Monday, February 26, 2007

Keeping Up With the Jones - A Middle Class Rant II

You know what? I hate the Jones. But you know who I hate even more? People who try to keep up with them. The concept of keeping up with the Jones crosses all socio-economic groups of our North American society, it’s not just a problem within the middle class. It seems to be part of our culture in North America to compare ourselves against others in our socio-economic class. Don’t believe me? Well if you live in a middle class neighbourhood you compare yourself to your neighbours (things they own, what their yard looks like, what trips they’ve been on, what kind of cars they drive, how nice their kids camp was etc…). These same problems are also prevalent in lower class, upper class and ultra-upper class neighbourhoods. I have a friend who is a multimillionaire, he’s never not been a millionaire, as his father hasn’t made any less than 2 million dollars a year for the last 30 years (I could live comfortably for the rest of my life if I sold either my friends or his parents cottage). You would think with money like that they’d be happy, but the truth is they are probably one of the most miserable bunch of people I know. My friends’ house is beautiful but there are nicer houses on the street with better cars in their driveways (one actually has a helicopter landing pad). Instead of being happy with what he has he’s jealous of some of the neighbours and is constantly trying to keep up with them. On the other side of the coin I have friends that are in the lower socio-economic class who think that $20 an hour is a really good paying job, and they are completely happy and satisfied with their used Caravan…but… they too try to keep up with the Jones (who were able to send their kid to camp this year). So… the whole point of this rant is STOP TRYING TO KEEP UP WITH THE JONES because just as you think you’ve caught the Jones there is always another “Jones” family waiting to appear…so…sit down and really think about what will make you happy, and what you really need or want in your life. Once you figure out what you want, figure out how much that is going to cost you each year, and make a plan to get there.


Anonymous said...

Great post - it turns out this is pretty ingrained into us as part of human nature. I am currently reading a book called Happiness by Richard Layard which discussed this topic. He goes into the science behind what makes us keep up with the Jones.

I agree that what we need to do is focus on what makes us happy, not how we're doing compared to others. It's definitely not easy though!

Anonymous said...

Forgive us for keeping up with the Joneses - we humans have what is called herd behaviour. Herd behavior is frequent, and often relatively benign, in everyday decision making. Not knowing which of several options is best, a person may use others' choices as clues as to how to behave. We need a "benchmark" right? The Joneses provide us with that benchmark - and we in turn strive to meet and/or beat it. It's not so bad really. And plus, who wants to be perceived as culturally inferior?

Tim Stobbs said...

Mmm, is it really herd behaviour or more envy based? Perhaps it is more related to your ego or lack there of.

For example, those with a healthy ego can maintain their own definition of happiness in the face of the herd ideal.

Perhaps I'm culturally inferior, but if I'm happier than the average person do I really care?

Just some thoughts,

Craig said...

The concept of "keeping up with the Joneses" is not a new phenomenon. Aristotle describes it as "Level 2" happiness on a 4-level scale:

felix: The happiness of comparative advantage. “I have more of this than X.” “I am better at this than X.” This kind of happiness results from competition with another person. The self is seen in terms of how we measure up to others. It has been called “the comparison game.” Such happiness is rather unstable and, if one fails, can lead to unhappiness and sense of worthlessness. Exclusive pursuit tends to oppress others. Most people would not imagine a world as satisfactory if it was composed of only happiness #2 type people.

Just as MMM (Middle Class Millionaire Blogger) describes, it happens at all levels of society. My fiancee spent a summer a few years back working at a camp in Massachussets that catered to rich Park Ave types from New York...she was amazed at kids who grew up in millionairs families, yet all they were aware of were the things that they DIDN'T have.

It's a tough game to not play. I catch myself doing it everytime I see a friend with a cool barbecue, a bigger TV, or a faster car. Still, some sober second thought (and a 10 day self-inflicted stand-down on major items to avoid random spontaneous unecessary purchases) makes you realize that chasing for happiness (supremacy?) through comparative advantage is a fools game.

Craig said...

Proper link to the Aristotle thing here:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree.

I don’t think there are problems with benchmarks or goals (I have many of them) as long as they are your own goals. Most people I know that try to keep up with the Jones try to meet the Jones goals and the Jones benchmarks, and then when they finally do meet them they aren’t any happier but still move on to the next “benchmark” or “goal” set by the Jones.
Remember lemmings are also part of herd and probably none of them are considered “culturally inferior” hopefully they don’t run into a cliff though…

Thanks for the link…it’s reassuring to see that Aristotle agrees...

Tim Stobbs said...


Your post got me inspired to write the following.


Anonymous said...

If I find myself "trying to keep up with the Jones", I know that I have way too much time on my hands. Signal to take on a new project.

Anonymous said...

I guess we can agree to disagree.

I think the Joneses provide a much needed benchmark. People care about their consumption RELATIVE TO other's consumption. (Whether they work too much, spend to much or save too much.)

For consumption, the first thing to realize is that there's only two things you can do with your income. Eat it (consume!) or save it (consume later). If we lived in a vacuum (ie. without the Joneses) we probably wouldn't know how much to consume now or later.

On a theoretical level if you're a fella or a gal who's all into the KUWJ (Keep up with the Joneses), it's not clear at all that you will consume more and save less. Think about it. Presumably, you not only care about KUWJ today, but also tomorrow. So you face a choice - consume a bunch today and KUWJ and save less - but this means it'll be harder to KUWJ tomorrow, or - consume little today, save a bunches and it'll be easier to KUWJ today. So actually it could go either way. Envy on the part of consumers could actually drive them to save more as they all struggle to keep up with each other tomorrow.

Whether you like it or not Keeping up with the Joneses has mainly a strong effect on the composition of consumption.

Anonymous said...

First off, thanks for this site. I appreciate the effort and i enjoy reading thoughts of like minded individuals.

However i think on the "Jones" issue we need to be very careful not to think to superficially about what is a very complex issue. I find that when i rail against the joneses i am really expressing my own frustration at something that i am feeling about myself: some personal dissapointment or sense of doubt about myself or the decisions that i have made.

I believe this to be the case because it is the same pricinple of relative measurement (or "comparative advantage") that provides each of us the guideposts that we all need to understand our place in realtion to everything around us. YOu can't remove yourself from all environmental measurements - but this is not equal to a moral jusgement as to right or wrong. The right/wrong judgement comes with the selection of the guideposts (neighbour with fast car that i must have, or community of savers and investors that i feel a kinship with). And even then, the right/wrong designation is more a personal conclusion (and a relative conclusion at that!)than the grade from some universal rule book.

Anyway, just my first loose thoughts, but you definately got me thinking...


Thats an old saying

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