Tag Archives: Thorstein Veblen

Conspicuous work: do we compound the workload issue ourselves?

Scene: Due to him locking his keys inside it, George Costanza’s car has been sat in the parking lot at his workplace for a number of days now. He has been working his regular hours, but commuting via other means. He has just returned from a meeting with his boss Mr, Wilhelm, who, in turn, reports to the owner George Steinbrenner. Costanza has come to Jerry’s apartment with good news about a possible promotion…
Costanza: Assistant to the general manager! Do you know what that means? He could be asking my advice on trades. Trades, Jerry! I’m a heart beat away!
Jerry: That’s a hell of an organisation they are running up there. I can’t understand why they haven’t won a pennant in 15 years.
Costanza: And it is all because of that car. See, Steinbrenner is like the first guy in at the crack of dawn. He sees my car, he figures I’m the first guy in. Then the last person to leave is Wilhelm. He sees my car, he figures I’m burning the midnight oil! Between the two of them, they think I’m working an 18-hour day!
Jerry: Locking your keys in the car is the best career move you ever made.
Seinfeld – ‘The Caddy’

Over 100 years ago, at the turn of the 20th century, sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to describe the way that the upper classes purchased luxury goods as a means of publicly displaying their wealth. In his book, Theory of the Leisure Class, he criticised such showing off: not only did he think it wasted resources, but he also noted that the lower classes then sought to emulate the upper classes with similar unnecessary conspicuous consumption.

It’s a plausible theory: that to confer status, people might act a certain way only to be seen doing so. As such, it has some common ground with the modern phenomenon of virtue signalling.

Seeing quite a few people posting pictures of displays on Twitter during this first week of the holidays, I wondered (out loud, on Twitter) if ‘conspicuous work’ had ever been forwarded as a concept.

A quick search showed a study from the Netherlands from this year which took that very term as it’s title. ‘Conspicuous Work’ looked at male workers over a period of 17 years and drew the following conclusions:

  • The workers imitated their peers working hours – the longer their peers worked, the longer they did
  • The workers derived status from matching their peers working hours
  • This ‘peer working time’ negatively affected their happiness

They further summarised that “These findings are consistent with a ‘conspicuous work’ model, in which individuals derive status from working time.”

It seems that conspicuous work really is a viable notion. Jonathan Simons (of Policy Exchange) shared this anecdote:

I wonder if posting pictures of displays we’ve just made or of the marking we’re doing during the holidays fits with the conspicuous work model? Is a picture of a display actually a teacher’s version of the jacket on the back of the chair, or the car left late in the car park? Well, the honest answer is that I’m not sure that it is as conscious as those examples.

But whether there is intention in this conspicuous work or not, the important issue is whether or not this creates a culture in which peers see this conspicuous work and then imitate it. Do we, like the Dutch workers, derive status – consciously or not – from matching (or even superseding) our peers working hours? Or is it that we see others working and we feel we need to match it in order to maintain parity?

Of course, I’m not standing in judgement over people sharing pictures of displays in the holidays. Posting photos on social media is a very useful way to share ideas. And we are so busy that this downtime is often the only time we get to festoon our shabby staple-flecked walls with colourful new compositions. I’m certain that I too have shared work – although obviously not as beautiful – during the holidays. Heck, even this blog post is about work, so I’m hardly setting an example here.

But I wonder if what we are doing here is creating a normative message about being a teacher? By tweeting pictures of work we are completing during the holidays, we are saying this is okay; this is what we do; this is acceptable behaviour; moreover, this is… expected behaviour? I’ve written before about how the messages we send out create behavioural norms and how this can be either damaging or useful when talking to pupils. Are we creating a message about how working in your holidays is normative behaviour for teachers? And if so, are we compounding the workload issue ourselves?

I’d be interested in responses to this. Social media is brilliant for sharing ideas and, as we spend our working hours actually teaching, most of the sharing has to happen outside of those hours. So I find it hard to argue against such sharing. I wonder if there is an answer to this or is it simply a paradox we have to put up with?