Busyness, the New Status Symbol

May 8, 2017
Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

It’s been said before that Americans are busier than ever, and many people claim they have no free time because of the demands of their jobs. But there’s one upside to being so busy you can’t stop to enjoy life – a higher perceived status in society.

In an effort to understand American’s consumption patterns related to time, a new report in the Journal of Consumer Research examines the public’s perception of individuals living an overworked lifestyle.

The report authors defined busyness as “long hours of remunerated employment and lack of leisure time." The goal of the research was to capture data about both the quantity of time devoted to work, as well as the quality of the time spent on work.

Data for the study was captured from several studies, which enrolled participants from the U.S. and Italy. In one study, participants viewed status updates on Facebook and written letters — some of which relayed a sense of busyness, others that indicated more leisure time - from a hypothetical “friend”. A second study used online surveys to capture information about participant’s perceptions of status after reading brief descriptions about an imaginary friend. One description suggested an overworked lifestyle, while a second description focused on a more leisurely approach to daily life.

In both of these studies, participants were asked to answer a series of questions related to the level of busyness in the imaginary friend’s life, rating the friend’s social status, perceived wealth, and expected income level. Finally, study participants were asked to rate whether they believed the friend to be competent, ambitious, a “scarce resource”, and holding skills thought of as “in demand”.

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In both of these studies, participants were asked to answer a series of questions related to the level of busyness in the imaginary friend’s life, rating the friend’s social status, perceived wealth, and expected income level. Finally, study participants were asked to rate whether they believed the friend to be competent, ambitious, a “scarce resource”, and holding skills thought of as “in demand”.

As the authors expected, the imaginary friend was perceived as possessing of higher human capital characteristics the busier she was thought to be. When more leisurely status updates or letters were viewed, study participants ranked the friend as having less status and possessing of professional skills that were less in demand.

Two more studies were conducted to help confirm the overall results. In the third study, volunteers from both America and Italy completed a survey after reading another description of an imaginary individual. In a departure from the expected results, Italian participants indicated that a busy lifestyle was less preferred than a leisurely one, and that being overworked and perpetually busy was not an indicator of higher social status. However, the American respondents still indicated a higher social status was achieved through busyness.

Finally, a fourth study used the same methods to collect information from American participants, but focused on brands, like Whole Foods and Bluetooth, and an imaginary consumer. The results indicated that brands and products that are associated with an overworked lifestyle, like a Bluetooth headset which frees a user’s hands to continue work, were seen as indicators of higher social status, wealth, and income among in the study sample group.

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