Why being busy has become a status symbol


A century ago, the idea of paid work was anathema to the leisured Victorian gentleman, whose social status was demonstrated by how much time he could spend on unpaid leisure pursuits.

What a contrast with today, when working long hours has become a status symbol for busy professionals and social position seems to be determined by how much we do, not how little.

The complete turnaround in the relationship between privileged social position and objective indicators of 'busyness' is explored in a new study by Professor Jonathan Gershuny, director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER).

At the heart of the change is the growth in the importance of 'human capital' – accumulated skills directly marketable in the labour force – relative to the ownership of financial capital or other productive assets, in the determination of life chances.

Nowadays, he argues, the best-off are increasingly those with high human capital employed in paid jobs that are intrinsically as well as financially rewarding.

At the same time, technical change and globalisation have made it increasingly difficult for those with low human capital to find any sort of paid work.

Based on an analysis of three UK time diary studies, each of which asked a representative sample of the population to record their activities continuously through the day, Professor Gershuny says that while we feel busier now than we did 40 years ago, the amount of time spent in paid work has actually declined overall for both men and women, while an increase in unpaid work for men and a decrease for women has left the total of non-work time slightly increased for men and unchanged for women.

But within this overall change, people with higher human capital have increased the time they spend working compared to people with lower human capital.

At the same time, paid work has become more concentrated into workdays and, particularly for people with higher human capital, workdays now have substantially less non-work time than they did 40 years ago.

Feelings of business have also been intensified because there has been a small increase in the intensity of people's activities on workdays. Since employed men are increasing their contributions to unpaid work while employed women are increasingly likely to have relatively higher levels of housework responsibility, both groups have greater paid and unpaid work responsibilities on a workday.

Overall, Gershuny says that the negative relationship of a hundred years ago between social status (as indicated by human capital) and work time has been reversed: high human capital is now associated with longer hours of work.

Leading on from this, 'busyness' now reflects an aspiration to high social status.

He also notes that the substance of what passed for the leisure of the privileged class in the late nineteenth century and what constitutes the paid work of some of the best paid people in the early twenty-first century are not markedly dissimilar.

A Victorian gentleman might have spent his days playing various games or sports, as a politician or administering charities, overseeing the running of his estates or taking an interest in the management of his investments, or organising the good works of a charitable institution, he points out.

However as the twentieth century progressed, these previously 'amateur' activities came to be undertaken not for love but for money.

Now, ironically, among the best paid occupations for women and men in western societies are just those sports, politics, business, civil management, armed services, academic and arts activities that formed the unpaid vocations of the leisured Victorian gentleman.