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What is consumption for?
on 24 December 1998
Juliet Schor's "The Overspent American", a sequel to her earlier work, "The Overworked American", assails our state religion of consumerism. While it is easy to laugh off the "downshifters" she praises, or make snide remarks about her well-paid position at Harvard or her residence in Newton, Massachussets, it is difficult to argue with Ms. Schor's basic thesis that much of our consumption is a joyless attempt to establish our social status in the eyes of others.
Ms. Schor is not the first commentator to decry "keeping up with the Joneses". This work is original in that she understands that the "Joneses" are no longer our next door neighbors, but a caricature of the upper-middle class presented in mass culture. The 90s version of keeping up is more pernicious than ever because the upper middle class standard is used as a reference by people who must spend everything they earn, and sometimes more, to even approach that way of life.
Her analysis of liptick purchase patterns illustrates her critique of mindless consumption; it is impossible to differentiate lipstick in terms of quality, yet women purchase large quantities of designer lipstick just to impress people by unveiling a case with a Chanel logo. Furthermore, Ms. Schor notes that more educated women are more likely to make "status" purchase, even when adjustments are made for income.
In fact, Ms. Schor is at her best when puncturing the pretentions of the educated, professional classes. She is funny and right about Ikea; it was the darling of yuppies when it represented a quirky, Scandinavian do-it-yourself sensibility. As Ikea became "McCouch", the affluent customers disappeared. If we are to call Ms.Schor a radical, it is for her understanding of the complex operations of class identity in the consumer culture.
Maybe her proposals for government intervention to put the brakes on the mindless cycle of work-and-spend are farfetched. Ultimately she does offer common sense advice that anyone can understand. Spend on what you genuinely enjo and forget about the futile, and pathetic, pursuit of impressing the rest of the world.