New Symbol of Status is ‘Being Busy’

Posted on July 13, 2017


In this age of being overwhelmed by information, some true, some not, some fabricated, and some perfectly inane, one needs to decide what is important and what is not.

One way to do it is to determine what people “think” is important. And status symbols come to mind as indicators of where our culture is in this business of what is important and what is not.

I heard a PBS broadcast that some social scientists recently studied “status”: like what are the most popular status symbols today?

These researchers discovered that “being busy” is the coming status symbol. Just as I was about to dismiss all the generations in my wake (Generation X and Y, Millennials, etc.) as loafers, I discover they esteem work, or, at the least, “being busy.”

Status, by the way, has several different meanings, but I found this one from Merriam-Webster sufficient for us: “relative rank in a hierarchy of prestige; especially: high prestige.”

Status can be studied across the spectrum of the human experience, from birth to death and everything in between, like how rich or poor you are, where you went to school, what kind of home you live in, and, well, you get the picture. There is a pecking order in everything and we can draw some conclusions about the health of our nation and our people by occasionally peeping in at that pecking order.

In the past, leisure trumped the categories of what was the most popular thing to have. Leisure was reserved for the 1 percent, or what we used to call the upper classes, and it was marked by not having to work, having so much money and resources, made or inherited, that you could afford to goof off most of your life. Being able to afford leisure was a mark of wealth.

And in a country where wealth is the social arbiter, leisure was a key symbol of how to recognize wealth. We don’t have kings, dukes, and other nobles, but we do have Gates and Buffets, and before them Rockefellers and Carnegies. Their fame and status came from the wealth they amassed, not that they inherited or were born into.

Social scientists, of course, analyzed the phenomenon and opted for a different name, “conspicuous consumption.”

If you want to know what it looked like in the South, skip the antebellum mansions of the Black Belt. Drive up to Asheville, North Carolina, and take a gander at the Biltmore House built by the Vanderbilt family.

But leisure became more affordable in the past century, and while not everyone could take off for the lake, or the beach, or the mountains to fish, hike or hunt, or to rubberneck at Disney World, the ability to indulge in leisure became broadly available not only to the upper classes, but also to the middle classes — largely you and me.

We’ve been studying leisure now for more than a century. In Thorstein Veblen’s book published in 1899, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” he clearly identified conspicuous consumption. The more you have, the less you work and the more likely you want to show off your wealth and leisure to the rest of us peasants.

But no more. “Being busy” is seen more and more as a primo status symbol, much better than loafing on your boat in the Bahamas. Americans tend to perceive busy and overworked as having high status. Go figure.

High-status Americans a generation ago might have boasted about their lives of leisure, but today they’re more likely to engage in humblebrag, telling those around them how they “have no life” or desperately need a vacation.

I like that: humblebrag. I once had a faculty member in my department who was extremely humble about his publications, and he made sure you knew it. Humblebrag.

The researchers found that old status symbols like luxury cars or handbags seem to make people less likeable. “Busyness” may be a potentially more socially acceptable and efficient way for people to signal their social status.

Perhaps, one set of researchers theorized, Americans are more impressed by being busy than Europeans, for example, because of our belief in social mobility. If we work hard enough — keep busy — we can achieve the American Dream. The researchers asked Italians what confirmed higher status — having lots of leisure or being busy. The former won hands down.

But here we think differently. So, if you have an old Rolex, turn it in for a Timex. Replace that gas guzzling Mercedes with a microcar to be hip, fashionable and trendy. And stay busy for sure.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News as New Symbols of Status is ‘Being Busy’ Sunday May 15, 2017

Posted in: Life in America