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Busyness as the Badge of Honor for the New Superordinate Working Class



There is a paradoxical relationship between, on one hand, the observation that, in general, people feel busier now than they did previously, and on the other, the evidence (from time diary data) that societies have somewhat less, or at least overall, no more work than they had previously. But the connections between amounts of work and feelings of busyness are in fact neither direct nor simple. In what follows, a line of theoretical argument from Thorsten Veblen, and dating from the end of the 19th century, concerning the social construction of leisure, is redeployed, in the context of the changed economic circumstances at the start of the 21st century, to the construction of feelings of busyness. Work, not leisure, is now the signifier of dominant social status. Evidence from three UK time diary studies (1961, 1983/4 and 2001) shows that over this period the Veblen-type negative relationship between social status (as indicated by human capital) and work time is reversed—high human capital is now associated with longer hours of work. This is consistent with the Veblen-derived theoretical line; however a complete demonstration of the theoretical position would require historical evidence on both time allocation and feelings of busyness for the same individuals, which is not available for the UK.
Busyness as the badge of honour
for the new superordinate working class
Jonathan Gershuny
ISER Working Papers
Number 2005-9
Institute for Social and Economic Research
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There is a paradoxical relationship between, on one hand, the observation that, in general,
people feel busier now than they did previously, and on the other, the evidence (from time
diary data) that societies have somewhat less, or at least overall, no more work than they had
previously. But the connections between amounts of work and feelings of busyness are in
fact neither direct nor simple. In what follows, a line of theoretical argument from Thorsten
Veblen, and dating from the end of the 19
century, concerning the social construction of
leisure, is redeployed, in the context of the changed economic circumstances at the start of
the 21
century, to the construction of feelings of busyness. Work, not leisure, is now the
signifier of dominant social status. Evidence from three UK time diary studies (1961, 1983/4
and 2001) shows that over this period the Veblen-type negative relationship between social
status (as indicated by human capital) and work time is reversed—high human capital is now
associated with longer hours of work. This is consistent with the Veblen-derived theoretical
line; however a complete demonstration of the theoretical position would require historical
evidence on both time allocation and feelings of busyness for the same individuals, which is
not available for the UK.
There are three approaches to the resolution of the paradox of busyness:
The first is through social differentiation. Though the aggregate of societies’ work times
may have reduced, their distribution may have become more polarised, so that some sorts
of people are now genuinely busier (hence the relative growth in “busy” versus “not-
busy” feelings).
The second is that feeling busy does not necessarily relate solely to “work”, however
broadly defined. A growth in the intensity of leisure consumption could also be the cause
of busy feelings.
The third is that the meaning of “busyness” has changed in a systematic way: in what
follows I argue that activity patterns that once signified low social status, now signify
high status.
These three lines are not mutually inconsistent. Indeed the third argument may well be
nested within a particular case of the first. In what follows I argue that the growth in the
importance of “embodied capitals”—and particularly “human capital” (ie work skills saleable
in the labour market)—relative to the ownership of financial capital or other productive
assets, in the determination of life chances, may in turn change the implication of long hours
of work for social status.
UK time use data for the period 1961-2001 do indeed indicate a reversal of the previously
negative leisure/status gradient. They do not however show substantial evidence of
increasing leisure density. The tentative conclusion is that the growth in expressions of
“feeling busy” may be explained, not just by the growth of a new busy group, but also by the
proposition that the assertion of “busyness” now reflects an aspiration to high social status.
Busyness as the badge of honour
for the new superordinate working class
1. On the rating of a subjective state.
“Busyness” plainly relates to externally observable work or leisure activities, but
nevertheless the state itself is entirely subjective. I will argue in what follows, that there may
have been fundamental changes in the connection between the external circumstances of
work and leisure and internal feelings of “busyness”. Through the last century there have
been fundamental shifts in the relationship between the pattern of daily activities, and
patterns of societal sub- and superordination. “Are you busy?” may have had a quite
different meaning as addressed to an upwardly mobile member of the Victorian English or
American middle classes, as compared to an office worker at the turn of the third millennium.
Individuals’ representations of their states of “busyness” play an important, and changing,
role in establishing their positions in the order of social stratification. A leisure class (and
hence I presume not busy) at the end of the 19
century perhaps, but the dominant groups in
the early 21
are in the most straightforward sense of the word, workers. I will suggest that,
reflecting this fundamental shift in social structure, the social construction of “busyness” has
also changed.
The problem addressed in this paper is a paradox. There is a well documented, cross-
nationally consistent, historical growth of busy feelings through the last part of the twentieth
century. But there is an equally well documented, long term, and very substantial growth in
leisure time in pretty much every country for which we have appropriate evidence. There are
in principle three general approaches to an explanation of this apparent contradiction.
The first relates to the observable changes in the allocation of time between work and leisure.
It may be that, though average work time is declining, the work time (and hence feelings of
“busyness”) of specific groups of people are moving differentially, so as to produce particular
groups who are particularly susceptible to busy feelings. Thus Jacobs and Gerson 2004, p123
point to “the increasing time pressures facing dual earner couples, single mothers, employed
parents” among others as explaining the increase in “time squeeze” perceptions. Similarly,
Bittman, 2004, pp154-157, entirely accepting the long term cross-national trend of increase
in leisure time, points to the polarisation between household level unemployment on one side,
and dual career couple households on the other, and identifies the growing size of the latter
group as the reason for the ready and initially uncritical acceptance of Schor’s original (1991)
overworked American thesis. Bittman’s particularly helpful contribution, which forms the
background to this paper, is his combination of evidence of change in the aggregate of both
paid and unpaid work within multiple job parent households as the key issue. Undoubtedly,
taking this broad view of work, and despite the overall growth in leisure time, a growing
number of households face a time squeeze.
The second approach, from Linder (1970), is that feelings of rush or “busyness” may relate,
not to work, but to changes in the density of leisure. I discuss this line of argument in the
next section.
