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‘Ugh, I’m So Busy’: A Status Symbol for Our Time

Originally published by The Atlantic [link] on December 14, 2017

In his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote that “conspicuous abstention from labor … becomes the conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement.” In other words, the richer one gets, the less one works and the more likely one is to try to show off one’s ample leisure time.

For a while, Veblen’s theory held, with few exceptions. But no longer. In the U.S., one can now make a good guess about how rich somebody is based on the long hours they put in at work. The wealthiest American men, on average, work more than those poorer than them.

With this workaholic lifestyle, though, comes quite a bit of prestige, a perk that the researcher Silvia Bellezza, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, has found Americans to be all too aware of. Bellezza is the author, along with Georgetown’s Neeru Paharia and Harvard’s Anat Keinan, of a recent paper in the Journal of Consumer Research about the prominence of an unusual status symbol: seeming busy.

The gleam of being both well-off and time-poor, the authors write, is “driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition) and is scarce and in demand on the job market.” In a curious reversal, the aspirational objects here are not some luxury goods—a nice watch or car, which are now mass-produced and more widely available than they used to be—but workers themselves, who by bragging about how busy they are can signal just how much the labor market values them and their skills.

I spoke with Bellezza about why this dynamic has arisen in the past century, how America’s culture of busyness compares to other countries’, and her research into what she calls “alternative signals of status.” The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Joe Pinsker: In your research, how did you determine that busyness is something people aspire to?

Silvia Bellezza: We were very inspired by this idea of bragging and complaining with others about how much we work and trying to understand whether it operates as a symbol of status in the eyes of others. So in one experiment, we presented participants with a person that’s posting status updates on social media that really speak to her busyness at work, compared to another person whose posts speak to a more leisurely lifestyle. We wondered: What would participants make of these people? Would they think that they are wealthy? That their status is high, or not? What we found is that in the U.S., people think that the busier person must be of higher status.

Pinsker: So, even though Veblen would predict the opposite, it turns out that you can boost your status by seeming like you're busy. What has changed from Veblen’s time to now that might explain this?

Bellezza: There’s definitely been a transition, if you look at the composition of the economy and the fact that most of the work that we’re doing right now is in services. These are jobs that require our intellectual capital, which require more thinking than the type of economies that Veblen was writing about, in which the primary sectors were agriculture or industry. Those used to be the larger part of the economy.

But I think that if we were to compare a developed economy with an economy that is primarily based on agriculture or manufacturing, I wouldn’t expect to observe this effect of busyness. It’s not that in Veblen’s time, working a lot wouldn’t be seen as something virtuous. It’s just that, compared to farming and manufacturing, there’s now a more competitive market for talent and human capital, such that the more you work, it must mean that you’re very sought after in the market. When we tell our participants that a hypothetical person is very busy, they immediately think about a white-collar type of job. But if we specify that it is a blue-collar type of job, the inferences in terms of status are significantly weakened. So it has something to do with the fact that a job that is primarily intellectual rather than working in manufacturing or in agriculture.

Pinsker: Is busyness as powerful of a status symbol when it’s displayed among coworkers, as opposed to friends?

Bellezza: I definitely think that when you’re using this as a brag, the audience has to be somehow knowledgeable—otherwise they won’t understand it, right? If you talk about being busy all the time, but maybe with your mother, you wouldn’t get the same response.

We haven’t addressed this question empirically, but we do find that people who think that if you work hard, you can make it to the top seem to be more likely to think that the person who is busy is higher in status. So if people are working all the time, they probably would know how to decode these signals from others, so the answer is probably yes.

I think another interesting aspect that we don’t really look at in our research is whether this operates in very workaholic environments. For example, I think that if you go to banking or consulting, in which the workload is heavy for everybody, showing that you’re even capable of having leisure time may signal that you’re actually really, really good, because the amount of work is high for everybody. But this is a little meta.

Pinsker: It’s the reversal of the reversal of Veblen.

Bellezza: Exactly. In Silicon Valley, apparently, I’ve heard that actually it’s not very fashionable to show that you’re working all the time, even if you are. So maybe there, just because they're entrepreneurs working all the time, it’s taken for granted that you’re working all the time. It’s actually that if you have time to go for a hike or on a bike ride, you’re cooler.

Pinsker: All of these dynamics we’ve been talking about have been things you’ve found while researching American culture. Can you talk about what you found when you compared Americans’ opinions to Italians’? And also, why you picked Italians to compare to?

