Busyness / by Karie Luidens


Not only have some of my past occupations been of questionable significance in the world, the fact that they kept me constantly busy means they actually prevented me from using my time to pursue activities I’d find more intrinsically meaningful, like painting and writing. 

To refer to a busywork-type office job as one’s “occupation” is actually rather funny when you consider the various meanings of “occupied.” If we’re “occupied” by our work, does that mean that we’re “invaded and ruled” (occupied territories), “in use” (an occupied bathroom stall), or just plain busy (a phone line that’s occupied)?

Writer Tim Kreider is less forgiving than Graeber in his assessment of most occupations in the modern American economy: 

More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. 

And yet despite that fact, we act as if we’re busier than ever: 

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily.

But why? Why would we take jobs of questionable value and then choose to work so furiously at them that we’re chronically overextended? I tend to agree with his theory: 

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.