Rita Marcella: Is being busy a reflection of your status?

An interesting piece in Harvard Business Review last month reported that increasingly Americans believe having little or no spare leisure time is reflection of their personal status.

The report draws on research conducted by Professors Bellezza, Paharia and Kienan. They discuss the phenomenon from the perspective of what this means for marketing – in terms of selling to this new breed of people who aspire to be seen as a busy person, who is in such demand that they can only with great difficulty fit leisure into their very hectic lifestyle.

They compare the phenomenon with the previously aspirational lifestyle of one who has so much leisure time to fritter away that they seek to acquire symbols of status that reflect the capacity to enjoy that leisure luxuriously. Remember that the very word “luxuriate” is synonymous with being able to take your time, revel, savour and indeed to wallow at leisure.

This former cultural elite would aspire to the symbols of such a self-indulgent status – yachts, sports, frequent holidays, country estates, all of which require time to enjoy.

The researchers argue that our culture has changed in recent decades to one where such consumption is less valued. The emphasis is more on staying constantly in work mode, with being accessible at all times, with being so valuable that the company cannot survive without that connection – being irreplaceable in fact. To be irreplaceable appears to be very clearly someone who has high value. Omnipresent technology confirms the dominance of being on duty 24/7.

The report states: “The new conspicuous consumption is about saying, I am the scarce resource, and therefore I am valuable.”

The authors characterise this phenomenon as being unique to the US, comparing research data showing that American respondents characterised busy people as higher status and more in demand, while Italians typically regarded busy people as low paid and low status.

And where would the UK sit in the context of such research? Arguably we would sit much closer to the American than the Italian response.

Indeed from a Scottish context, we have long had a culturally dominant thread around the hard-working Scot, who could only rest on Sundays and even then it was because of our religious imperatives, rather through an aspiration to be idle.

Neither do I believe that this is an entirely new phenomenon amongst those who have had to earn their livelihood in the UK – particularly the self-employed.

My own grandfather, a fisherman, worked until he was 70 and was only ousted from the boat under duress when he did eventually retire. My father, a businessman, certainly regarded himself as irreplaceable: he worked on his accounts until 9pm every evening, after a 10-hour day at work, and it was only at the weekend that he relaxed and consumed in a discreetly conspicuous way.

His leisure time was filled with other duties and responsibilities too – as chairman of the local football team.

He only managed to drag himself away from work for two separate weeks a year – and he worried that his business was suffering catastrophically while he was absent. This was not uncommon behaviour in the independent businessman of the time – and potentially of all time.

Many of our leaders, our cultural icons and heroes have had a similar work ethic. If we think of Churchill, we envisage a man dedicated wholly to a cause. If we consider the Queen, her life has been characterised by a rhetoric of dedication to duty above all. Margaret Thatcher acknowledged a need to sleep for only four to five hours a night.

So is busyness as a lifestyle aspiration a good thing?

I would argue that it is not if regarded as an expectation both by you, of yourself, and by others of you.

A full life most certainly is one that is valuable and worthwhile. But to whom do you want it to be valuable? The answer is to those that matter to you.

We should ask ourselves: what is worthwhile? Did we spend our every waking minute on some activity or task that had no lasting value, that had no legacy, no imprint on the lives of others?

For no one is ever irreplaceable – they may be missed, but they can and will be replaced in the natural order of things and perhaps not for the better but life will go on and they will be missed not for their busyness but for the imprint they have left on others. To see your status as a reflection of how much demands others put on you is unhealthy, ultimately, and does not reflect a sense of inner worth.

Finally a life full of busyness can feel rich and rewarding. I am by no means suggesting that we should drift into a life of idleness, but seek rather to aspire to things that have merit for us as individuals rather than be driven by the false expectations of society.

Indeed it is a truism that “if you want something done, ask a busy person”, for it is the case that those who achieve much can always find time to add another important role.

However we should be wary of always saying yes when new demands are made of us – sometimes yes is not the best answer for ourselves or for others.

We should ask ourselves do we have the time and the capacity to undertake this new obligation? Can we do it well without becoming consumed by it? Can we accomplish it while still leaving time for leisure?

For many of the greatest of human achievements have arisen from quiet reflection and having the leisure to sit quietly and ponder. As W H Davies, the tramp poet, so memorably put it, in a poem my grandmother used to quote at me in childhood, as a caution against my grandfather’s innate busyness: “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?”