Sociologist Schor on less materialistic American dream

Given the pessimism of Americans toward upward mobility, what evidence does sociologist Juliet Schor see for more Americans moving away from a materialistic American dream?

There’s a more sober attitude to consuming since the crash. A lot of people don’t feel as comfortable. I’m not talking about the 1 percent or the folks, who you know, just ordinary people are kind of less comfortable with showiness and excess at a time when so many people are suffering economically. There’s a kind of solidarity, or at least a sentimental solidarity, that comes up.

What I think we’re seeing is you have groups of highly educated, predominantly white young people living really different kinds of lifestyles. I’ve called it an “eco-habitus” using Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of habitus—your sort of underlying sensibility toward things. This is the rise of things like CSAs and farmers’ markets. These are not necessarily low-cost lifestyles, some of them are. It’s a different sensibility. Again, that rejection of mass consumption, which has been there for a while, but rejection of materialism, advertising, people who are saying how do I raise my children in a way that’s not having them just sucked into this dominant consumer culture. That’s really mainstreaming and it used to be pretty niche.

We’re also seeing a validation of some of that kind of attitude among, not so much among the white working class, or the white poor, but more among inner city communities of color who are also engaged in alternative ways of provisioning around food or some of the more community-based approaches to provisioning. There are a lot of parallels with what’s going on with more affluent, highly educated consumers.

I do think there is a movement to transform the way we live to make it more ecological, more economically secure, less unequal, and more economically fair. And out of necessity you’re seeing this in some of the most depressed cities, like Cleveland and Detroit, where you just have a flowering of alternatives.

As noted in this article, Schor has a section on downshifting in The Overspent AmericanBut, it is difficult to get national data on this trend and Schor tends to use case studies or ethnographic work to make her case. (A related topic: if owning big homes is a big marker of a materialistic culture, why can’t we get better statistics on the number of tiny houses?) How many Americans are giving up materialism because they can’t spend as opposed to really are making significant life changes that they will continue for decades? And what exactly are they replacing their old materialistic ways with?

At this point, perhaps Schor’s reference to habitus is most appropriate. It will be within families and smaller groups dedicated to less materialistic lifestyles where these values are passed down and continued. Expanding this habitus to encompass more people is a more difficult task.

The house the Tanner family on Full House could really afford in the Bay Area

With rumors of a possible Full House remake, Trulia took a look at what the Tanner family could realistically afford:

Like the concept of home itself, the Full House house is largely placeless: Shots of the exterior come from the Lower Pac Heights Victorian at 1709 Broderick, the Painted Ladies of Alamo Square encourage all kinds of assumptions in the credits, and the address the characters use (1882 Girard) is actually wedged up against the 101 in Visitacion Valley. Still, it’s fairly obvious that the Tanner family of today could not so easily swing a Painted Lady, or its stand-in, in this market. Trulia actually ran the numbers and came up with the budget that a morning-show host, a musician, and a rock-paper-scissors champion would need to house the pre-mogul-phase Olsen twins and those other sisters. That number is $1.23M. And you know what? We found them a house!

First, the math:

Trulia used 1709 Broderick as the baseline. They say that the property sold last year for $2.865M. (Which is weird. Per the MLS, the last sale was in 2006, for $1.85M. Property Shark estimates the property’s current value at just over $2.05M—perhaps they were looking at that?) Gah, so much of this is theoretical, anyway: The real 1709 Broderick is only a three-bedroom, and according to these plans, they need at least four.) Anyway, the point is that the Bob Saget hair helmet and its costarring ‘dos need a lower mortgage payment. Here is what Trulia figured, assuming 20 percent down and a 30-year, 4.1 percent fixed-rate mortgage:

Let’s do the math: if Danny (played by Bob Saget) made close to $160,000 a year as the host of the local TV show, Wake Up, San Francisco, Joey made $30,000 doing stand-up gigs around the country, and Uncle Jesse raked in $48,000 as a musician, together, they could only afford a home around $1.23 million or about a $6,000-a-month mortgage.Of the homes around the $1.23M mark on the market right now, this four-bedroom Victorian in the Inner Richmond, just a block and a half from the park, is the only candidate that makes any kind of sense. It just squeezes in under budget at $1.15M, comes with a backyard large enough for a picnic table and the doling of woodwind-scored life lessons, and even has mint-sherbet-shingle synchronicity with this actual Painted Lady. There’s no garage, though, so Uncle Joey would need to live in the storage space.

