Jan 2, 2008

Conspicuous Consumption And The Growth of Human Beings

An interesting ST Forum letter:
ST Jan 2, 2008
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
The 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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for an insightful post Mr Wang. Wes

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang,

Permit to address the economic argument as a repost to the ST Forum post.

First, here is what the forum writer wrote (at least I am assuming you have faithfully reproduce it):

........ 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.

As someone who was born before independence, which approximately equate to two "generations", I can say that what the writer wrote was quite possibly from a Rose Tinted perspective.

Conspicuous consumption did exist in the generation that the writer mentioned. But the difference then and now is that much of the consumption was restricted to well off and then "wealth" was not as distributed as is now. Beside the range of goods on offer were not as diversed as today.

The writer pointed out that people then were more likely to "live with means" than present generations. Again another fallcy at play here. In those days, you had what was then in Hokkian referred to as "Ah Sia" or equivalent of today's "yuppies". These were people of the well to do (then the numbers were smaller proportionally than today). Who spent lots of money buying expensive cars go to "disco" or today speak "club". The less well to do in those generations and today's are just as likely to live within their means as to day.

Saving for the future. Again another fallacy here. Again this applies only on the middle class rather than the well to do or poor. Just as then and now, the well to do did not have to worry about saving for their kids as they have enough money anyway. The poor just don't have the option. The middle class of today are no different from those of the past except that educational expenses today now are much more than previous. In my time, all we need for school is a pencil box and books, and now you need PCs, tutions, and to save for degree when in my time educating up to A level is good enough. Even then keeping up with the jones mentality was still evidence, some kids bring more expensive pencil to show off.

Secondly, the writer wrote:

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.

True the picture may be different now as compared to then but the substance remains the same. Again the writer is speaking with the benefit of hindsight.

In those days, people were prone to have so much faith in the CPF system, when some of my contemporaries were concern that the system was unsustainable. Some of us decided that it was not safe to put all our eggs in one basket and invest in other instruments or even have our own sidelines. The majority still only relied on the CPF for retirement. Look what happen now. CPF cannot be taken out. So one can say my generation are just as capable of making miring in our own folly as today's.

So nothing new there. To the people of my generation, there is nothing to crow about. Stop making out how good we were when compared to today's.

CK said...

Everything will be fine if you take a big breath and stop buying crap you don't need with money you don't have to impress people you don't like.

nhyone said...

Was there a previous article or news that prompted this letter?

Anonymous said...

I would categorize Philip Lee as someone who belong to the 'old school of financial thought'.

May I make some generalizations here. The old school of financial thought are people who live simply, not engaging in conspicuous consumption and most importantly, a disciplined saver. This old school boys' notion of 'enjoyment' is that it is to be realised only in retirement/old age where financial harvest are reaped. Their time horizon is a conservative one so to speak.

The 'new school', on the other hand, knows that they do not have TIME. The time horizon is short and these are the 'aggressive' ones. Known as the conspicuous consumerists, they are definitely aggressive in spending, but among these aggressive spenders, many are aggressive investors too. Their time horizons are short, and 'saving for the future' is too traditional a phrase to recite. For them, it's all about leveraging and growing money fast for their spending needs.

So, next time, if you see someone who is a conspicuous consumer (me guilty, but proud) - is an aggressive spender and investor, and definitely worries for retirement because he wants to be an aggressive spender even during then too.

each of us have different needs and 'younger people' definitely have more diverse needs than their predecessors in the name of 'progress'.

Mr Wang Says So said...

My post was earlier entitled "Conspicuous Consumption and the Search for Happiness" and I was planning to refer to Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi's research on the nature of happiness. In the end I decided to discuss Maslow instead.

But Csikzentmihalyi also provides much food for thought, in the present context. One of the points he makes is that the ongoing acquisition of more and more material things simply cannot bring any lasting happiness, and that is due simply to the high intelligence of human beings.

Basically, we are like clever monkeys. We get a new toy and it amuses us and keeps us happy for a while. But we're so smart that whatever exciting features the toy may have, we soon figure them out and grow bored with the toy, and so the toy no longer brings us pleasure.

So we need a new toy, a better one, a more luxurious one, a designer brand, a faster car, a more sophisticated camera, a bigger diamond, a home theatre with more features ...

... and until we get past this sort of thinking in our heads, well, basically we're just monkeys.

Anonymous said...

I always felt Maslow's hierarchy of needs is too theoretical. When one level of needs has been fulfilled a finer one comes into play.

Pretty neat until your realize that our biological needs are forever needing fulfillment if only just in terms of keeping the body healthy.

