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Having no life is the new aspirational lifestyle

It used to be that we equated power and prestige with a leisurely, luxurious lifestyle. Today, lack of leisure time is the real status symbol. Anat Keinan discusses what that means for consumer marketing

Published: Jul 4, 2017

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Image: Shutterstock

Americans are working longer hours than ever before, with the office increasingly stealing our leisure time. But according to new research by Anat Keinan, this hectic way of life is, for many of us, far from an unmitigated negative.

In fact, some boast the lack of spare time as a status symbol—even an aspirational lifestyle.

The finding suggests a new way for marketers to sell their products and services to consumers by flattering them with messages that recognize how valuable their time is. But such an approach is risky, too. Do you really want to position your brand on the side of telling people to work too much?

Keinan, an associate professor in the Marketing unit at Harvard Business School, explores the phenomenon in a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research, “Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol ,” co-written with Columbia marketing professor Silvia Bellezza and Georgetown marketing professor Neeru Paharia.

What happened to the good life?
This finding that “busyness” conveys status flies in the face of decades of social history, where enjoyment of nonproductive leisure time was seen as a mark of a successful life.

The ability to fritter away your hours was considered the apex of success as evidenced in books from sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 classic The Theory of the Leisure Class (he coined the term “conspicuous consumption”) to television shows such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And if you didn’t actually have a life of leisure, you could pretend you did by buying increasingly affordable luxury brands like Cadillac or Rolex. “People used to spend their time in ostentatiously unproductive ways to show their status,” says Keinan.

But something in our culture has changed about how status is achieved. In the past decade, conspicuous ostentatious consumption has become less socially acceptable. Those wishing to flaunt their status have had to find more subtle ways to show their value. At the same time, our go-go workplaces are emphasizing and rewarding 24x7 productivity.

To study this idea, the researchers set up six experiments to gauge our attitudes about luxury and busyness.

As a preliminary test, the researchers combed through social media posts by celebrities compiled by Harris Wittels, author of Humblebrag, The Art of False Modesty, and found more than 1 in 10 were about being too busy or “not having a life.” (A typical example: “Hi, I’m 16 and I’m publishing 3 books and an album this year. Do you have any advice on how to handle it best?”)

Has this glorification of over-commitment trickled down to the masses? Keinan and her co-authors recreated such “humblebrags” (Humblebrags are essentially brags veiled in a complaint, so as to sound less blatantly like a brag) in mock Facebook posts by a fictional office worker, “Sally Fisher.” The posts demonstrated either busyness (“I have been working non-stop all week!”) or leisure (“Enjoying a long lunch break!”). The researchers then asked some 300 participants to rank Sally’s wealth and importance. On average, busy Sally was seen as having higher social status and greater socioeconomic wealth than leisurely Sally.

In another experiment, a hundred participants were asked to read a fictional letter from a “friend” named Daniel. In one version, he complained about being “crazy busy” and never having time to watch TV. In another, he talked about being relaxed and often watching ESPN. The results were even starker than the previous experiment. On a scale of 1 to 7, participants ranked busy Daniel more than twice as high on an aggregate measure of wealth and social status as they ranked leisurely Daniel, 5.44 to 2.55.

They also ranked busy Daniel as being more scarce and in-demand to employers, 3.8 to 2.83. That measure of scarcity, says Keinan, may hold the key to why busyness is perceived the new luxury.

“When we talk about traditional conspicuous consumption, it’s about consuming scarce and expensive things like jewelry or money or cars,” she says. “But the new conspicuous consumption is about saying, I am the scarce resource, and therefore I am valuable.”

The business of busyness

Marketers have already begun using such insights to target consumers, flattering them by implying how valuable their time is in order to sell them products.

A recent Rolex ad asked: “Checking his watch costs Bill Gates $300 a second. What is your time worth?" And an ad campaign for The Wall Street Journal features celebrities including Tory Burch and Will.i.am reading the paper with the tagline, “People who don’t have time make time to read The Wall Street Journal.”

Even Cadillac, a symbol of traditional status and luxury, featured a popular ad during the 2014 Winter Olympics in which a middle-aged actor sitting by the pool monologues:

Why do we work so hard? For this? For stuff? Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the café, they take August off. Off! Why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that? Because we are crazy-driven hard-working believers, that’s why!

That “crazy” American work ethic has led to accomplishments from the Wright Brothers to the moon landing, the voice continues—before the actor gets into his Cadillac and turns to the camera, saying, “As for all the stuff, that’s the upside of only taking two weeks off in August, n'est-ce pas?”

(In another study, Keinan and her colleagues found Italian respondents equated working more hours with lower, not higher, social status, implying that obsession with busyness is a distinctly American phenomenon.)

In another experiment that should be of interest to brand managers, the researchers confirmed the potential power of a “sell busyness” strategy. Five hundred participants were asked to rate the status of consumers who used products associated with a busy lifestyle.

First, they showed participants a description about a consumer named Matthew who shopped at either an upscale grocery store or instead used grocery-delivery service Peapod. Though Whole Foods was perceived as more of a luxury brand, the participants rated the status of the Peapod shopper equal to the Whole Foods shopper, and both were rated above Trader Joe’s.

“Whole Foods may be the more luxurious experience, but Peapod signals your time is so valuable you can’t afford to waste it,” says Keinan.

In another study, a woman wearing a Bluetooth headset was rated higher than one wearing headphones, while both were rated the same in how nice, honest, and attractive they were.

“This leisure-less lifestyle is so aspirational, any products or services that are associated with it become status symbols,” Keinan says.

Interestingly, this glorification of busyness and productivity is also affecting how consumers spend their limited leisure time, Keinan believes. “We are so obsessed with productivity and efficiency, we tend to keep ourselves busy even when we are on vacation, We make bucket lists and collect experiences, even when we are supposed to be at rest.”

A wrong message?
While marketers can certainly strike a chord by appealing to our obsession with busyness and productivity, that doesn’t mean they should.

Keinan cites her own 2008 study that found that while people often felt guilty about taking time off for fun in the short term, in the long run they are more likely to regret missing out on indulging in leisure activities.

“It’s the old adage that nobody on their death bed ever said they wished they spent more time in the office,” Keinan says. “If marketers can help consumers devote more time to things that are really important—like spending time with friends and family—without feeling guilty, that would be a real success.”


Michael Blanding is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts


[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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