Two thoughts:

1. This gives some quick insight into the superheated Bay Area housing market. The Tanners are not buying a cheap house with this estimated income yet they are clearly not living in the implied homes from the exterior shots because they could not afford it.

2. This is a common trend among family sitcoms on television: the “normal” family depicted often lives in a home that is realistically way beyond their means. I’ve been looking at some research regarding depictions of homes on TV and this dates back to the nuclear family sitcoms of the 1950s where families tended to live in pretty big houses for their time. Sociologist Juliet Schor argues that this increased level of consumption on television – the middle-class family living in bigger houses and having more stuff, seemingly without having to worry about finances – influenced American consumer patterns as their expectations of “normal” changed.

Dunphy’s home from Modern Family isn’t exactly a middle-class home

The home used as the Phil and Claire Dunphy household on Modern Family is up for sale:

[G]et ready for a blast of memories from “Modern Family,” the Golden Globe & Emmy-winning ABC prime-time comedy that was filmed at 10336 Dunleer Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90064.

The price is $2.35 million, but listing agent Mitch Hagerman of Coldwell Banker Previews International said there’s decent income potential given the fact that TV producers have forked over generous fees for the right to film exterior shots of the property. He said it would be up to the new owners to negotiate with ABC Studios…

The home is a traditional, two-story style and has been impeccably remodeled, complete with crown molding, wood floors and upgraded appliances. It sits on a prime street in the coveted Cheviot Hills neighborhood. Hagerman says the home should sell pretty easily on its own merits.

“It’s a charming, gorgeous, cozy, family-oriented and classic-style home in a fantastic neighborhood where there’s very little inventory,” he said.

The home offers 4 bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, plus a powder room. The home last sold for $1.97 million in 2006.

A nice and expensive home. This is interesting because the Dunphy family is portrayed as being fairly middle-class. Phil is a realtor who is not the most successful or smart (these are running points throughout the shows). Claire recently returned to work, working for her father’s closet business, after not working. Where do they get all of their money? How do they afford such a nice house?

Sociologist Juliet Schor argued in The Overspent American that one problem of post-World War II television is that it showed an increasingly lavish middle-class lifestyle. The evolving image of the middle-class on television showed families with more money and possessions and not much discussion about how they could afford it all. The Dunphys are supposed to look like normal Americans yet their lifestyle is pretty wealthy with little concern about money and pretty nice possessions. Schor suggests portrayals like this pushed more Americans to consume more.

In other words, the show plays off the idea the extended family depicted is a “typical” American family yet its class status is far from what many American families experience.

Ten enviable, but not necessarily realistic, TV homes

Take a closer look at the sometimes ridiculous dwelling places of ten well-known television shows.

There are few things quite as frustrating for those bunked away in crappy, overpriced rentals as watching sitcom characters putter around in homes that—in real life—would be astronomically expensive even with a steady income (which television characters often mysteriously lack.) Whether it be the NYC-based Friends apartment or the California-cool New Girl loft that’s causing a big dose of sitcom real estate envy, do have a look at some of television’s most enviable living situations—presented below in order of least to most realistic.

The Cosby Show and Big Bang Theory take the honors as the most realistic. Even as the average new American home has increased over the decades, might TV homes have increased even more?

As this is not the first article I have seen on this topic in recent months, I wonder what the outcomes of such analyses. One way to go would be to get into a discussion of how realistic TV shows should be. How much should television portray real circumstances of Americans who as a whole have a median household income around $50,000? In order to be good shows, do they have to present something close to reality? Or, do Americans prefer entertainment that is more aspirational? Perhaps there are audiences for both though the general trend seems to be that fans are not very worried about whether the homes are realistic.

