Pretty interesting opinion piece in the NYT today. In “Unequal, Yet Happy”, CalTech researchers Steven Quartz and Annette Asp make a case that unlike the past, today’s opportunities for individualistic expression/consumerism are partly responsible for keeping a lid on discontent re: the wage gap.
They start first by laying out some facts about “happiness inequality” that might surprise people:
All of the wage gains since the downturn ended in 2009 have essentially gone to the top 1 percent, yet the proportion of Americans who say they are “thriving” has actually increased. So-called happiness inequality — the proportion of Americans who are either especially miserable or especially joyful — hit a 40-year low in 2010 by some measures. Men have historically been less happy than women, but that gap has disappeared. Whites have historically been happier than nonwhites, but that gap has narrowed, too.
Apparently, conspicuous consumption was about keeping up with the Joneses (but I think the Joneses always knew you couldn’t).
The pursuit of “the cool,” in our view, fundamentally altered the psychological motivations underlying our consumer choices. In conspicuous consumption, our emulation of higher-ups means we compete directly for status because we want what they have. But rebellious consumption changed the game, by making a product’s worth depend on how it embodied values that rejected a dominant group’s status.
To me this feels related to the Wal-Mart effect. While wealth concentrates at the top, a broader group of people have access to more “stuff” than ever before. I don’t think a broad group of people are actually really “cool” in the narrow sense that they are hipsters riding fixies up hills with great looking beards and skinny jeans. I do think that millions of people can buy Martha Stewart at K-Mart and feel some degree of fashion, and a connection with the elite. And perhaps this leads to increased contentment.
Or maybe we actually brought Millenials up well, and they realize money and stuff is far from the end all.