The busy shall inherit the earth: The evolution from ‘hard work’ to ‘busyness’ in modern science and society
Bruce G. Charlton
Medical Hypotheses. 2006; 67: 1003-1005
Although ‘hard work’ and ‘busyness’ are somewhat similar terms, there seem to be significant differences in the way that they are used. While hard work has always been a feature of complex societies, modern society can be seen as evolving toward being dominated by jobs characterized by busyness. Busyness refers to multi-tasking – having many sequential jobs to perform and switching frequently between them on an externally-imposed schedule. Traditionally, the individual gifts of a successful scientist were mainly in terms of knowledge, theoretical or technical aptitude. But nowadays the successful scientist is often one who has been promoted from hard-work to busyness: an expert in synthesizing a sufficient degree of scientific ability with a broad range of managerial and political skills. It is psychologically tough to be busy, because busyness is a consequence of human beings being constrained by the functioning of abstract social systems. In a complex modern organization, individual psychology is subordinated to inflexible programs of being in specific places at specific times doing specific things – this is both tricky to do well and demanding to do at all. Since people are paid (mainly) to do difficult but necessary things they would prefer not to do, busyness has become a major reason why people are paid a premium salary. In the long-term, many straightforward jobs will be analyzed and routinized out of existence, with the narrowly-skilled worker being replaced by teams, machines or computers. But busy jobs are hard to eliminate because they are those in which it is optimal for a variety of disparate and unpredictable tasks to be done by a single person. Consequently, those individuals who can cope with, even thrive-upon, busyness are becoming indispensable. In future ‘the busy shall inherit the earth’ (or, at least, the most powerful and highest paid jobs), not just in science but in all major social domains.
Although ‘hard work’ and ‘busyness’ are somewhat similar terms, there seem to be significant differences in the way that they are used. Modern society can be seen as evolving from an ethos of hard work to being dominated by jobs characterized by busyness. In other words, people are increasingly paid to be busy rather than work hard in the traditional sense.
Hard work may refer to high productivity of a fairly narrow and clearly defined sort: such as making lots of things, or prolonged performance of a process or task. By contrast, busyness usually seems to refer to multi-tasking – having many jobs to perform and switching frequently between them.
Hard work in modern society is therefore usually associated with specialist technical labour – in science this might be a diligent PhD student or post-doctoral researcher putting in long hours reading papers and doing experiments. But busyness is more characteristic of a manager than a technical specialist. For example, the successful scientific grant-holder who divides their time between writing funding applications and papers, presenting at conferences, sitting on committees, teaching at a university, and running a large research team is much ‘busier’ than a PhD student, even when the grant-holder does not work any ‘harder’.
In this sense, the successful scientist is often one who is promoted from hard-work to busyness. For instance, James D. Watson worked hard while he was a post-doc discovering the structure of DNA (hard work which nonetheless famously allowed considerable time for relaxation ). But when Watson later became a professor, director and research administrator in the USA his life became much busier than it had been in 1950s Cambridge, UK. Interestingly, Francis Crick – the other DNA discoverer – seemed to resist the usual career of increasing busyness, retaining through his long life many of the vocational patterns of a hard-working post-doc. Significantly, Crick was critical of many features of the ‘busy’ life which characterized modern scientists .
The sociology of this shift from scientific hard work to busyness is closely-related to the shift from ‘academic’ to ‘post-academic’ science which was analyzed and described by the late John Ziman (a member of the editorial advisory board of Medical Hypotheses) . In traditional academic science, the individual gifts of a successful academic scientist were mainly in terms of theoretical or technical aptitude – e.g. knowing more, having better ideas or doing better experiments than the competition. But these are the days of Big Science in which the social structures of research are much more complex. The successful scientist is now more likely to be someone who is an expert multi-tasker, synthesising scientific abilities with a broad range of managerial and political skills. The critical aptitude involves juggling the many competing demands entailed by running a large research team on a mega budget.
Most creative people – such as scientists – enjoy their jobs, so that even hard work can be a fulfilling activity. But busyness is psychologically-tougher than hard work, because it involves being subordinated to elaborate schedules, multiple deadlines, time-management and all the rest of it. The recent evolution of science is therefore a principal cause of diminished job satisfaction , and this probably leads in turn to a need for higher pay for top scientists, to compensate for reduced intrinsic rewards.
The ultimate reason why busyness is stressful is that it is a consequence of human beings having-to fit themselves into the functioning of complex abstract systems . A large organization cannot function predictably when taking into account a multitude of individual wishes, so the human being must fit around the needs of the organization for them sequentially to be in specific places at specific times doing specific things – whatever they may happen to feel about it. Since people are paid (mainly) to do necessary but difficult things they would prefer not to do , busyness is becoming a major reason why people are paid a premium on their salary.
Both hard work and busyness are typical of complex modernizing societies. The successful, hard-working but-not-busy individual, is usually a high level technical expert of some kind – perhaps an ace computer programmer, financial whiz kid or best-selling author. However, in the long-term these jobs tend to be analyzed and routinized out of existence – and the hard-working but-not-busy specialist worker is replaced by a cheaper and more reliable team, machine or computer .
But busyness is – almost by definition – that which cannot be reduced to a routine. Busy jobs are those in which it is essential (or optimal) for a variety of disparate and unpredictable tasks to be done by a single person. The ability to be busy is (still) a very human ability, hard to replace with computers, machines or teams. Indeed, it is possible to envisage the evolution of a world in which almost all high status and well-paid jobs are busy ones. For instance, busyness is characteristic of managers – especially senior managers; and the managerial role is expanding in modern economic life to the extent that being some kind of manager is probably the largest ‘middle class’ job category in liberal democracies .
And what of those – like Francis Crick - who hate busyness and avoid a management role? What of the talented young post doc who contemplates with horror the prospect of a career in Big Science research administration? Well, if an individual has special, necessary and currently-irreplaceable human expertise, then they can probably avoid busyness – at least for a while – albeit at some cost of foregoing potentially significant salary and status.
But in the longer term, my hunch is that the future belongs to the busy; not just in science but in all major social domains. Those individuals who are best-able and best-trained to cope with, even thrive-upon, busyness will be increasingly valued. The busy shall inherit the earth! And, given the inevitable stress of tightly-regulated multi-tasking, they will probably deserve it.
 V.K. McElheny, Watson and DNA: making a scientific revolution, John Wiley, Chichester, UK (2003).
 F. Crick, What mad pursuit: a personal view of scientific discovery, Penguin, London (1990).
 J. Ziman, Real science, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (UK) (2000).
 B. Charlton and P. Andras, The modernization imperative, Imprint Academic, Exeter, UK (2003).
 W. Farrell, Why men earn more, Amacom, New York (2005).
 B.G. Charlton and P. Andras, What is management and what do managers do? A systems theory account, Philos Manage 3 (2003), pp. 3–15.