The Busy Class

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the source: “Busyness as the Badge of Honor for the New Superordinate Working Class” by Jonathan Gershuny, in Social Research, Summer 2005.

“Keeping busy?” one victorian gentleman would ask of another. The answer often had little to do with what modern folk might think of as work. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the pursuits that occupied the time of the moneyed classes—“sports, politics, the armed services, academics, and the arts”—fell into a category that economist Thorstein Veblen described as “leisure.” Precisely because such leisure pursuits were separated from the necessary but grubby business of making money, they identified participants as members of the class of privilege.

How things have changed! Today, according to Jonathan Gershuny, a sociologist at the University of Essex, England, “long hours of paid work are associated with advantaged social positions.” The best-off are “increasingly employed in paid jobs that are intrinsically as well as financially rewarding,” such as corporate management, and the legal and medical professions. Stranger still, this phenomenon has occurred despite an overall decline in the number of hours people are working. The inescapable conclusion: “The most privileged now work more than the less privileged.”

In Gershuny’s view, several factors account for this evolution. Longer life spans have reduced the flow of inherited wealth, forcing the children of the wealthy—mainly through higher education—to develop and use professional skills in order to main­tain the same economic status enjoyed by their parents. At the same time, “innovations in the technology of production have led to enormous in­creases in the volume of profes­sional and technical work.” Such jobs guarantee high wages, and Gershuny cites a number of studies showing that “those with higher levels of earning power will choose longer hours of paid work time.”

Gershuny believes that “busyness” at work has succeeded leisure as “the signifier of high social status.” He bases this on time-budget diaries that indicate that even lower-earning workers and the unemployed seem as busy as high-wage earners. Why is this? Partly it is because of the range of activities—errands and family responsibilities as well as traditional leisure pursuits—crammed into their nonwork hours. The steady rise of women in the workplace has also led to the sharing of a greater proportion of home responsibilities. But Ger­shuny suspects that at least part of this “I’m-so-busy” attitude pervading modern life is the perception that busyness—or at least its appear­ance—has now become a mark of social prestige.

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