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Leisure and busyness: the rise of the scarce individual

Silvia Bellezza, Neeru Paharia and Anat Keinan did some interesting work on the use of busyness as a status symbol before the pandemic. In their paper in the Journal of Consumer Research they describe a series of experiments in which they show that being busy (or appearing to be busy) and having no time for leisure increased people’s status in the eyes of others. Of course, during the lockdown people were unable to go to work, raising the interesting question of how they maintain their status in the absence of physical work. Luckily, the increased use of Zoom and other digital media provided a solution – people could show how busy they were by being constantly engaged in webinars and online fora, or telling their friends via social media that they were suffering from ‘Zoom fatigue’. Those of us who used the lockdown to increase leisure pursuits such as reading, gardening or listening to our favourite music, on the other hand, probably suffered a decline in status as a result.

The cult of busyness also raises a much more serious issue, which is the tendency for the individual to become a scarce good. People can demonstrate their scarcity through busyness, which raises their value. As the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma emphasises, individuals have become commodities to be traded by social media companies to advertisers. People become increasingly valuable to these companies because their attention is finite, and therefore in increasingly short supply as the flood of information channels increases. The Social Dilemma illustrates how the cult of busyness is now spilling over into our leisure time, driven by social media, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and addiction to information.

A interesting question to be resolved, as Belleza et al. indicate, is whether our status will now also become related to our level of leisure busyness. If so, expect to see the Harried Leisure Class bragging on social media about how many peak experiences people have managed to cram into their holidays, or how little quality time they have at weekends. For some people, leisure busyness may replace a busy work schedule – particularly for those made redundant by the pandemic. But others may develop mixed busyness strategies, with packed work agendas AND a hectic leisure schedule. This hypercharged hybrid might be described as ‘work hard, play hard’, which Belleza et al. predict will be linked to even higher social status in future. Time to go back to my gardening…..

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