A more interesting route would be to consider what effect these depictions of homes have on viewers. As sociologist Juliet Schor argues, does this give viewers a different reference group? Schor suggests when Americans see “normal” TV life – which, in reality, it typically upper class life even when the characters are supposed to be middle or working-class – they readjust their own consumption patterns to match those on TV. So, if viewers of Sex and the City see single women in New York enjoying rather large apartments, they then expect to find such places for themselves and might be beyond their means to make it happen.

Evidence: TV shows can lower fertility rates

An article about the cultural power of television discusses several studies that show TV programs can lower fertility rates:

Several years ago, a trio of researchers working for the Inter-American Development Bank set out to help solve a sociological mystery. Brazil had, over the course of four decades, experienced one of the largest drops in average family size in the world, from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 children in 2000. What made the drop so curious is that, unlike the Draconian one-child policy in China, the Brazilian government had in place no policy to limit family size. (It was actually illegal at some point to advertise contraceptives in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.) What could explain such a steep drop? The researchers zeroed in on one factor: television.

Television spread through Brazil in the mid-sixties. But it didn’t arrive everywhere at once in the sprawling country. Brazil’s main station, Globo, expanded slowly and unevenly. The researchers found that areas that gained access to Globo saw larger drops in fertility than those that didn’t (controlling, of course, for other factors that could affect fertility). It was not any kind of news or educational programming that caused this fertility drop but exposure to the massively popular soap operas, or novelas, that most Brazilians watch every night. The paper also found that areas with exposure to television were dramatically more likely to give their children names shared by novela characters.

Novelas almost always center around four or five families, each of which is usually small, so as to limit the number of characters the audience must track. Nearly three quarters of the main female characters of childbearing age in the prime-time novelas had no children, and a fifth had one child. Exposure to this glamorized and unusual (especially by Brazilian standards) family arrangement “led to significantly lower fertility”—an effect equal in impact to adding two years of schooling.

In a 2009 study, economists Robert Jensen and Emily Oster detected a similar pattern in India. A decade ago, cable television started to expand rapidly into the Indian countryside, where deeply patriarchal views had long prevailed. But not all villages got cable television at once, and its random spread created another natural experiment. This one yielded extraordinary results. Not only did women in villages with cable television begin bearing fewer children, as in Brazil, but they were also more able to leave their home without their husbands’ permission and more likely to disapprove of husbands abusing their wives, and the traditional preference for male children declined. The changes happened rapidly, and the magnitude was “quite large”—the gap in gender attitudes separating villages introduced to cable television from urban areas shrunk by between 45 and 70 percent. Television, with its more progressive social model, had changed everything.

Four quick thoughts:

1. Such shows (TV and radio) have been used deliberately by public health organizations to fight AIDS. It is one thing to hold training sessions and open and maintain clinics but it is another to have successful soap operas that promote certain behaviors.

2. These situations provided some fascinating natural experiments. I occasionally ask students this very question: how might you set up a natural experiment to test the effects of television? In the United States, outside of some ultra-controlled environment a la The Truman Show, it is difficult to quickly answer this question.

3. Sociologist Juliet Schor nicely explains the mechanism behind this in The Overspent American. Mass media presents average residents a new, commonly known reference group to which they can compare themselves. Instead of primarily comparing themselves to neighbors or acquaintances, viewers started seeing what “middle-class” or “normal” look like on television and then work to emulate that.

4. Media output is not simply entertainment – something is being promoted. Being able to watch and experience this critically is crucial in a world awash with media and information.

Sociologist: some people working more hours in order to consume more

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?

Op-ed: the American Dream is now about attaining perfection

The American Dream is a popular topic: politicians, businesses, citizens, and immigrants have all had a hand in defining this set of values and goals. A recent op-ed in the Boston Globe by Neal Gabler suggests that the end goal of the American Dream has changed in recent years from seizing opportunities to attaining perfection:

But over the past 50 years, the American Dream has been revised. It is no longer about seizing opportunity but about realizing perfection. Many Americans have come to feel that the lives they always imagined for themselves are not only attainable; those lives are now transcendable, as if our imaginations were inadequate to the possibilities. In short, many Americans have come to believe in their own perfectibility…

We agonize a lot over perfection, and we dedicate a lot of time, energy, and money to it — everything from plastic surgery to gated communities of McMansions to the professionalization of our children’s activities like soccer and baseball to pricey preschools that prepare 4-year-olds for Harvard. After all, we are all on the Ivy League track now.

