In a world without work, being busy will be the new status symbol: Don Pittis

Forget the golf course and lounge chair, new research suggests being overworked is the new status symbol — and the despair of unemployment could be deadly.

New research also suggests despair of unemployment could be deadly

'Jobs without people and people without jobs.' On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Kinova Robotics, a Quebec company in a sector hungry for qualified workers. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

The conventional view of economists has been that work is what poor people do. The richer we got, individually and as a society, the more we would revel in taking time off.

Two new studies on work and leisure have turned that conventional economic wisdom on its head.

Most devastating was research released on Friday by Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton and Princeton economist Anne Case that shows "deaths of despair" are soaring amongst unemployed white men in the United States.

Mortality and male despair

Titled Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century, the research shows that while most middle-aged people around the world are living longer, the death rate for white men without a high school education is sky-rocketing.

"The number of "deaths of despair"— death by drugs, alcohol and suicide" and a "slowdown in progress against mortality from heart disease and cancer, the two largest killers in middle age" are to blame, says a Brookings Institution précis of the new research.
A discarded needle in Vancouver. There are 'deaths of despair' everywhere but new research shows that among the hardest hit are white American men without post-secondary education. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Their statistics show the rising death rate is related directly to education levels, but the causes, whether unemployment, loss of status or lack of access to health care, are more complex and harder to tease out.

"Not only are educational differences in mortality among whites increasing, but mortality is rising for those without, and falling for those with, a college degree," says the summary of the report, which is available in full here.

While unemployment figures fall, especially in the United States but also in Canada, critics have repeatedly pointed out that those stats disguise a large contingent of what economists call "discouraged workers," who have given up and stopped looking for a job.

Others fall into a category sometimes called "underemployed." They have enough hours to take them off the unemployment rolls but not enough to keep them busy.

"We have people without jobs, and we have jobs without people," said Craig Alexander, chief economist of the Conference Board of Canada, in advance of last week's federal budget. That is a problem Finance Minister Bill Morneau says he's seeking to rectify.

The changing status of leisure

In his groundbreaking book The Theory of the Leisure Class, 19th century economist Thorstein Veblen described a world where time to do nothing represented the pinnacle of economic status. 

His concept of "conspicuous leisure" was portrayed in the Gilded Age novels of Edith Wharton where listless New York aristocrats struggle, conspicuously, to fill their time with games and visits and carriage rides that strengthen their place in the social pecking order.
It used to be that the idle rich used 'conspicuous leisure' to show their status. Now the world's richest and highest-status people, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, left, and billionaire investor Warren Buffett, right, are busy running charities and businesses. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

By the 1930s, economist and public servant John Maynard Keynes described the world of leisure spreading across the social classes in his essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, where he foresaw that humanity was destined for a 15-hour work week.

Keynes presciently describes "unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour."

Like Veblen, Keynes saw a time, roughly by 2030, when people of all sorts would want to be part of a growing leisure class.

As it turns out, author Kurt Vonnegut sketched what may be a more accurate picture in his 1952 novel Player Piano where the only people truly busy were highly educated technocrats and bureaucrats, an elite of the type scorned by the supporters of Donald Trump.

Conspicuously hard-working

With Vonnegutian irony, the job of one character in the novel is to create machinery to do other people's jobs. He invents a machine to do his own job and is promptly sent to join the masses of marginally employed citizens in overstaffed make-work gangs filling potholes.

Vonnegut's message, of course, is being freed from work may not be all it's cracked up to be.

That's exactly the point of the second piece of research released last week by social scientists at Harvard and Columbia universities. Unlike the era described by Veblen, the authors show that in the modern world the highest status is attached to those who are the most frantically busy.

"We uncovered an alternative type of conspicuous consumption that operated by shifting the focus from the preciousness and scarcity of goods to the preciousness and scarcity of individuals," Science Daily quoted the authors as saying.

To an economist, the idea is not so far fetched. Things of value are things in short supply. In Veblen's era, people had to work long hours or starve, so leisure was the signature of wealth. Now status comes with being useful and in demand.

One solution to the arrival of the robots is to take the economic surplus created by machines and distribute it amongst the unemployed as a basic income. But that may not be enough. As automation begins to take away our jobs, it is the feeling of usefulness, of being socially valued, that is in short supply. 

Perhaps that is why in the Brookings study it is men who suffer the most from purposelessness and despair. As the aphorism goes, a woman's work is never done, even when it is unpaid.

It may turn conventional economics on its head, but once your basic needs are fulfilled, when it comes to status and feeling good about yourself, maybe work really is its own reward.

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  • A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to the Gilded Age novels of Elizabeth Wharton. In fact, the author is Edith Wharton.
    Mar 27, 2017 8:06 AM ET


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.