Why am I so busy: the paradox of busyness in the modern world with so many pointless jobs

Jun 30, 2022
Technology has created more work, not less. Image: WikiMedia Commons

Walk through any work place and ask how people are going, most will respond – busy.

Busyness has replaced wellness as our standard response. We are not well, we are busy. We say it as if we would prefer not to be. Yet it is also presented as a badge of honour.

Busyness is a paradox of modern life. We want more personal time and control over our lives, yet take pride in our helpless busyness. Why?

Part of the answer may lie in deeply-rooted culture.

Confucianism, Islam and Christianity (particularly Protestantism) all see work as a building block of good society. Expressed differently perhaps, but work is a common bedrock of good citizenship.

Not everyone agrees. Aristotle argued that work was inimical to virtue. For Aristotle, leisure was key. People – not everyone, but the right people – needed leisure time to participate in the politics that underpins good society. Echoes of this thinking have been used to justify a leisure class through the ages.

The distinction is captured beautifully by a member of the landed gentry in Downtown Abbey asking innocently “what is a weekend?”. Busy people may not always get a weekend, but they know what one is.

Aristotle’s elitist conception has found little philosophical support in the post-industrial world. Thornstein Veblen, for one, had no time for the emerging leisure class of America’s gilded age. Veblen warned that valorising leisure would create society based on class rather than merit. On the other side of the Atlantic, Thomas Carlyle, extolled a new “gospel” of work.

Work is indeed the gospel of our times. Even the very richest among us let us know how hard they work. Influencers, without irony, tell of the hard work involved in creating images of leisure-filled luxury for their followers. Only the unsuccessful, and (some) retirees, have real leisure.

Our valorisation of work caused Daniel Susskind to argue that work was the real opium of the masses. Sigmund Freud agrees, saying “work and love, that’s all there is”.

The triumph of work over leisure defines modernity. But history suggests it needn’t be so. Ancient African hunter societies met their needs for food and shelter with modest effort, leaving more free time than enjoyed by full time workers today. This is mirrored around the world.

Technology was meant to save us from busyness. Economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that we would work only 15 hours a week by the end of the 20th century. History has proven him resoundingly wrong.

Technology has created more work, not less. Derek Thompson found that, despite an explosion of labour saving devices, American housewives spent more time on housework in the 1950s than in the 1920s. It seems that technology simply unlocked higher expectations, absorbing the extra time it created.

Anthropologist, David Graeber, thought technology had created “whole new industries of [ahem] bullshit jobs”. Graeber’s list of pointless jobs dominate the economy today – financial services, corporate law, human resources, and public relations.

Defining pointless is obviously subjective, and possibly dangerous. Writer Douglas Adams tells of the fictional Golgafrinchans who induced those with pointless jobs to fly into space on an ‘ark’. This worked a treat until the remaining useful population died from a disease caught from a dirty telephone. Telephone sanitation is pointless you see.

Nonetheless, Graeber remains influential and has an unlikely soul-mate in naval historian, Cyril Northcote Parkinson. Parkinson’s ‘law’ is that work simply expands to fill the time available for its completion.

The process Parkinson describes is unconscious. People are not wasting time deliberately; it is just that their work is not needed. Susan David suggests that this may not matter and that ‘futile busyness’ can actually leave people happier than doing nothing.

Management theorist, Frederick Winslow Taylor, took a different view. Taylor thought workers were inherently lazy. His scientific method, which saw people as a form of machine, transformed manufacturing and labour productivity. It seems that Taylor even used his leisure time efficiently, playing both golf and tennis at championship level.

For some, the promise of technology remains. Susskind predicts a world involving far less ‘human’ work. Thompson has doubts, arguing that work hours will only fall if government changes the prevailing economic structure.

Technology may also be a red herring. Silvia Bellezza and colleagues argues our busyness is linked primarily to a desire for status. Being busy signals success and our place in society.

Daniel Markovits agrees, and sees the US falling into a meritocratic trap. He argues that a self-reinforcing cohort now exists in the US who work extraordinary hours. Markovits points to the proportion of high income earners working more than 50 hours a week doubling, and hours of 80 to 120 hours a week in some professions.

Graeber, Markovits and Thompson paint a picture of an out-of-control system driving busyness. Their logic suggests busyness is not a choice but something forced upon us.

Societal systems are doubtless part of the story. But to end there is too simple. For one thing, translating US dynamics to other cultures requires caution. Italians, for one, value leisure more than Americans, and are less likely to work long hours.

Complaints about busyness may also need to be taken with a grain of salt. Writer Tim Kreider says that claims of being ‘crazy’ busy are a boast disguised as complaint. Kreider argues that truly busy people complain of being tired, not busy.

Kreider’s argument is uncomfortable. It suggests that busyness is something that we choose. Our jobs may not be pointless, but are less important and need less time than we make out.

It is possible that the pandemic will bring change. Busy people include those who are most able to reassess their work and leisure options. This might involve a future of less work for some, and a potentially healthy redistribution of work opportunity in society.

Solving the busyness paradox remains elusive. Change may not require the government-initiated rethink identified by Derek Thompson. But the valorisation of work has deep roots and is unlikely to change without some societal-level reflection.

It is worth remembering that the introduction of the 8 hour, 5 day week only came via an act of government after a long social campaign.

Of course, it may also be that most of us are secretly happy with the way things are now.

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