A third approach to the resolution of the paradox, entirely consistent with the forgoing,
involves, not the externally observable evidence of historical changes in work and leisure
time, but a change in the way feelings of “busyness” are constructed out of these. In what
follows, I first address some theoretical approaches which contribute to an understanding of
this change, and then consider some evidence on the externally observable behaviour that
might be expected to underlie the subjective rating of the phenomenon. What emerges is the
hypothesis that the growth in busy feelings may in part reflect an increasingly positive view
of “busyness”, resulting from its association with the increasingly busy lifestyle of the most
privileged groups in developed societies. The empirical part of this paper is brief and
suggestive rather than conclusive. But it does provide a new perspective on the paradox, that
certainly merits further investigation.
For the moment I will maintain “busyness” undefined, in a cage of quotes, but I get round to
a definition by and by.
2. Some sociological and economic perspectives.
the leisure class
Veblen’s concern, in his too-little read classic Theory of the Leisure Class, is not the contrast
between work and leisure, but between two altogether much less familiar concepts:
“industry” and “exploit”. Industry, in this context, is not a branch of production. The word
is used in the abstract sense, of a quality of approach to specific daily activities. Industry
implies a regular, unchanging, unimaginative, attachment to a routine or repetitive task, such
as planting or weeding (or work on a factory production line), normally involving the
transformation of some inanimate object through the moderate application of human strength.
Exploit, by contrast, involves some form of conflict or competition with an animate, cunning,
and possibly intelligent, agent. In the most primitive societies, Veblen tells us, there is at first
a leisure sex; women are engaged in industry, which involves in this context, gathering or
gardening, or the laborious preparation of the products of these activities, while men pursue
wild animals for food, and gossip and gamble with their fellows. Hunting is a game, if a
serious and dangerous one, and the contrast between the freedom of this male play and the
constraining nature of female industrious labour, provides an initial model for relations of
super- and subordination.
The agility and skill with weapons, gained from hunting, is readily redeployable to
brigandage. Veblen describes the move from “primitive” societies to the “barbarian stage”
as involving petty warfare in search of booty, in the form of food and captives, and his
version of a class system now emerges in a nascent form, with slaves devoted to labour, and a
superordinate class devoted to exploit and to exploitation. The men of the dominant class in
the feudal system similarly deployed their own prowess in warfare, and also raised an
intermediate cadet class, superior in status, modest in wealth, specifically tasked with
practising strenuous warlike games—running, jumping, riding and the use of weapons—
producing skills deployed at the behest of the dominant class to subject the serf class to
industrious labour in exchange for “protection”.
This deeply rooted linkage of superordination with exploit, and hence the conspicuous
abstention from labour as an assertion of superior status, is the origin, in Veblen’s account, of
the deployment of leisureliness as “the badge of honour” in his contemporary society. The
inheritor class engaged in leisure pursuits analogous to the exploit of bygone days—hunting
and athletic sports, unpaid participation in politics (i.e. gossip and gambling), scholarship or
administration—as an assertion of its superordinate status. In the case of non-inheriting
middle class men who had to work….at least their wives and servants could be maintained in
“honorific and wasteful idleness”. Veblen’s best-known surviving conceptual innovation,
“conspicuous consumption” relates to this upwardly mobile group which, in his original
account, relied on the wasteful deployment of unnecessary goods and services by an idle
retinue, expressly to disguise and distract from the shameful busyness of the master of the
At one level this could all be viewed as a dismissible cod-history of leisure. Is it really
appropriate to view men in hunter-gatherer societies as leisured and women not? Were the
non-employed wives of middle class men in the 19
century genuinely maintained in a
conspicuously idle state, as Veblen suggests, or would they in fact have seen themselves as
busy with good works and keeping up their social responsibilities? This would however lose
a message of real importance about the social construction of the meaning of work in terms of
the social order. Veblen’s Victorian superordinate class, for whom leisure was the badge of
honour, considered “busyness” as quite anti-honorific. Labour, the reverse of leisure, and a
characteristic of subordinate status, was, after all the name of the subordinate class. But
would it still be appropriate so to characterise and name the least privileged part of our
Veblen’s book is very firmly located at the end of the 19
century. The superordinate leisure
class he was describing was disappearing even as he wrote about it. In what follows I
consider two later lines of theoretical development, both of which derive directly from
Veblen’s: “the harried leisure class” thesis, which suggests that leisure itself may cease to be
leisurely; and “the superordinate working class” argument to the effect that conspicuous
leisure has lost its association with high social position, and thus ceases to be “the badge of
honour”. These imply that, even with no dominant leisure class, the underlying point of
Veblen’s argument—that social position is signified through the representation of the
activities of daily life—still works well at the beginning of the 21
the harried leisure class
Staffan Linder, another social scientist of Nordic extraction working in the US, constructed
(in 1970) a marginalist model of the process of allocating time between work and leisure. He
adopts the common economists’ expectation that work and leisure are brought into balance at
the point at which marginal utility from each is equal. This has two important implications.
The first is cross-sectional. The marginal utility of paid work can be estimated by the wage
rate. People with higher wage rates will ceteris paribus choose longer hours of work, thus
reversing the negative association discussed by Veblen. A more sophisticated version of the
same argument comes from Gary Becker (1965) who conceptualises consumption as a
process of “production of final satisfactions” in which purchased goods and services take on
the roles of “capital and materials”, with leisure time as “labour”, and are all combined to
produce final utilities. Becker then postulates alternative “consumption technologies”, some
requiring more purchased goods and services and less leisure time, some requiring fewer
purchased inputs and more leisure time—respectively “good-intensive” and “time-intensive”
approaches. Clearly those with higher wage rates can generate final utility more effectively
by specialising in the goods intensive route, those with lower marginal wage rates, the time
intensive. He has the same result as Linder: higher wage rates mean longer work hours.
The second implication of Linder’s theory is historical: as productivity rises over time, and
with it the wage rate—so the marginal utility of work increases over time. This has two
alternative consequences. Either the utility of the marginal minute of consumption time
remains unchanged, historically speaking—then as a result of the rising marginal value of
paid work, work time might also be expected to increase. Or the marginal utility of leisure
time must also increase.
