider how quickly humans get used to material circumstances, how few high-earners learn how to save, and how, to paraphrase Billy Joel, only the overworked die young.

When Americans hear “busy,” they think “status,” a link that Silvia Bellezza and Neeru Paharia, marketing professors at Columbia and Georgetown, tested in recent study. They found busyness-status links in shopping habits: someone getting their groceries from the delivery service Peapod was thought to be busier and higher status than a Trader Joe’s shopper, while a woman wearing a Bluetooth headset was rated as higher status and busier than one wearing headphones. In another experiment, 112 respondents were asked to read one of two letters from an imaginary friend: in one missive, the author wrote of how his life “crazy busy as usual” and how he didn’t have time to watch sports, while in the other, his life was “relaxed as usual,” with plenty of time to catch games on TV. True to form, the respondents thought the busy guy was higher status, with greater wealth, better skilled, and more in-demand that the chill alternate reality version of himself. There appear to be national differences: Italian respondents, when given busy versus easy lifestyle vignettes, rated the breezy life as higher status, since it must mean you can afford not to work.

In America at least, this points to how conspicuous consumption and leisure are out, while conspicuous production is in. Displays of busyness show that society values you, that everybody wants a piece. The displays are driven by “the perception that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition) and is scarce and in demand on the job market,” Bellezza, Paharia, and co-author Anat Keinan at Harvard Business School observe in the Journal of Consumer Research. Instead of associating yourself with objects that are scarce resources — diamonds, flashy cars, snazzy real estate, you portray yourself as the scarce resource. You and your time are the product, and your labor is the status symbol. Twitter and Facebook might be making this easier: “It’s hard to brag about owning a Mercedes on social media but really easy to brag about being busy,” Paharia told Thrive Global over email.

The busy-cool link may also be a symptom of how the axis of business has shifted toward tech. Judy Wajcman, a sociologist at the London School of Economics and author of Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism, says that it radiates out from Silicon Valley. “It’s a lot of young men carrying on about how they’re just so passionate,” she says. Another sign of this takeover of work by leisure is the “tyranny of fun” that comes when offices start looking like living rooms, with kegs and ping pong tables in swanky coworking spaces with names like Second Home. That has consequences: If you’re living at work, it probably means that there aren’t kids to go home to. “They’re childfree places,” Wajcman says of these offices, and it goes down to nucleus of the tech industry. As Quartz observed this week, Apple’s new $5 billion campus has 100,000 square foot gym but no daycare. In contrast, outdoor apparel brand Patagonia has onsite childcare, and 100 percent retention of employees who become new moms.

While loads of ink has been spilled about how iPhones are the reason for the busyness pandemic, Wajcman says we need to look at how family structures have changed. In 1960, just 25 percent of American families were dual income; by 2012 it was 60 percent. Kids, of course, take a lot of time too: parents end up having less leisure time together than their childfree peers, and one estimate puts one child eating up two hours of leisure time per day, which sounds a little low. The average American commute time keeps getting longer, too, with almost 17 percent of people plodding at least 45 minutes to work and back.

What’s weird, within all this, is that working hours themselves have stayed relatively stable.

In a 2014 working paper, Oxford sociologists Jonathan Gershuny and Kimberly Fisher evaluated working hours in 16 countries from 1961 and 2010, and they found that overall work time had only slightly increased since the 1970s, though men are doing much more unpaid work than their fathers did. The best educated work the most, according to their data, creating not a leisure class, but a “superordinate” (or high status) working class. But, Gershuny tells Thrive Global, the sensation of busyness may be on the wane, at least in Britain. According to his forthcoming research on the 2000 and 2015 UK time use surveys, the link between the objective evidence of busyness — how packed people’s schedules are — and how rushed they feel is getting weaker.

The way we represent ourselves to each other is constantly changing, signals shift, fashions change. Bellezza, Paharia, and Keinan, the marketing researchers, say that once a status symbol becomes ubiquitous, it loses its luster, so as busy becomes normalized, it may increasingly mark you as a commoner. “Fifteen years ago, you were really on trend when you said that you were just unbelievably busy,” says Gershuny, the Oxford sociologist, while today it’s either a status claim or a way to get through small talk. But if the trends that Gershuny sees hold, busyness may be losing it chicness. By 2020, it could be borderline faux pas: “If you’re super cool, one of the things you’re saying is ‘I’m not the sort of person who says I’m always busy,” he says. It may soon be gauche, in other words, to work yourself to death.

Originally published at journal.thriveglobal.com

Wisdom, Psychology, Mental Health