ST Jan 2, 2008The term "conspicuous consumption" was first coined in a book entitled The Theory of the Leisure Class. It refers to the expenditure of money or other resources for the sake of displaying a higher status than others. A simple example would be the purchase of an expensive branded watch, when one could have purchased a cheaper alternative that works just as well.
Flashy yuppies paint themselves into a corner
MANY young Singaporeans, gainfully employed in a booming economy, have expressed anxiety about building a large enough nest egg for a comfortable retirement. This is rather disturbing.
The reasons are not hard to trace, though, if one steps back and observes the lifestyles of these so-called 'yuppies' who hold lucrative jobs that promise much.
Today, Singaporeans' consumption habits more or less mirror those of Americans who have traditionally been consummate spenders. And like Americans, many Singaporeans discount the future in order to consume today. They are hooked on what sociologist Thorstein Veblen termed 'conspicuous consumption', which used to be the affliction of the rich.
To be sure, they get a lot of help in this respect. Crowded malls for drop-dead shopping with foodcourts to give respite to continue shopping; colourful full-page ads that tell you how good you look in that suit, how macho it would be behind the wheel of that new BMW, or hey, wouldn't that DaVinci sofa look great in our living room?
...... Keeping up with the Joneses has given way to keener appetites: affordable luxury; living well with a vengeance; we have it, let's flaunt it; you can't take it with you; and the rest. All of which keeps the cash register ringing and, of course, an unhealthy growth in credit card debt.
One can argue that consumption is normal desire made possible by a successful economy. But if you think about it, how much do you really need?
........ What one sees is an ethos of consumption that really did not exist a couple of generations ago, when the norms of the lower class and middle class dictated thrift and austerity, living within one's means, saving for the future and for one's children, and not being conspicuous, really, about anything.
The picture looks different now and it's not pretty. Overindulging Singaporeans are in a predicament of their own making and they must, for the sake of their retirement, find a way out unaided - and the sooner the better.
New year resolution, anyone?
Philip Lee Seck Kay
Leaving aside economics for a moment, it's interesting to turn to psychology and consider Abraham Maslow's triangle of needs. In brief, Maslow says that human motivations are hierarchical. It's only when an individual has satisfied his lower needs that his attention turns towards his higher needs:
In a developed, highly consumerist society, we might say that a large proportion of individuals are getting stuck at Level 4. At this stage, they are driven by their need for social status and their desire for respect. In turn, their lifestyle develops into one of conspicuous consumption, whereby they constantly seek to acquire more material items so as to display their wealth to others.
Level 5, of course, is where life gets really interesting. Here, individuals start flowering into their uniquely best selves. It is at this self-actualisation stage that a person becomes filled with a desire to realize all of his potential to become an effective, creative, mature human being. "What a man can be, he must be", is one way Maslow expressed it. He also described self-actualisation as follows:
"an episode or spurt in which the powers of the person come together in a particularly and intensely enjoyable way, and in which he is more integrated and less split, more open for experience, more idiosyncratic, more perfectly expressive or spontaneous, or fully functioning, more creative, more humorous more ego-transcending, more independent of his lower needs, etc. He becomes in these episodes more truly himself, more perfectly actualising his potentialities, closer to the core of his being, more fully human. Not only are these his happiest and most thrilling moments, but they are also moments of greatest maturity, individuation, fulfilment - in a word, his healthiest moments."Maslow predicts that the large majority of human beings will never get past Level 4. In other words, few people are truly self-actualising. If your focus in life is still on conspicuous consumption, then you are not a self-actualiser and you are a lesser being than you could be - and you aren't even heading in the right direction.
One day, you might still become more than your car, your condo, your clothes and your credit cards. But first you will have to climb past Level 4. Good luck.