This is the heart of Linder’s book. He proposes that that a continually increased marginal
utility of consumption time is achieved by combining each minute of leisure time with the
deployment of ever more goods and services. In short: productivity growth is answered by
what we might call (an unattractive neologism) consumptivity growth. The mechanism
through which this is achieved is never spelt out explicitly. It may be that of Galbraith’s New
Industrial State in which vertically integrated manufacturing combines with a powerful
advertising industry to instil desires for new products into a compliant population, or that of
Young and Willmott (1973) who quoting Linder, discuss the “marching column” of
consumers, with each rank seeking to emulate the possessions of the rank immediately ahead
of it—which, as Fred Hirsch (1976) observed, always fails since the next rank itself moved at
the same speed.
The surprising result emerging from both Becker and Linder is that if working hours remain
constant, any growth in real output per hour of production must be matched by a
compensating growth in the extent of consumption per hour. The harrying of Linder’s title,
reflects the ever-less-leisurely leisure of both rich and poor—necessitated not just by the
micro-economic rationality of the ideal consumers in Galbraith’s and Becker’s and Linder’s
models.. This is the world first described in a 1950s short story by the US science fiction
writer Frederick Pohl: (“The Midas Plague”) in which consumers have a compulsory quota
of consumption, in order to keep turning the wheels of industry. Whatever the mechanism,
here is certainly one plausible explanation for growth in feelings of busyness: the
increasingly high-pressure business (or “busyness”) of leisure.
the new superordinate working class
The third line of theoretical argument has its starting point in Linder’s and Becker’s
predictions that those with higher levels of earning power will choose longer hours of paid
work time. This might be combined with a quite distinct theoretical proposition:, of the
growing importance, indeed the primacy, of embodied capital as means of transmitting social
position between generations. This has the effect of increasing the importance of paid work
relative to leisure for those in privileged social positions.
By embodied capital I mean primarily what economists call “human capital”—accumulated
skills directly marketable in the labour force—though I would also include social and cultural
capital to the extent that, following the lines of Bourdieu’s discussion in Distinction, these
also contribute to and interact with directly marketable skills to produce income and
economic security. In fact these terms are all rendered problematical by the imprecision of
the “capital” metaphor (e.g. real capital is depleted in use and depreciates over time, while
embodied capital is enhanced whenever it is deployed, and appreciates over time). It would
be better to use Sen’s (1999) term, economic capability. But irrespective of terminology,
economic capabilities or embodied capital have risen in importance relative to the possession
of fixed assets such as savings, shares, land and so on.
The argument needs to be put with some care. The issue cannot simply be decided on the
basis of the ratio of investment-derived or rental income to labour income, nor by the number
of individuals primarily dependent on investment as opposed to labour incomes—since, inter
alia the period that concerns us has also seen a very considerable growth of fixed wealth in
the form of pension funds and entitlements. It is rather that embodied capital has become
increasingly important for establishing the economic positions of individuals at the top-end of
the income distribution, and more specifically for the transmission of top-end social position
between successive generations, during a particular part of the life-course, the earlier adult
years between the ages of, say, 20 and 50 years.
There two reasons for this change: developments in production technologies which enhance
individuals’ ability to extract what Sorenson (2000) describes as additional “rent” from their
economically salient work skills; and demographic change, specifically the increase in life
expectancy which delays and reduces the inheritance of fixed capital.
Innovations in the technology of production have led to enormous increases in the volume of
professional and technical work. In terms of work time in UK engineering, scientific and
professional work grew from 17% of all paid work in 1961 to 39% in 2001; other less skilled
service work constituted 30% of work time at both time points; and other manual workers
53% to 30%
. However IT and globalisation of trade enabling disaggregation of production
led to less vertical integration, separating design, marketing, finance, transport and
distribution to distinct companies and producing new markets for skills, in which those with
high levels of human capital can earn higher wages than would have been possible within the
vertically integrated firms.
The demographic effect works in two connected ways. People live longer, building up
savings during the employed stage of their adult lives, but then depleting them through the
lengthening non-employed phase. And as a result, their children inherit those savings later,
These estimates are drawn from Table 1 of ISER Working Paper 2005-9 Table 5.
or perhaps not at all. Since there are now different expectations about financial transfers
through the life course, parents must adopt different strategies for reproducing their own
positions for their children. The best-off parts of society, during the first half of their adult
lives, have increasingly to derive their income from human capital not fixed capital. So
increasingly parents of the superordinate class must reproduce their own position in their
children in vivo by investing in their children’s human capital, rather than post mortem
through receipt of fixed capital.
And human capital differs markedly from fixed capitals in its connection to income. Fixed
capitals produce income directly, insofar as time passes and interest, or rents, or dividends,
accumulate. Their owners, while this time passes, can devote their own time entirely to
play—the case of the Victorian leisure class. Human capital by contrast, only produces
income to the extent that its possessors allocate their own time to paid work. If human
capital, or more generally embodied capital, is replacing fixed capital as the source of the
income of the economically best-placed over historical time, this means also that those who
embody the human capital constitute a new, superordinate, working class.
We might also note that the substance of what passed for the leisure of the privileged class in
the late nineteenth century and what constitutes the paid work of some members of the best-
paid groups at the beginning of the 21
, are not markedly dissimilar. A Victorian gentleman
might have spent his days playing various games or sports, as a politician or administering
charities, overseeing the running of his estates or taking an interest in the management of his
investments, or organising the good works of a charitable institution, while his sons might be
encouraged to spend some time in a fashionable regiment or contribute to the development of
the arts or sciences.
