How “Busy” Changed From a Sign of Poverty to a Badge of Honor

Topics:  Lifestyle  Economics  Skill Point: Present Continuousleisure-vs-busy

Many people these days are too busy to enjoy a real weekend, take a day off, or spend extra time with their families. We’re all working, commuting, and answering emails. Whether the tasks fall into our work hours or not, we always have meetings to attend, phone calls to receive, and the elusive “Inbox Zero” to attain. Today, busy is considered a good thing. It shows that you’re so successful that you don’t have a moment to spare on leisure. Business professionals, stay-at-home moms, and every person in between seems to wear “I’m too busy” like a Badge of Honor, but this wasn’t always the case.

A noted American economist, Thorstein Veblen, argued that just over 100 years ago, leisure was a badge of honor. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen outlined how people with money could pay those without money to do the dirty, dull, and repetitive work, such as lifting or cleaning, while the rich spent time in more challenging and creative pursuits, such as philanthropy or writing.

Leisure as a badge of honor might surprise today’s workers, but societies and cultures around the world followed this belief, though none quite so fervently as those in the West. It is only in the last decade or so that we’ve seen this shift, where leisure is available to the poor, but not to the rich. By 2005, college educated people had 8 fewer hours of leisure time per week than those with only high-school educations. According to The Economist, “the share of college-educated American men regularly working more than 50 hours a week rose from 24% in 1979 to 28% in 2006, but fell for high-school dropouts.” So why are successful Americans working so much when they have the means to afford leisure time?

They Want To

There are many different explanations for the current situation, but one argument is simply that people want to work. Now that there are fewer uninteresting jobs, the creative pursuits that might have fallen under the category of “leisure” previously, such as writing, philanthropy, or fashion, are now actual careers. We have replaced taxing jobs from the Industrial Revolution with challenging and interesting jobs in multiple industries. According to research by Arlie Russell Hochschild (UC-Berkeley), work has become more stimulating and more enjoyable than life at home. In her 1997 publication, Hochschild introduced the concept of the Time Bind: when work becomes home and home becomes work. Many people in her study go to work to relax, while others in more modern research are simply working so much because everyone else is doing it; they’re just keeping up with the Joneses.

Substitution Effect

Another theory is the economic theory called the substitution effect. To put it simply, the substitution effect refers to how higher wages make leisure more expensive. Not because the leisure activity is pricey, but because of the high wages lost when taking time off of work. When your income increases, each minute of work has a higher return, meaning an entire day off to go to the park with your family could cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars in missed wages. There are some people in the world who wouldn’t bother picking up a five-dollar bill they found on their way to an important meeting, and others who make so much money that it is not worth their time to pick up a $100 bill from the floor.

Winner-Takes-All Marketplace

Another explanation is the atmosphere of the current market. Modern economies have a “winner-takes-all” nature, where the most innovative company takes over the market and reaps a much larger share.  Beating your competitors (think Apple) can make or break a business, and the returns for success can be incredible. Many economists believe that this competitive winner-takes-all atmosphere “amplifies” the substitution effect.

There’s no single explanation, and no clear end in sight to this lack of leisure for the working professional. There are, however, clear differences from country to country. As the sayings go, some places encourage the “work to live,” mentality while other countries, such as The United States and Japan, are full of people who “live to work.” It is possible that a generation of entrepreneurs and fans of ideas like Timothy Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek will have the power to change our ideas of leisure and busy, but until then, we’ll all just have to get back to work.

Reading Questions

Writing Prompt

INTERMEDIATE: How many hours a week do you spend at work and how many hours do you spend on leisure? What do you do with your leisure time? What would make you spend more time on leisure? (More holidays where nobody works, more paid time off, higher income, etc.)

ADVANCED: Do you agree with any of the explanations in this article? Explain why you think business professionals have no leisure time in your country. Also give your opinion on why you do or do not have enough leisure time.

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