“I’m just so busy!” becomes the new social status signal.

In an era of almost constant “disruption” both socially and politically, it’s always interesting to hear the perspectives of people who devote their energies to thinking about the “larger implications.”

Author and MarComm über-thought leader Gord Hotchkiss is one of those individuals whose writings about the intersection of technology and human behavior are invariably interesting and thought-provoking.

His latest theory is no exception.

In a recent column published in MediaPost, Hotchkiss posits that the social status hierarchy of people may be moving away from “conspicuous consumption” and more towards the notion of “time” as the status symbol.

Hotchkiss writes:

“‘More stuff’ has been how we’ve determined social status for hundreds of years. In sociology, it’s called conspicuous consumption — a term coined by sociologist Thorstein Veblen.  It’s a signaling strategy that evolved in humans over our recorded history. 

 The more stuff we had — and the less we had to do to get that stuff — the more status we had. Just over 100 years ago, Veblen called those who significantly fulfilled these criteria the Leisure Class.”

Gord Hotchkiss

Looking at how social dynamics and social status are playing out today — at least in North America — Hotchkiss paints picture that is quite different from before:

“A recent study seems to indicate that we now associate ‘busy-ness’ with status. Here, it’s time, not stuff, that is the scarce commodity.  Social status signaling is more apt to involve complaining about how we never go on a vacation than about our ‘summer on the continent.'”

Interestingly, the very same research methodology that uncovered this set of attitudes in the United States was conducted in Italy as well. And there, the findings were exactly the opposite.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that in Italy, every employee is entitled to at least 32 days of PTO per year, whereas in the United States the minimum number of legally required paid holidays is … zero.

Looked at from another perspective, perhaps today’s social status indicators in North America are merely the Protestant Work Ethic in action, but updated to the 21st century.

Either way, the residents of Italy probably see it as a heck of a way to live …

One thought on ““I’m just so busy!” becomes the new social status signal.

  1. Hotchkiss’s observation is quite interesting, and led me to think …

    Life expectancy at birth has increased significantly (by 60%) in the U.S. over the past 100 years — from 48 to 77 years between 1900 and 1999 — so the average American has a lot more time to fulfil their lifelong objectives than before.

    In Italy, on the other hand, life expectancy at birth increased by just under 40% during the same period, from 51 to 71 years.

    In either country, the absolute amount of time available per human life has increased by anywhere from two to three decades. That’s quite a lot of extra time. So, if time has become the scarce commodity in peoples’ minds as Hotchkiss says, this can only be attributable to an even greater number of activities that people expect to complete during their lifetimes. Those activities could be related to work, holidays or retirement.

    100 years ago, the average retirement age was 75 — exceeding life expectancy by a quarter-century or more. The idea of investing additional years of work to finance a period of retirement would have been unimaginable for most people in the U.S., Italy or anywhere else. If you were fortunate enough, you bought social status through “conspicuous consumption” — buying and flaunting as much stuff as you could.

    In the U.S. the average retirement age was 63 in 1999, so its increase in life expectancy would have added 15 working years plus another 14 years in retirement (but no additional statutory paid time off). In other words, by the end of the last century, 15 more years of work-related activity were needed to finance 14 further years of non-work activity in retirement.

    At that time the average retirement age was about 60 in Italy, so its increase in life expectancy would have added 8 working years, plus 1 year of statutory paid time off (PTO) and 11 further years in retirement. That is, 8 more years of work-related activity were needed to finance 12 further years of non-work activity in PTO and retirement.

    Which is to say, compared to a century ago, by 1999 Italians had only two-thirds the extra working time available to Americans for accumulating what they needed to survive roughly the same number of newfound retirement years.

    People in retirement don’t tend to buy more durable stuff. They live off the durable stuff (land, houses, cars, furniture and furnishings) accumulated over their working lives, and use their pensions and accumulated financial wealth to buy the non-durable stuff they need while, if fortunate enough to do so, ticking off the items on their “bucket list,” so to speak. They are not in “conspicuous consumption” mode.

    Perhaps the real reason why researchers found Italian attitudes to be the opposite of what they are in the U.S. has nothing to do with Protestant work ethics versus PTO at all. Maybe, due to significant increases in life expectancies, it’s because Italians need to accumulate half again as much stuff as Americans during their extra working years preceding retirement. Buying stuff at such an accelerated rate rather than complaining about being too busy could easily be mistaken for buying social status when it is, in fact, a survival strategy.

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