Progressively through the 20
century, these previously “amateur” activities came to be
undertaken, not for love, but for money. Sometimes these transitions into paid work were
unproblematic, as in the case of participation in national politics in the UK (where salaries for
Members of Parliament were introduced in 1904). But in other cases they were strongly
contested. We might remember for example that through the middle part of the 20
the major regulatory activity of US and British national athletics associations was concerned,
not with preventing drug-taking, but rather with athletes taking money payments for their
sporting activities
. The effort devoted to protecting amateur status in leisure activities
represents, from this perspective, rearguard action protecting outmoded signifiers of social
Placed among the best paid occupations for women and men in European and North
American societies of the early 21
century, are just those sports, politics, business, civil and
NGO management, armed services, academic and arts activities that formed the unpaid
vocations of the leisured Victorian gentleman (a point first noted by Bourdieu 1984). Such
examples may represent only a small proportion of the top tier of occupations, but they
nevertheless serve to remind us of the continuing significance of Veblen’s core conceptual
device, the contrast between labour and exploit. “Exploit”, a form of play, is about
confronting knotty problems, and competing with worthy opponents. It would be an
exaggeration to say that work, even for those with the best jobs in modern societies, is now
play. Nevertheless exploit, an honorific (and often enjoyable) class of activity, is
undoubtedly a central characteristic of those best-paid jobs.
The 20
century changes discussed in this section have even more important implications for
the demand for labour at the other end of the spectrum of social privilege. Technological
advance means that year by year, a larger proportion of the previous demand for unskilled but
intelligent (in the modest sense of directable) human labour can be replaced by machine.
And the ever-cheaper (if we ignore indirect costs) and ever-faster global transport system,
combined with ever-broader bandwidth communications, and the doctrinaire imposition of
global trading access, means that the remaining demand for low human capital labour from
rich countries can increasingly be satisfied by people in (or imported for this purpose from)
poor countries.
Briefly to restate the three arguments of this section:–
Bascomb 2004 provides a representative account of the impact of this in the case of 1950s middle distance
Veblen saw the capitalist class—the owners of shares and idle money balances (and
inheritors of property in general)—pursuing what the late 19
and early 20
considered to be leisure on the basis that it corresponded to the antique practices of
the ruling classes of the feudal system. There was an association of leisure with the
privileged class, and hence leisure becomes “the badge of honour”.
Linder and then Hirsch argued that leisure time in effect becomes polluted by a desire
for ever-more intensive consumption of purchased goods and services, a tendency
driven either by the micro-rationality of optimising the utility derived through the
day, or by the macro-rationality of Galbraith’s New Industrial State which needs to
promote more intensive consumption to balance the ever-increasing productivity of
the industrial (and service) corporations—the “harrying” of the leisure class.
Linder (and more convincingly, Becker) establish that, ceteris paribus, individuals
with high levels of human capital may be expected to work longer hours than those
with low. And there are various reasons for thinking that the superordinate class is, at
least for the most active part of the adult life course, increasingly dependant on human
capital rather than fixed capital for its income. This would imply that, over the 20
century, an increasing proportion of the superordinate class would work longer hours
for money—and over the same period technical change and globalisation have made
it increasingly difficult for those with low levels of human capital to find any sort of
paid work.
Moving forward from the fin du siècle world described by Veblen, leisure time becomes less
leisurely, increasingly crammed with consumption, and particularly following Hirsch,
producing ever diminishing returns of satisfaction. The best-off are increasingly employed in
paid jobs which are intrinsically as well as financially rewarding, while a growing part of the
paid work of the least privileged (i.e. those with the lowest levels of human capital)
disappears altogether. Long hours of paid work are thus increasingly associated with
advantaged social positions It is not implausible to suggest, that by a similar process of
association to that identified by Veblen for the 1900s, work—and hence “busyness”—at the
start of the third millennium, succeeds leisure as “the badge of honour”, the signifier of high
social status.
3. Substantive evidence of behaviour related to “feeling busy”
A definition of “busyness”
Now we can turn to a more formal definition of “busyness”. Busyness is a subjective state,
which results from the individual’s assessment of her or his own recent or expected activity
patterns, in the light of current norms and expectations.
“Recent or expected activity patterns” refers to behaviour which is externally observable.
There are two parallel usages. The first relates straightforwardly to the duration of paid work
time. If we are “busy” in this sense, we have long hours of paid work, large parts of our
normal days are taken up with the provision of goods and services for others in exchange for
pay. The second concerns the density of paid work taken together with both unpaid work and
leisure time, reflecting such characteristics as the frequency of change in activities, the
variety of different activities undertaken, or the degree of close-packing (i.e. the multiplicity
of simultaneous activities)
. Either or both of these might provide the observable behavioural
referent for busyness.
“Current norms and expectations” refers to the subjective basis on which these empirical
referents are evaluated. Some parts of these evaluations may be physiological (or more
narrowly psychological) in their origin, in the sense that, for example, a densely packed
sequence of urgent or taxing activities might induce symptoms of stress (Zuzanek 2002). It
seems reasonable to assume that these physiological processes have not changed over the last
century. Other parts may relate more directly to sociological factors—such as the
signification of the resulting subjective state for the individual’s social position. As I have
suggested, we have some grounds for suspecting that these processes of signification have
indeed changed over the last century.
We observe our own behaviour in terms of the rhythms and duration of our work, and the
density of our work and leisure activities, and conclude whether or not these mean that we
are “busy” on the basis of physiological reactions and socially constructed meanings. Since
human physiological reaction do not change over the course of a century, changes in feelings
of busyness must result either from changes in externally observable activity patterns, or
from changes in the socially constructed system of meanings. In this paper I shall deploy
empirical evidence only for the former of these. Nevertheless, as we shall see, the
implications of this evidence are reasonably unambiguous.
My core supposition is that the generally observed growth in expressions of busy feelings
reflects change, as much in the social construction of these feelings as in the overall level of
busy behaviour. To test this, I will consider two different sorts of findings related to activity
durations, concerning the overall levels of work and leisure, and the distribution of work and
leisure activities between people with lower and higher levels of human capital. I will also
consider evidence on the density of activities, in relation to the second of the two “busyness”
usages, and also specifically in relation to the Linder/Hirsch hypothesis of overcrowding of
Evidence on activity patterns
There are three distinct classes of evidence that might in principle be deployed to reveal the
sorts of activity patterns that are relevant to this discussion: straightforward questionnaire
measures of the frequency or duration of activities; the so-called “opportunity samples”, in
which individuals record their current activities at randomly chosen instants (often referred to
as “beeper studies”, referring to the signal originally used as a cue for respondents to
complete their records); and activity sequence logs, in which respondents provide a
continuous record of each successive activity, with start and finish times, throughout a
specified period (normally between one and seven days)—“time budget diaries”.
