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Friday, April 4, 2014

The fate of the middle class - or why it's never enough

Shubenacadie Wildlife Park

In the 1930s, an economist named John Maynard Keynes predicted that in a few decades, we would live in a leisure society and would only have to work a few hours a week, the rest of our time being dedicated to the pursuit of hobbies. Those few hours a week would suffice to provide for a comfortable life, he said.

I do not need to tell you that this hasn't happened. Not only do we still have to work what certainly feels like long hours, we also never seem to have enough time... and most people would not hesitate to add that to simply get by, one income is not enough anymore.

What's more, to afford the goods and services we are constantly bombarded with by the media (e.g. the $200+ a piece clothes, accessories and what not depicted in most women's magazines), and to own the house and cars and have the lifestyle that we see depicted in most Hollywood movies, you need to belong to the upper middle class at least, ideally a dual-income upper middle class family (e.g. a dentist and a lawyer). (For more on what constitutes upper middle class, click here.)

Problem is, the upper middle class encompasses a small portion of the population. What's more, as much envy as it can arouse, the upper middle class still does not have it all. Everyone (except the filthy rich maybe) has to make choices and sacrifices. Everyone looks at what's above and feels a certain degree of envy. Meanwhile, everyone is also aware that so many people have much less.

Having access to running water, electricity, enough food for the whole family and all the other things we take for granted is still a privilege considering the astonishing numbers of our fellow human beings who live in poverty, some of them in our own developed country.

We feel envy because we don't have quite enough, and we experience guilt because we kind of have too much at the same time. How does one reconcile the two?

Over the past 15 years I have gone from living in a studio apartment that was about the size of my current living room, to a 2 bedroom apartment, to a 3 bedroom apartment, and finally to a house that is probably at least equivalent to those 3 apartments put together, in total square feet. I asked my 10 year-old, "is our house too big or too small?" (in my opinion it could go either way, depending on how you look at things). She said "it's big". But then added "well, I think it's perfect". In all honesty, it is too big when you focus on how much space we really need.

Other than our living quarters, the furniture has improved both in quality and quantity, and so have most of our possessions and general lifestyle.

Normal trajectory of 2 students who have become 2 professionals.

Despite being happy with what we have, however, we are also very aware, thanks to the ones who have more, that we don't have everything. By the same token, we cannot ignore the ones who have less. We try not to look too much at the former, and we try to help the latter as much as we can. But what strikes me when I think about my life is that there is no specific period of more intense happiness. It seems that being content with one's life has very little to do with how much you can afford. Also, despite the significant improvement in their material life, and despite belonging to the upper socioeconomic stratums, most people do not feel rich. They still have to budget (albeit differently, I concede). They still cannot afford everything they want.

One phenomenon that could explain all this at least partly, but that Keynes had underestimated, is the relative  nature of wealth, and of what we call needs. The reason why we fail to become happier as we get richer, and the reason why we don't ever think we have enough, is that we get used to to any improvement in our material situation, by a process called habituation. We feel we need more. Especially when we compare ourselves to those who do have more - and there will always be such a thing. You have a luxury car? You dream of a yacht. You have a yacht? You dream of a private jet. You have a private jet? You dream of a space shuttle. It never stops! And it's frustrating, because we feel, for all the hard work we put in life, that we deserve all those things.

Theoretically, we all deserve to live in such a palace.
Austria, 2009.

This is because our needs are yesterday's wants. Our wants are tomorrow's bare essentials. We definitely do not need what we think we need in order to be comfortable and happy. Yet we are convinced that we do, because we've gotten used to it, and because everybody else has it.

What is essential, materially, in life? Really essential? When I think of that I realize it's almost indecent the amount of stuff we have.

If it was just me I might ditch everything: sell some, donate some, recycle some... and go live in a small trailer with the bare minimum. Or some monastery in the Himalaya. Or some ashram in India. I never thought that the result of acquiring more would be that I now long to have less. I'm not sure what draws me to that kind of lifestyle. At the same time I do still dream of (and appreciate, when I have access to it) luxury. Big dilemma. I will figure it out eventually.

For now I will keep hesitating between the ideals of bourgeoisie and bohemia.

Bourgeoisie because status and money are important in our world. I will never demonize them. To take money as an example, it opens the door to freedom and comfort, and it allows one to surround oneself with beautiful things. There is nothing wrong with that. But push it too far, and it comes to a cost.

Focusing mostly on status and money is a passport for dissatisfaction. Not only because it fails to ever content us, but also because, as Charles Bukowski would say, we run the risk of becoming the "men who stand in front of windows thirty feet wide and see nothing".

Even within the realm of materialistic happiness, it usually pays to - artificially - instill some longing and appreciation. Sometimes it is worth it to wait a little bit longer before acquiring something, even if you already have the money, just so you will appreciate it more.

