Social Science: How Being Overworked Became a Status Symbol

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Social Science: How Being Overworked Became a Status Symbol

Do you catch yourself complaining to your friends about how totally overworked you are? Joking that maybe you’ll have time to hang out some time in the next century? Making sure they know that you eat “sad desk salad” for lunch because you are just so swamped? Turns out you may be, consciously or not, trying to signal your social status—just as surely as if you showed off a new designer bag or bragged about going backstage at a super hip show over the weekend. Yes, apparently being a workaholic is yet another signifier of the social hierarchy that we’re hardwired to try to climb, and being busy makes you look important and high-status, in the eyes of Americans, at least.

It used to be that leisure time was a sign of wealth and status: only the well-off could afford regular vacations, “ladies who lunch” showed off by socializing and relaxing during the day, when the rest of us poor saps were working.

But over the past few decades, something has changed. Americans now see busyness and overwork as a sign of someone important. We admire the executive chained to her desk, the workaholic who doesn’t have time to eat right, and we not only understand when our friends are too busy to hang out, it actually improves our perception of them. And to reach this high rung on the social ladder ourselves, no matter how miserable it may be once we’re there, we either cram our own schedules full until they’re ready to burst, or we at least pretend to.

In a recent piece for the Harvard Business Review, marketing professors Silvia Bellezza of Columbia, Neeru Paharia of Georgetown, and Anat Keinan of Harvard business schools, explained how we got here.

First they analyzed holiday letters and found a sharp increase in references to “crazy schedules” since the 1960s, showing that in general Americans talk more about how hard they work. They tracked celebrity humblebrags about “having no life” and “being in desperate need for a vacation,” showing our role models setting the tone. And they tracked the evolution of how we perceive leisure versus busyness through which is shown more in advertising, and noticed that imagery of rich people lounging by their pools have largely given way to “busy individuals who work long hours and have very limited leisure time.”

The researchers then had participants read several descriptions of a person’s lifestyle, ranging from “Jeff is very busy and works long hours” to “Jeff doesn’t work much and leads a leisurely lifestyle.” Participants were then asked to rate the social standing of these various characters, and found that the busier the person is described as being, the higher their social status is perceived to be. Use of products that signal busy lifestyles—like Bluetooth headsets and grocery-delivery services—were also perceived as markers of high social status.

The professors speculate that this shift from perceiving leisure as a marker of high status to coveting busyness might be a result of society’s overall shift toward more skilled, “knowledge-intensive” work. Workers with the “human capital characteristics” that are desired in high-profile fields like tech and high finance (like ambition and high-level knowledge of the complex field) are expected to be in high demand. “Thus, by telling others that we are busy and working all the time,” the researchers conclude, “we are implicitly suggesting that we are sought after, which enhances our perceived status.”

They also did another study where they used participants from the U.S. and Italy, to see whether this glorification of overwork universal, or purely an American thing. The Americans in this study showed the level of adulation for busyness that the researchers expected based on their previous studies, but the reverse was true for the Italians, who put more stock in leisure time. This is, of course, a limited sample, and we don’t know where Italy falls on the scale in relation to other countries—these results could mean that the admiration of busyness is purely American, or it could mean that Italians are the outliers who put a particularly high value on leisure.

Whatever the reason, next time you find yourself claiming to be too busy, ask yourself whether you’re really too busy or you just want to look important. And before you take on that extra assignment that you don’t have time for, ask yourself whether perceived status is more important to you than a night off.

Top photo courtesy of StartupStockPhotos

Lilly Dancyger is Deputy Editor of Narratively, and a freelance journalist based in New York City.