Questionnaire-based time measures are plentiful. Estimates of hours of paid work from this
source are available from the Current Population Survey in the US, and the standardised
Bittman and Wajcman (2004 pp177-8) provide a very usefully summary of measures of leisure density.
instruments of the Labour Force Surveys across Europe. Similar estimates of time spent in
various sorts of unpaid work are available from sources such as the Panel Study of Income
Dynamics in the US, the British Household Panel Survey, and German Socio-economic
Panel. This category of evidence however presents serious problems. It provides “stylised”
estimates for very general categories whose scope is difficult to control. For example, does
respondent’s answer to the paid work question include unpaid waiting preparation time at
work, meals at work, or travel to workplace? What is the reference period and how does this
relate to the respondent’s own knowledge of her/his own activities?
Some of these issues are less problematical for paid work, where the length of the work-week
is a salient category of knowledge. But they are more so for unpaid work; how many of us
(other than complete non-participants in the activity) know how much housework we have
done in the past week? There also are currently unresolved disputes about the degree of
specific biases attached to stylised estimate measures, in particular for paid work (Jacobs
2004 vs. Robinson and Bostrom 1994). But the real shortcoming of this sort of evidence for
present purposes resides in its highly aggregated nature: to investigate the behavioural
phenomena listed in the previous subsection we need to consider not just the overall
durations (or frequency) of a few broad activities, but also the spacing and succession of
changes in more detailed activity classifications.
The opportunity sample-based measures have a symmetrical problem for current purposes.
They yield very detailed and specific pictures of particular events at particular points in the
day. But they provide no information whatsoever about the rhythm of activities throughout
the day or week for any particular individuals. Clearly, time budget diaries, which provide
complete and detailed sequential listings of activities, together with information about
location, co presence and close-packing (simultaneous activities) are the natural instrument
for the investigation of busyness.
And there is a great deal of available time budget diary information, from more than 50
countries, and in some cases stretching back more than 40 years to the early 1960s ( lists around 500 national scale studies). Some
countries (including Japan, Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, France,
Germany, Italy, Canada, US and Australia amongst others) can provide comparable surveys
over several decades. In this paper, just for reasons of compactness of discussion, I will
discuss evidence from the UK—but the results I present here are representative of the wider
evidence base (Gershuny 2000).
Three UK time diary studies
The three UK studies used here are the BBC Audience Research Department
“Viewer/Listener Availability Survey” of 1961 (N= 8360 days covering those aged 20-60,
which is the sub-sample discussed in what follows), the Economic and Social Research
Council time diary study carried out in 1983 and 1984 (N= 5183 days), and the Office of
National Statistics 2000/1 time diary study (N= 11651 days). All three are based on national
probability samples of households, with one respondent per sampled household in 1961, and
all adult members of the sampled households asked to respond in 1983 and 2001. Each of
these samples has been reweighted (after removal of diaries with more than 30 minutes of
unclassified time use per day) so as to represent the demographic characteristics of the
general population at the survey date, and also to provide an exactly equal representation of
each of the seven days of the week.
The three surveys all involve respondents recording their activities, in their own words,
continuously through the day. But many of the details of the studies differ. The 1961 BBC
study was intended to reveal when prospective viewers or listeners were available to receive
broadcasts at home. It was collected for 7 successive days, and as a result can be used to
reveal the intrapersonal variation in activity patterns between days (though in what follows
the days are treated independently). But it covered only the 17.5 hours between 6.30am and
midnight each day. It also invited respondents to record only a single activity for each half
hour of the day.
The seven day diary sample for the 1983 study covered all twenty-four hours of each day.
Respondents were offered 15 minute time slots, and were provided with a separate space to
record other activities undertaken simultaneously with the “primary” activity. The 2001
study collected only 2 days of data from each respondent, but encouraged respondents to
report in a slightly more detailed way, providing recording “slots” with a minimum duration
of just 10 minutes.
The differences in instrument design obviously pose some difficulties for comparative
purposes. But fortunately, as we shall see, the very detailed information provided by the
diary allows us to adopt a conservative “lowest common denominator” approach to the
problem of comparison.
Estimators of the behavioural correlates of busyness
The two distinct usages of “busyness” (relating respectively, to the duration of work time,
and to the density of activities in general) mean that the discussion that follows will have to
deploy a range of different indicators. The primary measure of the objective burden of paid
work is clearly the duration of working time. The length of the working year has been the
familiar currency of the discussion of feelings of busyness, from (taking the US literature as
example) the overworked (or not) American in Schor’s 1991 book, via Robinson and Godbey
(1997/1999) to Jacobs and Gerson (2004). But it is by no means certain whether it is the
length of the working year or of the work week that is the principal issue for the
understanding of busy feelings. Indeed the length of the working day may in fact be more
important than the length of the working week—so we will also consider this statistic in our
discussion of paid work
In order to deal with the problem of the missing night-time (midnight to 6.30 am) evidence in
the 1961 survey, I have adopted the radical solution of truncating the coverage of the two
later surveys to correspond to the earliest, and then for the overall duration statistics, adding-
in an extra 390 minutes for sleep. This leads to a small overestimate of total sleep-time in
each of the studies, but the similar proportions of all of the three samples who are awake at
midnight and at 6.30 am suggests that no substantial bias in estimates arises from this
As regards the broader concept of busyness as relating to the density of packing of work and
leisure activities through the day, we also need to consider such issues as the frequency of
changes in activities, numbers of different activities undertaken in the course of work and
non-work days, and the extent of simultaneous occurrence of activities. These sorts of
statistics are much more vulnerable to the details of design of research instruments and of
activity coding frames than are the measures of overall duration of broad activity categories.
Unfortunately the UK datasets have very different designs in the successive decades of data
collection. And in particular there is no way of producing simultaneous activity indicators
for the 1961 data, so this, indisputably important class of statistic is not discussed in the next
section. But there are, nevertheless, some steps we can take to solve some other aspects of
the resulting problems of comparison.
