We all know that to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ is a reference to conspicuous consumption, the idea that we should be buying exactly what our neighbours have, whether that’s a new car or new garden ornaments, lest we somehow let our side down or are seen as ‘less’ in some way.
It’s a poisonous idea but it has gained traction over the past century as our consumerist tendencies have intensified.
We can see where this race to acquire started but where will it end?
The main problem is, we’re not just trying to keep up with the Joneses anymore. Our lives are far wider, our outlook broadened by social media, and our consumerist appetites whetted by those with far more purchasing power and wealth than us.
At the beginning of the last century you may only have had your neighbours to envy, now you can to log on to Instagram and view thousands of images that give you a taste of what you haven’t got.
The Joneses are no longer your neighbours, they’re rappers, heiresses and reality celebrities living a life which many can only dream of.
The fact that many of these people are actively plugging products through social media (not out of brand loyalty but for cold, hard cash) makes the average Joe feel like he or she has a chance to replicate the new Joneses’ life if only they buy X, Y and Z.
We were suckered into the idea that buying stuff equals happiness, we had so much stuff we bought a bigger house! We bought stuff to celebrate, to commiserate, when we were feeling happy and when we were feeling sad. I kick myself sometimes when I think how much time and energy I spent on all that stuff that certainly didn’t make me happy. Not to mention money; I wouldn’t even like to guess at the cost (even though we bought a lot of vintage and second-hand items the costs mounted up). And we’re not the only ones trying to spend our way to happiness.
The pursuit of ‘stuff’ in the UK is unrelenting. According to a report by consultancy McKinsey the UK is so hooked on debt that by 2019, the average household will have debt of 182% of disposable income – more than its pre-financial crisis peak of 169%.
In short, our debt is going to hugely outpace our earnings. While some of the rise in debt can be attributed larger mortgages (house prices have gone crazy here in the past year), the majority of the growth is due to increased use of credit.
I don’t want to think about where this consumerist debt cycle will end up, but it is safe to say that keeping up with the ‘new’ Joneses has never had a greater financial cost.