Not to forget that getting rid of stuff can often provide a high just as good as acquiring stuff.

Turning to bohemia, for those who are willing, might mean more time for contemplation and for artistic pursuits (appreciation and/or creation). It might also mean the luxury of not feeling controlled by the material sphere. That does have its appeal. I know my business(es) could be even more dynamic and lucrative... if only I was willing to work even harder. But the appeal of nature observation, music listening and leisurely reading is still very strong. I try to keep balance between that and hard work.

No matter what your level of status and wealth is, I guess the best option is to keep all things balanced... no matter what the media and your surroundings throw at you.

What do you think?

Edit: based on the first comment I got below, I went and looked up the book Wanderer, by Sterling Hayden. Here is an excerpt: "What does a man need - really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in - and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That's all - in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade."

Food for thought!


  1. Hi Julie

    There was a time Jan and myself had it all. We would not look at a house unless it had four bathrooms. The his and hers Merc’s on the drive, the country club membership, all the right ‘stuff’ Working fourteen hours most days took its toll on my health. Obesity, heart disease and type two diabetes. Fortunately the kids had flown the nest and we downsized massively. A total change of lifestyle. We now work only three months of the year, and only take on the work we enjoy. Check this out.

    Kind regards Eddie

    Many years ago, and when a young man, I read a book by the actor Sterling Hayden called the Wanderer. It had a profound effect on me then, and to this day . A passage from this great book.

    “So it is no wonder that the mass of people regard the wanderer as a cross between a romantic vagabond and an irresponsible semi-ne’er-do-well who can’t-or won’t-fit in. Which is not to say that those who are fated to stay at home and toe the line do not look at the wanderer with envy and, yes, even awe, for he is doing what they would like to be doing, and something tells them they will never do it unless they either “strike it rich” or retire -and once retirement rolls around, chances are it will be too late. They know that too.

    This would seem to mean that the whole thing is largely a matter of luck, with which I would be the first to agree, having been blessed with good fortune through most of my working life. But I would be remiss if I didn’t add that if you want to wander, you’re going to have to work at it and give up the one thing that most non-wanderers prize so highly-the illusion of security.

    I say “illusion” because the most “secure” people I’ve encountered are, when you come right down to it, the least secure once they have been removed from job and home and bank account. While those unfortunate enough to be locked into some despised and unrewarding job are even worse off. And if I have been favoured with good luck all down the years, I can also quickly single out scores of men and women spread around this beleaguered old world who, without “luck”, have managed to live lives of freedom and adventure (that curious word) beyond the wildest dreams of the stay-at-homes who, when fresh out of school, opted for that great destroyer of men’s souls, security.”

    In my opinion a truly great book, and the way I try to live my life.

    ISBN 978-1-57409-048-2

    1. Thank you! Very interesting! I have always had a fascination for such stories, including the sea navigation part. I will check it out! :-)

  2. Pressure to keep up is enormous and so widespread, from social circles to media. No matter what class you're in, it is prevalent.

    Technically, we are on the lower edge of Upper Middle Class and have way more than we truly need. When my husband first started out in his career, he made 1/4 of what he does now, it wasn't that long ago, so our struggles still are quite fresh in our minds. Of course, others can't see that. His coworkers almost bully us for a lot of our lifestyle choices:

    We don't have cell phones. Others ask us what we do when we aren't around to answer the phone?! How can we be reached at a moment's notice? Umm...we can't. And that's kind of the beauty of it. I've got an answering machine, you can use that, I offer.

    We share one car (not made in this decade, (in their eyes we're one notch above hobos) and often take the city bus. To us, we don't really need a second vehicle, so why have one?

    One thing we do spend our money on is travel, but camp or stay in very cheap hotels when we do go. They tease us about that too. Both my husband and I were raised on very little and we value our thriftiness and save a LOT of our money for emergencies.

    In regards to the media: A couple of years ago I switched from watching broadcast TV to Netflix. It better suited my schedule and I really enjoy it. As you know, Netflix doesn't have any commercials. After a few months, I noticed that my consumer habits shifted. Power of suggestion is a crazy thing. Now when I watch the news or Jeopardy! (I still love Jeopardy) I mute the commercials and cannot stand them!

    I watched a movie on Netflix a few weeks ago called "The Joneses". It's about a marketing company that poses as a family and moves into an affluent neighborhood to sneakily sell expensive things. It is fantastic! Have you seen it?

    1. Thanks for such a detailed comment, Karen! My family and I make similar choices. Some people don't seem to understand that just because you have the money for something does not mean you have to buy it!!!

      Plus, frugal choices are good for the environment. To me, that is a compelling reason to keep things simple.