In addition to the truncation of the later surveys to the 17.5 hours per day coverage of the
1961 survey, I have adopted two further transformations of the diary material prior to the
calculation of the statistics presented in the following section.
1. Aggregating the very detailed (in each case in excess of 200 categories), but differing,
activity classifications used in the three surveys, to just eight general activity types—
paid work, unpaid work, shopping and associated travel, leisure out of home (and
associated travel), sleeping and personal care, eating at home, media related leisure,
and other home leisure.
2. Selecting a single activity for each half-hour period during the 17.5 hours now
included in the 1983 and 2001 surveys. In the 1983 case this was achieved by
randomly selecting among the two 15 minute periods registered in the original diary,
and in the 2001study, by choosing the modal activity if two of the ten minute periods
are in the same activity, or otherwise randomly among the three.
These standardisation procedures provide the basis, both for the comparisons of the duration
of the activities, and for the calculation of an indicator of the density of the packing of
Clearly there are empirical questions here that may be resolved by comparing the relative degrees of
association of the working year, working week and working day, with expressions of busyness—but this lies
outside the scope of the present article.
activities through the day, in the form of a count of the number of changes of activity
experienced each day.
4 Empirical results
Change in durations of work and leisure activities in the UK
Table 1 provides the basic statistics on change in minutes per day of work time in the UK. I
include the unpaid work minutes as well, on the basis that these may also influence feelings
of time pressure, and the residual category is added as an indicator of the total effect of the
two sorts of work. The use of day weights means that these figures may be straightforwardly
scaled up to give weekly estimates.
Table 1 Change in activities, UK, adults aged 20-60
Paid Work Unpaid Work Nonwork
1961 1983 2001 1961 1983 2001 1961 1983 2001
307 232 262 193 220 213 939 987 965
434 312 323 83 133 146 923 995 971
183 156 203 303 304 277 954 980 959
std errors
3.1 3.5 2.6 2.2 2.4 5.4 2.2 2.8 2.1
4.1 5.3 1.7 2.0 2.7 2.8 3.3 4.4 3.2
3.8 4.1 3.2 3.1 3.3 2.4 2.8 3.4 2.7
The messages of the table are quite clear. Men have overall substantially reduced their paid
work weeks over the 40 years (though there was a small increase between 1983 and 2001).
Over the same period men have nearly doubled their amount of unpaid (house-) work and
shopping, but this still leaves just under 50 minutes more uncommitted time per day in 2001
than they had in 1961. Women have increased their paid work, but decreased their unpaid,
leaving no substantial change. There have been systematic changes at either end of the age
distribution which might be expected to influence these results—later entry into the
workforce as a result of the growth of higher education over this period, and the substantial
increase in withdrawal from the workforce of people aged 55+. But similar tables for the
more restricted age range 25-55 (not shown here) exhibit just the same patterns of change.
There is no evidence here of an increase in behaviour of a sort that might be expected to
contribute to busy feelings. But these are just averages, and as Jacobs and Gerson 2004
stress, averages can mislead us. So we must look more carefully at the distribution of these
activities among different sorts of people—and also at different sorts of days.
Reversal of the status/leisure gradient
Table 2 breaks down the historical changes by educational level (where lower human capital
is indicated by incomplete secondary education, and higher by human capital by completed
secondary or more). We see here exactly the reversal in the relationship between privileged
social position and leisure that was outlined in the theoretical discussion. For men, in 1961
the paid work hours of the lower human capital group was about an hour per day more than
the higher human capital group. By 2001, the lower human capital group had nearly half an
hour less paid work per day. This change is partially compensated for by the faster growth of
the low human capital group’s unpaid work, but still leaves a reversal of the two groups’ non-
work time relationship: the higher human capital group having approximately three-quarters
of an hour of extra non-work time in 1961, and a quarter of an hour less non-work time in
2001. The differences by human capital levels are somewhat less marked for women, but
show the same general pattern.
Table 2 Change in activities, UK adults aged 20-60, by human capital level
Paid Work Unpaid Work Nonwork
Mins/day 1961 1983 2001 1961 1983 2001 1961 1983 2001
Lower human capital
447 307 315 80 128 150 914 1005 975
higher human capital
365 337 341 103 155 139 972 948 961
Lower human capital
182 145 184 306 307 289 952 988 967
higher human capital
186 212 251 286 287 249 968 941 940
There are in fact three distinct processes in train here, each of which is clearly consistent with
the basic line of the “reversal of the social advantage/leisure gradient” argument. The first of
these is a straightforward process of changing differential rates of selection into and out of
employment, as we see from Table 3.
Table 3 UK employment by sex and human capital level adults 20-60
men women
lower human capital higher human capital lower human capital higher human capital
94 88 42 34
82 85 49 62
83 93 67 80
In 1961 both men and women with higher levels of human capital were significantly less
likely to be in employment than those with lower levels. The change for men is not entirely
linear (reflecting perhaps higher rates of unemployment for both lower and higher human
capital groups during the 1980s), but by 2000 the disparity had been more than reversed, to
give the higher human capital group 10% more employment than the lower. And for women
the change is even more dramatic, with the higher human capital group increasing their
employment rate two and a half times over the period, to give them a 13% employment lead
over lower human capital women.
The second component underlying the reversed gradient in Table 2, is the change in the
average work and non-work times of employed individuals, as set out in Table 4.
Table 4 Change in activities, UK employed adults 20-60, by human capital level
Paid Work Unpaid Work Nonwork
Mins/day 1961 1983 2001 1961 1983 2001 1961 1983 2001
lower human capital
470 384 370 72 106 139 898 950 931
higher human
425 365 367 88 147 134 927 928 939
lower human capital
355 276 265 185 232 255 899 931 920
higher human
359 296 296 174 233 224 907 911 920
We can see that weekly paid work time has fallen substantially for all four groups. But (as
was the case in the US but not in continental Europe, presumably reflecting the advent of
Thatcherism in the Anglophone countries) virtually all of the change took place through the
first half of this 40 year period, with little if any change in the second. Note that employed
women’s unpaid work has increased substantially through this period; this reflects coincident
changes in the processes of selection into employment. It is well established that domestic
work is strongly influenced (for both sexes, but particularly so for women) by family status—
partnership and children. And the dramatic growth of women’s employment shown in Table
4 has been strongly concentrated among women with partners, and particularly among those
with both partners and co resident children.
