No need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’

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Graphic by Fani Hseih

Graphic by Fani Hseih

“Keeping up with the Joneses” — what a supremely evocative saying, suggesting many different meanings.  Does the “keeping up” suggest struggling with an equilibrium, such as the status quo? But the status quo continues to advance because those infernal Joneses keep moving up ahead of you and me.

The fact we even care about “keeping up” with those Joneses and not “down” with the Joneses, or even with the Joneses, suggests there is at least a ranking with some at the top and some at the bottom.

Perhaps the one per cent are at the top and rest of us are at the bottom. This would certainly be a realistic and painful slap at the often-praised “Canadian Mosaic.”

The majority, you and I — those anonymous John and Jane Does — have always seemed middle class, middle of the road, middle-management, middle-something, except for those pesky Joneses who always seem to waddle ahead of us … or so we think.

Keeping up with “them,” whatever their ethnic origins, names or pedigrees, of course means many different things. We may strive to match their church attendance or their charitable donations. We might try to equal their standardized IQs or wisdom (two distinctly different categories) or their musical accomplishments or their volunteer commitments.

But strangely, none of these things really mean keeping up with the Joneses.

For most of us, keeping up with others means staying apace with the things other people can acquire — a sort of acquisition ethic.

Keeping up with the Joneses means purchasing what they purchase, or even better, a newer model. It all means matching their things we all compile in our modern “Thingdom.”

But here is the rub — while we are struggling to keep up with the Joneses, those Joneses are very busy trying to keep up with us.

In some instances, we are those “pesky Joneses” — others are trying to keep up with our conspicuous consumption.

In Canada, where competing successfully is one of our core values (excluding those Toronto Maple Leafs), we seem to take great pleasure in “one-up man/womanship,” most often through what sociologists refer to as: “positional goods.”

That is, the goods that are “status enhancing” allow us to get the jump on our neighbors. In fact, some of us may purchase some stuff just to show how much we can accumulate.

Economic advisors know we are often identified by our purchases wand by such, rather clearly distinguished from those Joneses.

Keeping up with all others may mean trying to maintain our standard of living, which may also mean increasing the quality of our lives because keeping up in our image-obsessed world means accumulating more and more.

Robert Wuthrow (God and Mammon in America) writes: “It is expected that people will consume automobiles, clothing, housing and other items at a level consistent with their standing in the community.” Wuthrow claims we don’t think we are living lives of the one per cent because home areas are socially stratified and structured, that we usually live among members close to our own socio economic class. And compared to them our consumption patterns are not so atypical. But in the end we are materialistic, always trying to keep up with others, always sensitive to what things others have acquired.

Whether we deceive ourselves successfully or not, we are all part of a rather contemptuous, consumption cult. Much evidence now exists, suggesting that it is not things, more money in the bank, or that new inboard power boat; no, what appears to be important is how we tend to nourish our souls. And such spiritual contentment is not measured by things. So just sit back, relax and thumb your nose at those peevish, petulant and irrelevant Joneses who live across the street.

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