      I don't watch TV, that solves the whole problem of unwanted advertisement... ;-)

  3. This is so interesting (especially with the comments!).
    When our boys were little we used to tell them that they only really needed 4 things - food, water, oxygen and love. I know that we have a very comfortable life and we work hard to teach our boys that just because you can afford something doesn't mean you need it!!!
    I struggle with this some because growing up we didn't have much (Chris grew up the same way) and we both worked very hard to put ourselves through school and make a nicer life for our family. We try to keep that in mind with the decisions we make every day.

    1. I agree with you Kim! It is something I try to teach my kids as well - money is nice, but at the end of the day, what you need and should focus on costs nothing. :-)

  4. What does a man or woman or child really need ?

    A warm, clean, safe bed to sleep in. Some good food, and some interesting work to occupy body and mind. Throw in some love, attention and affection, that's all we need.


  5. That is very interesting. And when I think back to the happiest and least happiest points of my life, matter had very little to do with it actually. There were other influences - losses and gains of love, family members, etc.
    Living situations do matter a LOT to me, but not in terms of luxury. More in terms of comfort and who I live with.

    1. Our relationship with the people who surround us has a much bigger influence on our happiness than anything material, that's for sure!

  6. I never bought into the dream. From a very early age I sensed something was wrong; a house with 2 living rooms, 4 bedrooms, an office, 2 dining areas, a yard requiring relentless effort from my father who already worked like a dog to support the house that made no sense. In the 3rd grade, I was already a minimalist in the making.

    As I got older, and struck up interests in religion, in sciences, and in philosophy, it became increasingly apparent that nowhere in the physical or spiritual world, is excess sustainable -- happiness included. THAT, is where many go horribly wrong; in the expectation that happiness is a God-given right. Happiness may exist, and probably should be pursued, it definitely should be tasted, but this mindless western expectation that happiness should outweigh sorrow is, essentially f#cked. All things in balance, happiness is an experience worth knowing, but is clearly not a destination -- just ask Professor Pausch.

    I seem to disengage a little more each year; giving away my car, later my furniture, and now I spend many evenings seeking out the best value; to build and live in a "tiny" house, or to live in a camper. So far camper is winning, and I am actively shopping.

    I have always been appreciate of men like Dorian Paskowitz, and Christopher McCandless because they were willing to let go. Sometime in the next couple of years I will write my final blog post. When I am done, I will close up my laptop, toss it in the creek, and walk out into the next phase of my life. Many people will read this and disbelieve that I will actually do that. The joke will be on them, and their attachment to their attachments...

    1. Very well said as usual, Roy!

      Happiness, to me, is the state I try to achieve despite the ups and downs in life. The downs are still there, I just try not to let them get the best of me.

      Despite our fear that we will lose our "security and safety", letting go of things is surprisingly liberating.

  7. Great post! I think that part of the reason we feel dissatisfied and want more is because hours are getting longer, we work so hard and yet we are always faced with more and more expenses and budgeting etc. But beyond that, one thing that impacts me is my friends. We are on the younger end of our friends and while I would never say we are doing poorly, I've definitely been subject to condescending remarks about the neighborhood we live in, the size of our apartment, etc. It's frustrating and makes us frustrated that we don't have as much as others. I guess we have to keep things in perspective and be happy with what we do have. Very thought provoking post!

    1. Interesting point, Britt! I had almost forgotten that not only can we feel disappointed inside, others can also make it worse by their unkind remarks.

      The only solution: transcend it all! :-) There are more important things in life.

  8. It's a strange world for sure. Our economy depends on making people feel insecure and getting them to buy stuff they don't need.

    All those predictions about leisure time with machines doing the work seemed to forget that people needed jobs for income!

    It's probably because of the way I was raised, but that materialistic hook never snared me. I have a few toys, but I live a very simple life and it feels right to do that.

    1. Agree! Also, we keep being told that buying is necessary to keep the economy going, but I've read some economists who disagree, and there are big downfalls to buying a lot.

      There are a couple things I like to be high quality, but for the most part I am content with frugal. :-)

  9. I love some material things - books but I try to buy second hand unless I really really want to support that particular author. Travel, I couldn't until my autumn years but then the opportunity to see other countries arrived and has been marvellous, given me memories that don't leave. Plus the chance to see my son on the other side of the world with stopovers en route enabling us to visit exotic locations for a few days - all enriching. Until I was in my late 50's all travel was in my mind or in my own country: hitch hiking when young, later by public transport then driving. And last of all charitable giving. I have a small retirement income and a very small giving budget but it is regular. I travel courtesy (mainly) of my still working 2nd husband who must attend worldwide conferences occasionally. I'm very lucky.