The third process relates to the concentration of work into work days. Table 5 includes only
those days including at least one minute of paid work. Paid work time has still fallen overall
for both men and women. But the reduction over the period now appears rather smaller than
in the previous tables for the lower human capital groups, and there is hardly any change at
all for the higher human capital groups. Now add-in the growth of unpaid work time for all
four groups, and at last we see some evidence of decline in non-work time, of 10-15 minutes
for low human capital groups, and of half to three-quarters of an hour for those with higher
human capital.
Table 5 Change in activities, UK employed adults 20-60, by human capital level, workdays only
Paid Work Unpaid Work Nonwork
Mins/day 1961 1983 2001 1961 1983 2001 1961 1983 2001
lower human capital
556 520 519 47 69 93 837 851 828
higher human
525 511 537 51 95 85 863 834 818
lower human capital
468 420 423 141 183 199 831 837 818
higher human
467 439 463 126 177 167 848 823 810
So, in summary: (1) over the period, paid work has declined overall for both men and
women, while the increase in unpaid work for men and the decrease for women leave the
total of non-work time slightly increased for men and unchanged for women; (2) within this
overall change, higher human capital groups have increased their paid work time relative to
the lower human capital groups; and (3) paid work has become more concentrated into
workdays (reflecting inter alia the virtual end of Saturday working outside the consumer
services sector) and for the higher human capital groups particularly, workdays now have
substantially less non-work time than they did 40 years ago.
Changes in the intensity of activities.
We can turn, finally, to consider changes in the degree to which activities are tightly packed
into the day, as an indicator of change in the alternative broader sense of “busyness” as
intensity of work and leisure activities. We estimate this by working sequentially through the
successive activities listed by the diarists throughout the day, counting the number of changes
in activity as we go. Obviously, the statistics that result are critically dependent on the level
of detail to which the activities are coded. If the activities that are coded as “clothes care” in
one survey are classified variously as “washing clothes” “ironing” and “folding clothes” in
another, then exactly the same sequence of activities might yield 2 changes in activity in the
former case and 4 changes in the latter. Similarly, alternative designs of diary or instructions
to diary keepers might produce artifactual differences in intensity counts. For these reasons I
have adopted the very conservative approach of radically reducing the original 200+ activity
classifications found in each of the surveys to just the eight broad categories listed in a
previous section. This has the effect of reducing the 25 or so changes in activities that we
normally expect to find in the course of a day, two- or three-fold, but it does give us a little
more confidence in the comparison.
Table 6. Number of activities per day by human capital level and
employment status
ft pt ne
lower human capital
7.8 11.0 12.9
8.9 12.4 12.5
9.5 11.8 12.1
higher human capital
8.6 11.1 12.8
9.6 12.8 12.6
10.3 12.1 12.4
Table 6 may initially suggest a substantial increase in activity intensity during the day. For
the full time employed, among both the lower and the higher human capital groups, we see a
quite substantial increase in the numbers of changes in activities through the day. But why is
it that part-time or non-employed people appear to have greater levels of activity intensity?
In fact this has to do with the differing prevalence of work and non-work days for the various
Table 7 Number of activities per day by human capital level, sex, employment status
and day type
workday non-workday
lower human capital higher human capital lower human capital higher human capital
men women men women men women men women
7.0 8.3 7.8 8.7 9.8 11.2 10.6 11.5
7.9 8.5 8.5 9.2 10.7 11.2 11.2 12.1
8.0 9.3 8.8 9.9 10.5 11.3 11.2 11.9
7.7 12.5 9.7 10.9 9.9 12.0 11.2 13.7
8.7 12.1 7.0 12.6 11.3 13.0 12.7 13.4
9.5 11.7 9.6 12.1 11.4 12.4 11.4 12.4
Workdays are dominated by 6 to 8 hours devoted continuously to the single category “paid
work”. Non-workdays have as a result substantially more changes in activity. And as we
have already seen, paid work time has become proportionately more concentrated within
workdays, implying an increase, over the period, in the ratio of non-work to workdays. Once
we re-specify the analysis to take account of this, as in Table 7, we get a much better picture
of what is actually happening.
We might interpret Table 7 as follows. Since employed men are increasing their
contributions to unpaid work over time, while employed women are, over time increasingly
likely to belong to demographic categories which have relatively higher levels of housework
responsibility, both groups are increasing likely to have unpaid work as well as paid work
responsibilities on a workday—hence the small increase in the intensity index. But on non-
workdays, we do not see any very substantial changes in activity intensity (note that the
estimate for part-time employed men is based on a very small number of observations).
6 Conclusions
The apparent paradox of a historical growth in feelings of busyness over a period through
which work time has declined, is not in fact particularly puzzling.
One line of explanation, not investigated empirically in this paper, is that the growth in busy
feelings reflects the experience of particular groups of people (or groups of households) who
because of the growth of women’s employment in general, and of women with children in
particular, are now clearly busier—in the objective sense of the cumulation of paid and
unpaid work responsibilities—than their earlier historical comparators. Bittman 2004
provides a clear demonstration of this for Australia; very similar results (not reproduced
here) emerge for the UK. A second points to growth busyness related to leisure density—this
is not strongly supported by the time use evidence, but merits further investigation.
The third line of explanation, running in parallel with these, is the change in the social
construction of busyness. The empirical part of this paper demonstrates the historical
reversal—over a remarkably short period—of the relationship between privileged social
position and the objective indicators of busyness in the UK
. The most-privileged now work
more than the less so. Veblen’s famous arguments are to the effect that the prestige of leisure
in the 1900s, reflect its association with the daily practices of the superordinate class. Similar
considerations should now accord a similar degree of prestige to the relatively long hours of
work which are, as I have demonstrated, now a characteristic of the best-placed individuals in
the society.