Bellezza: We did a lot of research on different cultures and specifically the extent to which work and leisure matter and are central to the identity of the people. We thought that the U.S. is really representative of a society in which work is really praised and the Protestant work ethic is really, really strong—even the extent to which in the U.S. people don't even have the right to have paid holidays. And we wanted to compare this to a culture in which leisure time and what you do when you're not working is as central as work. Countries like Spain, Italy, Greece, and to some extent France, I think are really representative of this. And then, narrowing it down from there, I’m Italian and it was very easy to translate the surveys. [laughs]

So we showed Americans and Italians a vignette in which we describe a person who is either working all the time or is conducting a leisurely lifestyle, and they came to different conclusions about status. The Italians, as soon as you tell them that someone is not working as much, they immediately think the person is rich. But in the U.S., they think, “Oh, this person probably cannot work. There must be something wrong, and they're going to go back to work as soon as they can.”

In one country, we see precisely what Veblen was predicting, and in the other country we see the opposite. I think it’s very interesting that, when we're comparing Italy with the U.S., we’re actually looking at two developed economies. So to get to Americans’ busyness, what needs to be in place on top of the condition of there being a sophisticated market for human capital is a culture that values work and sees that as an essential element of identity.

Pinsker: As I read the paper, I couldn’t help but wonder what the endgame of this dynamic is in the U.S. Does striving to be busier, or at least striving to come off as busier, actually make people happier in any meaningful way?

Bellezza: I actually think that the two cultures we picked, neither actually gets the formula right in terms of happiness while also having an economy that's functional and working well. Working all the time is dysfunctional and becoming a workaholic society is not healthy. On the other hand, it’s also true that if you see how seriously Italians take their holidays, the country’s basically paralyzed for two months—if you want to get something done, if it’s July and August, it’s really complicated in Italy. I don’t think that’s healthy either.

As I worked on this paper I actually became more and more convinced that the countries that have the formula the most right in terms of balancing work and leisure are probably Denmark or the Netherlands, because those countries have a very high number of paid holidays and people really care about what they do, where they go in the summer, but on the other hand, their productivity per hour is very high. It’s probably a mix of the legal system protecting the right to holidays and an attitude toward work which is very healthy.

One thing though that I think is interesting is that in most of Europe, shops are closed on Saturdays and Sundays, which basically implies that people cannot run their errands on the weekend. This means they're obliged to do something with their free time and enjoy their leisure time, whereas in the U.S., because people get so used to these 24/7 types of shops, they run their errands on the weekend, whereas in Europe people get accustomed to going for a short trip or doing something other than chores. I thought that was interesting, because it seems we would always want shops to be open. But it’s funny how that backfires and detracts from our happiness.

Pinsker: What specifically drove you personally to study busyness? I could be assuming too much, but it sounds like you have found yourself a participant in the culture that you described, even though busyness wasn’t something you were accustomed to.

Bellezza: Yeah, definitely. But first let me give you a more general sense of how this fits into other work I’ve done. In general, my research agenda is about alternative signals of status, so I see my research as an update to other theories of status signaling. Veblen was the first to say that spending a lot of money on products should operate as a signal of status. But I think generally the reason why we observe the rise of these alternative signals of status has to do with the fact that on the one hand, the population is wealthier, so there’s more access to luxury goods. And on the other hand, there’s mass production of these goods, so compared to when Veblen was writing, many more people have access, say, to Louis Vuitton bags or Rolex watches. This increased access should mean that these signals of status cannot operate as strongly as they did in the past. So something else has to come up and become a different signal. Basically I’m very interested in the question: What is this new thing that comes up?

But on a more personal basis, I was really puzzled, and still am, by the difference between cultures here. If one of my friends tells me that they're moving from a full-time job to part time, the first thing I think is, “Wow, they can afford to be part-time—they must be rich.” But here, clearly, that's not how people think.

I remember the first summer I moved to the U.S. I arrived in July, and then in August I was surprised to hear that my adviser didn’t have plans to go on holiday. It’s crazy: In the U.S., the 15th of August is just like the 15th of March. But even if I work a lot, I still think I have this hard-wired need for holidays, so in August I always do take at least a couple weeks off. I think I actually function very well that way. I think the balance shouldn't be this three-months type of vacation nor not going on holiday at all, but it’s definitely the case that living in the U.S. makes you way more workaholic.

Pinsker: Something I’ve gathered from your research and others’ is that nearly everything is tied up in status and signaling. Because you study this so much, do you ever get exhausted thinking about the status implications of things you yourself do? Does that ever drive you crazy?

Bellezza: No, if anything it makes me more curious. Sometimes I find myself buying things, shoes for instance, that maybe cost a lot, and I would spend less if I were merely buying the functionality of it. Because I’m willing to pay so much more, it must mean that I’m signaling to myself something, that I’m signaling to others, but I still enjoy it. That makes me curious: Why am I really doing that? What's that component that I’m paying for that goes beyond functionality?

But no, I don’t think it makes me that obsessed about it. It makes me definitely very attentive, so as soon as I see somebody doing certain things it makes me wonder, is it because they’re signaling or not signaling? But you could argue that every choice we make signals. The brands we pick, whether we pick brands or not, are always saying something about who we are the same way as when you get a haircut or something. As long as we’re living in a social context, anything we do can be interpreted and has some signaling value.