In one of his books, Maslow himself regretted that at the apex of his career his life is near its end.

So where is the lower fulfillment when as one ages the physical foundation on which the higher needs rest actually becomes weaker and not stronger?

Another problem with his theory is that he treated the higher human needs as though they are dormant until the lower ones are met. This is not true.

An individual can be, for instance, be highly developed intellectually yet be unfulfilled in relationship and career.

Human needs comes packaged multi-dimensionally and people do not develop in a straight line from low to higher needs.

In fact if human history is any guide, collective human evolution itself bear this out.

This evolution has been largely a matter of trial & error, accompanied by alternating periods of madness and sanity, creating horrible wars, dark ages, spurts in intellectual and cultural highs, decadence, new religions and ideologies about how society and individuals should develop, not to mention the threat of total nuclear annihilation during the Cold War from the 50's to 80's.

Have humanity come to a definite conclusion of the right way to develop? I think not for right now we are still debating if all the mass consumerism vs thrift, all the self-esteem (Maslow's value too) implied in trying to make it materially and socially really make sense.

Humanity is still groping around.

Relaxie said...

very learn alot of thing from you mr wang,thank you!But it is hard for people who is redeye mean see the thing people have they want too.

Anonymous said...

Philosopher Peter Singer too has some interesting theories about happiness and wealth. He basically asserted that even winning the lottery would only give one temporary happiness and one would return to his/her original level of happiness before the win within a year or so.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Csikzentmihalyi has some even more startling research results on the nature of happiness (but not relating to money/ material items).

A large number of handicapped people report, within a year of losing a limb or two in some terrible accident, that they are no happier and no sadder than they were, BEFORE the accident occurred. Once again, it is the remarkable adaptability of the human brain - it adjusts successfully to the idea of NOT having two arms and two legs, and thereafter the person reverts to the same level of happiness/unhappiness that he was at, before the accident had occurred.

瀅錦 said...

Generally, I just think that peer pressure exists in the society. Stuff that are 'need' in sg might be 'want' in other countries e.g. a kid wants a Wii/Nintendo/Xbox or an acceptable handphone model for the adult. If you don't buy IN stuff for the child, he/she might feel left out exchanging conversation with his/her peers. If you hold a working but reckon as old handphone model, people around you will start telling you to get a new one(personal experience).

How does Singapore turn into such a society where everyone is giving status to almost everything? I am more curious to know. I remember things aren't like this in the past. Of course, that was long time ago, like ....20yo ago?

Anonymous said...

Material wants/needs vary from person to person. If you are willing to settle for a life without owning cars or some expensive housing in Singapore, you could be in a better position to savor the immaterial things and enjoy material things that are more affordable.

One of the obvious limitation to material fulfillment besides not providing lasting happiness, is simply due to limited time; a person only has 24 hours a day (usually a lot less) to enjoy whatever he has amassed.

There are many possible explanations as to why some people are 'stuck' at the material level. One could be that they find it easier to fulfill or having more visible results. Personally, I do not think the Maslow triangle is accurate beyond the physiological level, fulfillment takes place at all levels and it is not case that a lower level must be fully addressed before accessing a higher level.

Anonymous said...

Ministers' pay - is that Level 1 or 4?

Anonymous said...

"Ministers' pay - is that Level 1 or 4?"

My comment's going to be a little off-topic.

Yes, the ministers' pays are horrendous and really quite ridiculous. But are we going to let it take over our lives? Do we really have to see their pays in every single thing we talk about money?

I don't like it, I bitch about it, and I'm planning to leave the country one day.

But really, I have better things to do in my life (like achieving level 5 ;p) than have something like that hang over my head all the time.

Kevin said...

When an old man, a former head (executive) of state decides to receive a PhD that he did not pursued academically, we know he is stucked at level 4.

If the so called 'father' of a nation is stucked ta level 4, what can we expect from the majority of that society?

Anonymous said...

Ruku's point is a fair one but it is evident that this is one topic that is clearly on the minds of the Ministers' getting a pay rise - all the debate, press coverage and justifying it as the "top tier" of civil service pay is interesting but possibly disingenuous (ultimately).

Ministers are elected members of Parliament whereas civil servants are bound by contract to the State. The civil service must by definition transcend any party political agenda.

Back to Mr Wang's comment, if amputees can get used to the loss of a limb or two, what's a million or two between a minister and his constituency?

James said...

Very interesting article Mr. Wang. You really made me think about this and as a student I started searching more for it, where I found this another blog http://pauravshukla.blogspot.com where the person has explored it in the middle aged segment. Worth a look.

Thanks again for this nice post.