The evidence does not show directly that such a change in social construction has indeed
taken place. A test for this would be that groups placed lower in the social order, and with
relatively shorter hours of work, also now rank themselves as busier than did equivalent
groups earlier in the 20
century—reflecting the hypothesized higher status of work in the
society generally. The survey data such as that used by Bittman, or Robinson and Godbey,
which combines time diary evidence with answers to consistently phrased questions about
feelings of busyness or rush over several decades—to which I currently do not have access—
could provide this sort of evidence.
Nevertheless, following directly from the theoretical arguments advanced here, and at least
consistent with the empirical materials, is the following proposition, which serves as one part
of the resolution of the paradox: busyness, and not leisure, is now the “badge of honour”.
Earlier versions of this result for other countries are provided in Gershuny (2000 pp 190-191), and a similar
result for Finland is presented in ISER Working Paper 2005-7, pp19-20 .
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... Kaya et al. (2019) reported that over three-quarters of their sample of 22-to 54-year-olds characterized themselves as a busy person. Moreover, being busy has been proposed to be a badge of honor, demonstrating high social status and frequent contributions toward society (Gershuny, 2005;Bellezza et al., 2016). Relatedly, research on time shortage perceptions indicates that people often report feeling that they do not have sufficient time to complete what they want to do and feel rushed (Rudd, 2019). ...
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Metropolitan areas tend to be materialistic/consumerist, and materialism/consumerism is usually considered immoral. Some literature argues that in cities, in general, there is more vice and immorality. In this study, we empirically explore the relationship between urbanness and materialism/immorality using 1972–2018 US General Social Survey. We find much support for a hypothesis that urbanness is associated with higher materialism and immorality. Seven out of eight measures show some evidence of more materialism/immorality in large cities, and four measures remain significant even in the most oversaturated models. However, we caution, as it is one of the first quantitative studies in the area, that the evidence is provisional. While there is a lot of theory, more empirical quantitative research is needed. The study is associative, not causal, and results may not generalize outside of the US.
Although past research has examined the personal impact of experiencing time scarcity, little is known about how signalling a lack of time affects other people’s experiences. In the present research, we examine how managers’ displays of busyness — behaviours that convey time scarcity to others — affect employees’ job-related outcomes. Managers who frequently displayed busyness in the workplace had employees who perceived lower organizational support, which predicted lower job engagement, greater job burnout and intentions to leave the organization (Study 1). Even managers’ occasional displays of busyness negatively affected employees’ job-related experiences (Study 2). Furthermore, employees with managers who frequently displayed busyness reported worse job-related outcomes when the workplace was described as functional (vs. dysfunctional) (Study 3). Together, these findings suggest that frequent and even occasional displays of managers’ busyness predict lower employee engagement, greater job burnout and desire to leave the organization, especially in highly functional work environments.
While there is extensive scholarship about how the art world devises, secures, and furthers, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s term, “distinction,” in this article I connect the Bourdieuian notion of taste to the luxury act of collecting art in the twenty-first century. I contend that collecting art is a luxury experience that bifurcates class and racial divides. The very act of collecting is a cultural mechanism that furthers socio-economic division through a form of cultural gatekeeping that restricts access to the privileged few. This article initially looks at a group of mostly white collectors, individuals who come to the art world with privilege and capital that fosters possibilities and access, and then considers a group of Black collectors, individuals who may have the financial assets to purchase art yet do so to further a sense of pride, respect, joy, and what Christina Sharpe describes as a form of “wake work” within the Black community. Even though art collecting is an elitist activity predicated on financial resources and in-network expertise, a cohort of Black art collectors has attempted to break down the barriers around access that have delimited the art world. I assess these efforts to challenge exclusivity. I argue that a great deal of the cultural work that segregates race and class, through the machinations of collecting, occurs because of specific attitudes that keep resources within privileged realms as a result of restrictive practices, actions that define luxury consumption.
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Time allocation, whether considered at the level of the individual or of the society, is a major focus of public concern. Are our lives more congested with work than they used to be? Is society polarizing into groups which, on one side, have too much work and too little leisure time to spend their money in, and on the other have no paid work, and hence no money to pay for the goods and services they might wish to use during their leisure? Has the recent convergence in men's and women's labour market roles led to an unfair distribution of the totals of paid plus unpaid work? These issues, and others similar, once the preserve of a few specialist sociologists and economists, now appear daily and prominently across the news and entertainment media. Yet there is surprisingly little substantive evidence of how individuals and societies spend their time, and of how this has changed in the developed world over the recent past. This book brings together, for the first time, data gathered in some forty national scale 'time-diary' studies, from twenty countries, and covering the last third of the twentieth century. It examines the newly emerging political economy of time, in the light of new estimates of how time is actually spent, and of how this has changed, in the developed world.
This revised edition, first published in 1977, contains a new introductory section by Tibor Scitovsky. It sets out to analyze the inherent defects of the market economy as an instrument of human improvement. Since publication, it is believed to have been very influential in the ecological movement and hence is considered to be relevant today. The book tries to give an economist's answer to three questions: Why has economic development become and remained so compelling a goal even though it gives disappointing results? Why has modern society become so concerned with distributional processes when the great majority of people can raise their living standards through increased production? Why has the 20th century seen a universal predominant trend toward collective provision and state regulation in economic areas at a time when individual freedom of action is widely extolled and is given unprecedented reign in non-economic areas? The book suggests that the current impasse on a number of key issues in the political economy of advanced nations is attributable, in part, to an outmoded perspective on the nature, and therefore, the promise of economic growth. The critique has some important implications for policy and opens up a range of policy issues. -after Author
Satisfactory class concepts need to identify the mechanisms that produce the consequences of class membership, be they class conflicts or differences in lifestyles. Using a broad conception of property rights, the article proposes to base class concepts on personal wealth, that is, the assets a person controls. Two main class concepts are proposed: class as life conditions, based on a person's total wealth, and class as exploitation, based on a person's control over assets that produce economic rents. The former concept corresponds to empirical and Weberian class concepts, the latter to Marxist and neo-Marxist class concepts. The article shows that the class concept based on rent-producing assets accounts for recent developments in capitalism.