Or else. And that’s another thing that a perfectionist society has engendered. It has removed failure as an option because we realize that there are no second chances, that mistakes are usually irrevocable, and that you have to assume there are other people out there — your competition! — whose wives will always be beautifully coiffed and dressed or whose husbands will be power brokers, whose children will score 2,400 on their SATs and who will be playing competitive-level tennis, whose careers will be skyrocketing, whose fortunes will be growing. In a world in which perfection is expected, you must be perfect. Otherwise you are second rate.

I wish Gabler had some more space to expand on this idea. When he says we are chasing “perfection,” what exactly does he mean? I’m guessing that this does not refer to perfect lives: no one has these as we all have troubles to face and obstacles to overcome. We all face failure at some time or another. I wonder if by perfection, Gabler really is getting at something else, something along the lines of, “perfect enough to be better than most others.” When do we or would we know that our lives are perfect or is it more about being perfect enough?

When I read this piece, I was reminded of sociologist Juliet Schor’s argument in The Overspent American: in recent decades, Americans have spent more money and time chasing richer and richer reference groups. Even if we enjoy our house, we see better houses that supposedly middle-class families have on TV or in movies. Even if our kid is smart, we read newspaper stories about the kid who got a perfect on their SAT and seems to have every opportunity available to them. If we are always chasing other people, we might indeed get to a similar point – until other people have even more or something different. But we often only assess where we are at by comparing ourselves to others.

In this sense, perfect is not perfection but rather good enough to be better than most. Or perfect enough to look better than most. As Schor suggests, this could become an endless cycle of keeping up with the Joneses. Or as Gabler puts it, we are seeking to “live within [our] illusions” and to “live not just the good life but the perfect one.”

What the advertising in the magazines you subscribe to says about you

One book one of my classes is recently reading, The Suburban Christian,  offered this simple method for measuring your consumption levels (or perhaps what you aspire to consume): look at the advertising and the goods for sale in the magazines that you subscribe to.

This reminds me of something I noticed a few months into my first subscription to The Atlantic. I like this magazine for its reporting and commentary but I noticed that the advertisements were for luxury items I had no hope of buying and had never really even dreamed of buying. These goods were on par with the commercials that suggest that buying your spouse a Lexus with a giant bow on the top is the appropriate Christmas present.

This diagnostic would seem to fit with Juliet Schor’s ideas in The Overspent American about reference groups. Schor argues that media, television in particular, has presented Americans in the last few decades with a distorted view of the middle class. The typical TV middle-class family lives in a large house, seems not have any financial problems or even worries, has all sorts of popular consumer objects, and it is hard to tell if they even work. The average American watches these kinds of shows and starts comparing themselves to these middle-class TV families and raising their consumer aspirations to match what they see. Similarly, magazine advertisements suggest a certain lifestyle or things that the average American needs. These pitches can have a subtle but marked impact on who we compare ourselves to and what we think we need.

Conspicuous consumption during a recession

Trying to make sense of how recent events like the lavish wedding of Chelsea Clinton, the furor over Michelle Obama’s trip to Spain, and other similar events, can take place during this recession, Bella English of the Boston Globe turns to the concept of conspicuous consumption.

Sociologist Juliet Schor comments:

“It’s adding insult to injury at a time like this when so many Americans are suffering such extreme economic pain,’’ says Juliet Schor, a sociology professor at Boston College and author of “Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.’’ “Those kinds of conspicuous displays of wealth undermine everyone else. They make us feel poorer and less satisfied with what we have.’’

Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption. According to Veblen, consumption is not just about buying necessities; it is about projecting an image and establishing status. The wealthy intentionally are wasteful in their consumption in order to show that they can afford to be wasteful.

Schor is expressing what the people toward the bottom of the economic ladder feel when the rich show off their riches. Should the rich cut down on their spending in times like these? Or perhaps they could draw less attention to themselves? My guess is that if one has the money, one is going to spend it whether it is a boom time or a down time. The only barrier to this may be a popular backlash – if the consumption actually leads to decreased status (rather than increased status), it may not be worth it.