Busyness as a status symbol

Maybe you’ve heard of Veblen who wrote “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. It’s been 120 years since he wrote that and see what has changed.

Columbia Business School’s marketing teacher, Silvia Belleza, recently published an article about the prominence of an unusual status symbol: seeming busy.

The article I’m going to summarize is an interview with Belleza.

These are the points that I highlighted.

  • In one experiment, they 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. They 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.
  • What happened to Veblen’s theory? 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.
  • Another interesting aspect that we don’t really look at in our research is whether this operates in very workaholic environments. 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.
  • They 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.”

 

 

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