I’m certainly sympathetic with the questions Stuart Whatley [ht: ja] raises about the “lifestyle” associations of many popular busyness theses and the attempt to “avoid politics in search of some larger, elusive truth to succor the navel-gazing curiosity of the higher-income professional class they’re targeting.”
And there’s certainly an important distinction to be made between what we might call the conspicuous busyness of the small moneyed class and the real busyness of the many who attempt to juggle low-pay jobs and moonlight in the so-called sharing economy.
But neither the busyness studies commentators nor critics like Whatley identify one of the key sources of busyness in our lives, which has nothing to do with the latest technologies: the fact that we work part of the time for ourselves and an ever-growing portion of time for someone else.
It’s that unpaid labor that makes so many of us busy. We often complain about being busy in our nonwork lives (e.g., when we have to pack our own groceries, drive our kids to school, or learn how to install and use new apps). But we then ignore how, when we work, we’re doing so only part of the time for ourselves, for which we receive a wage or salary. When we’re done with that work (say, the first three hours of an eight-hour day), we continue to work (for another five hours)—but now we’re working not for ourselves, but for someone else. We’ve already created enough to compensate for our pay. The rest of the work we do is unpaid; it’s time spent working, the fruits of which someone else is able to appropriate.
That’s why we continue to be busy, on the job. We teach students or produce car parts or create new apps for many more hours than is necessary to make up for what we’re paid. The rest is unpaid labor.
The busyness of performing surplus labor is anything but a myth.