The Agenda

Busy Busy Busy

Tim Kreider has written the provocation of the movement for educated professionals and semi-professionals. We are now working through the inevitable cycle of replies. Some will argue that Kreider doesn’t give sufficient attention to class and capital, others will argue that he doesn’t devote enough time to the unique challenges facing women, and one assumes someone will at some point reference white privilege. Then, of course, Kreider’s defenders will make their own claims, e.g., that Kreider’s “defiant indolence” represents a potent strategy for resistance in a post-Fordist social media economy that is collapsing the distinction between work and non-work. This is one of the more striking aspects of the industrialization of snark: it has rendered many of our public conversations hilariously predictable. 

The essay has merit. Social conservatives might find that this passage resonates with their critiques of urban life in the age of delayed marriage and extended adolescence:

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. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when “menu” buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion. 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. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

There are also shades of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft and its critique of “knowledge work.” 

I’m a believer in busyness. As a friend of mine noted, the brilliance of Kreider’s essay flows from the provocative overgeneralization at its core. There are people who are busy and unhappy, and who are driven primarily by anxiety. There are others who have a lot of energy and who thrive on creating obligations for themselves and meeting them.

This heterogeneity has value, though of course it will tend to lead to sorting in which the busy alienate the non-busy, the non-busy cluster together (but might find themselves bored by the lack of stimulation provided by the alienating but entertainingly frenetic busy people), and the busy will befriend and mate with the busy, which will create all kinds of tensions that derive from the need to reconcile conflicting schedules and (to be unfair) narcissistic personalities.