Is acting busy the new Rolex? Science explains why everyone won't shut up about work.

Is acting busy the new Rolex? Science explains why everyone won't shut up about work.
Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

Annoyed by that friend who complains there's nowhere to park his Porsche? Or the one documenting every refraction of her engagement ring on Instagram? Take heart: Nobody else is impressed, either.

In fact, fancy stuff is out — and what's in today is being too busy with work to enjoy fancy things in the first place.

A "busy and overworked lifestyle, rather than a leisurely lifestyle, has become an aspirational status symbol," writes a team of professors from Columbia Business School, Harvard Business School and Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business in a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The researchers conducted a series of experiments to arrive at their conclusions. In one, a group of 112 respondents each read two versions of an imaginary letter from a friend and were asked to rank the author in terms of perceived status, human capital, scarcity and busyness. In both letters, the author mentioned their new "large screen TV," while one set also emphasized busyness: "So far I haven't had a chance to watch it."

Those who seemed busier ranked higher in social status, despite having an otherwise identical profile. Another experiment in the series found that wearing headphones for music, suggesting a "leisurely lifestyle," rated as less impressive than wearing a Bluetooth headset. 

"When you're telling others you're busy or displaying it or posting it on social media, people think of you as a scarce resource," one of the authors, Columbia's Silvia Bellezza, told Mic in a phone interview. "It's the idea that you must be in high demand because you must be really worth it."

The status-boosting effect depends at least partly on busyness being deliberate, meaning you're working hard by choice, the authors found.

While this might sound unsurprising in some ways, it marks a change from more traditional markers of high status: Back in the day, not working all the time was its own status symbol. It meant you were one of the few people rich enough to have leisure time. 

Of course, cashmere and leather goods definitely helped.
Source: 
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Take Thorstein Veblen's 1899 text The Theory of the Leisure Class, where Veblen wrote that "conspicuous abstention" from work was the surest sign you had actually made it.

Today, the researchers found, the opposite seems true.

Since luxury goods are more mass produced now than in Veblen's time, Bellezza said, it makes sense people are finding ways to signal status outside of their consumption habits. Maybe that's why you're seeing so many "Can't stop, won't stop" and "Still at the office!" posts on social media.

There might even be an effect on office fashion, Bellezza said, pointing to billionaire tech founders who show up to work in T-shirts. Dressing down when you're expected to dress up is a power move, particularly when you're rich enough to wear an Armani suit — but are too focused on work to bother.

The authors also found evidence suggesting that nations are more likely to elevate "performative overwork" if there is a cultural emphasis on social mobility through hard work and less focus on leisure.

The effect is particularly strong in the United States, "a society where work is really praised and part of your identity," Bellezza said, which can sometimes verge on unhealthy.

Workers who feel like they'll never leave the office, she warns, might actually be less efficient than those who work long but set hours. As previous research suggests, productivity has a cliff.

But it's important to strike the right balance. After all, performative overwork is hardly the biggest problem for countries like Italy, Bellezza said, where vacations are generous — but economic malaise has taken hold.

Bellezza suggested that Scandinavia, where many workers have limited or flexible hours and relatively high levels of productivity, might be striking the right balance.

Long story short, if you want to impress, rock your Bluetooth.

But if you want to be productive? Take those vacation days you're owed — and come back refreshed in January.

How likely are you to make Mic your go-to news source?

James Dennin

James is a staff writer covering money and millennials. Send your tips and your money problems to jdennin@mic.com.

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