Sociologist Juliet Schor has over the years written about the consumer habits of Americans, notably in The Overspent American. She argues that part of the reason some Americans are working more is they need the money to consume more:
But it seems the enemy we have met is also us, as Pogo long ago predicted. Juliet Schor, author of “The Overworked American” and “The Overspent American,” finds we’ve radically increased our work hours over three decades. Part of that is due to the weakening of unions, which historically reduced excessive workweeks, Schor says.
But it’s also due to a “dramatic upscaling of the American dream” to include ever pricier McMansions, cooler cars and all manner of material want, she argues.
“Comfort is no longer enough,” Schor says in an interview by the Media Education Foundation. “People want luxury.”
Fair enough, although in Michigan’s economy just pizza and Netflix is a luxury for many. Schor’s point is people are overworking themselves while their employers expect the same. Either way, it’s a mechanistic life, always producing, always plugged in — more like a machine than a mind.
Schor discusses the idea of “reference groups,” people that we compare ourselves to. With new kinds of technology, such as television, more Americans were exposed to upper-scale standards of living beyond what they saw around their immediate vicinity. For example, when Americans watched shows with middle-class values like The Cosby Show, they saw a family with a doctor and lawyer as parents (meaning there is a high household income as well as high status) that rarely had to deal with money issues. Over the long run, Schor argues that Americans came to see that sort of lifestyle as normal, something to aspire to in order to be middle-class.
It seems like it wouldn’t be too hard to get some data to test this question: do people who work longer hours consume more (as a percentage of their income)? Could you control for occupation (some might require more work than others), location, whether there is more than one wage earner in the household, and adjust that once you get certain subsistence levels of income you can “afford” to consume more?
A second question: if Schor is correct that television gave people wider reference groups which contributed to consuming to maintain or raise their status, what effect has the Internet had?