A fascinating piece of busyness research attempts to answer why. The report was published in 2016 and is titled Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol (Free PDF).
The research was conducted by professors at three different universities: Silvia Bellezza (Columbia Business School), Neeru Paharia (McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University), and Anat Keinan (Harvard Business School).
While there’s a ton of research that looks at how people spend money on things to signal status, this research investigates “conspicuous consumption in relation to time.”
The report states:
In contemporary American culture, complaining about being busy and working all the time has become an increasingly widespread phenomenon…To explain this phenomenon, we uncover an alternative kind of conspicuous consumption that operates by shifting the focus from the preciousness and scarcity of goods to the preciousness and scarcity of individuals.
The Big Research Conclusion from Conspicuous Consumption of Time
Why is busyness a status symbol in America?
- “A series of studies shows that the positive inferences of status in response to busyness and lack of leisure time are driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (e.g., competence and ambition) and is scarce and in demand in the job market.”
How did Americans come to believe that a busy person possesses things like competence and ambition?
- “The shift of status attribution based on time expenditure may be linked to the development of knowledge-intensive economies, characterized by structured employment markets and demand for human capital.”
- “In advanced economies, the market for human resources is typically highly specialized both on the supply side, with individuals investing in their human capital, and on the demand side, with a large body of companies, institutions, and head hunters competing to hire the best talent.”
- “We propose that in advanced economies, long hours of work and busyness may operate as a signal that one possesses desirable human capital capabilities and is therefore in high demand and scarce in the job market, leading to elevated status attributions.”
- “Just as items that are scarce may be afforded more status and value, so might a person who is scarce.”
Perceptions of busyness in the United States vs Italy
This was one of the most interesting studies the researchers conducted.
They created a short description of a 35-year-old named Jeff (or Giovanni for Italians). They then randomly assigned participants to one of two conditions—working busy lifestyle or non-working leisurely lifestyle:
- Participants in the working busy lifestyle condition read, “Imagine Jeff, he is 35 years old. Jeff works long hours and his calendar is always full.”
- Participants in the non-working leisurely lifestyle condition read, “Imagine Jeff, he is 35 years old. Jeff does not work and has a leisurely lifestyle.”
Can you guess the results?
- “While busyness at work is associated with higher status among Americans, the effect is reversed for Italians.”
- “Americans granted greater status to the working individual conducting a busy lifestyle than to the nonworking individual conducting a leisurely lifestyle. In contrast, we obtained the opposite pattern of results from Italian respondents, who granted less overall status to the working, busy individual than to the nonworking, leisure individual.”
This is a pretty major cultural difference. If you’re in the U.S. like me, can you imagine hopping over the Atlantic and finding a completely different approach to work and life? No more glorification of busy??
What’s the cause behind the different cultural beliefs? Short answer: Perceived social mobility.
- “In the United States earned status has a larger influence on overall status perceptions. Americans believe that they live in a mobile society, where individual effort can move people up and down the status ladder, while Europeans believe that they live in less mobile societies, where people are ‘stuck’ in their native social strata. Based on these varying beliefs in social mobility, Americans view work as a priority and idealize busyness and long hours of work, whereas Europeans feel their leisure time is as important as, or even more important than, work time.”
In a future post, we’ll tackle social mobility. From what I’ve read to date, the perception of social mobility in America—aka “the American dream”—is very different from the reality of social mobility in America (spoiler: we have much less social mobility in the U.S. than we think we do).
Our busyness and desire to “have it all” is spilling over into all aspects of our lives
- “Analyses of leisure time in contemporary society suggest that the consumption of free time is increasingly ‘harried’ and characterized by an acceleration of the pace at which leisure is enjoyed.”
- “We predict that observers will attribute even higher status to those people who, besides being busy, are also able to enjoy and live their lives to the maximum (i.e., ‘work hard and play hard’). Since today’s consumers are striving to ‘have it all’ and aspire for achievements in multiple domains even when engaging in leisure activities, the ‘work hard and play hard’ lifestyle—embodying both hard work and a propensity to enjoy life—should represent the most aspirational and highly regarded model.”
What was the most surprising part of the research for you? Let me know in the comments. Personally, I found it encouraging to know that busyness is cultural and that status symbols don’t stick around forever. That makes me think this busyness is a phase that we’re going through until we begin status signaling with something else—hopefully it’s a return to appreciating leisure time!