Why do we crave a lifestyle we cannot afford? | Keeping up with the Kardashians


In the developed world our basic needs have been met but we still want more. We’re no longer satisfied with keeping up with the Joneses - we want to keep up with the Kardashians … why?

Shifting aspirations

The Keeping Up with the Joneses phrase described the competition between neighbours to acquire the latest and the best material goods in the early 20th century.

These neighbours were in the same socioeconomic group and were able to compete on a level playing field but as time as gone on, people have stopped comparing themselves to just their neighbours; they now look toward the most affluent in society to set the benchmark.

Social media platforms have shown us the lifestyles of the rich and famous like never before. We have front row seats to their vacation experiences, their designer gear and new cars and this makes it easy to mistake them for our peers. 

Nowadays we have a much wider reference group to compare our lifestyles to.

TV and film have also long promoted the myth of the average; where freelance journalists and struggling waitresses are able to rent fabulous apartments in New York City.

Fictional families are shown to be living in large pristine houses, with big cars and the latest gadgets.

This make-believe version of reality has been internalised as the norm by the population.

America as the world’s dominant superpower is able to export its culture and values around the globe via its films, TV programmes, websites etc.

The American dream - where success and prosperity can be achieved through sheer hard work and merit, regardless of social class and background, is a powerful global export. 

The US celebrates wealth and entrepreneurs like no other country in the world. The compelling stories of how Steve Jobs built the Apple computer in his garage and how Mark Zukerberg coded Facebook as a Harvard student are known worldwide and these stories are seen as the embodiment of the American dream. 

America also celebrates its history as a country built on the back of enterprising immigrants which attracts more and more enterprising immigrants to the land of opportunity. America promotes the idea that ALL dreams can be made a reality.

In short, everyone can achieve the lifestyle of the rich and famous if they only work hard enough. 

The reality however is that wealth distribution has become more and more unequal across the globe. The very richest have amassed unprecedented levels of wealth.

In 2018, the three richest men in the US — Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett — held combined fortunes worth more than the total wealth of the poorest half of Americans. 

As the rich continue to conspicuously consume and the poor become poorer and see what the rich have, they unsurprisingly want a piece of that pie.

That, coupled with the belief in the American dream has made the lifestyles of the rich and famous an aspiration that is seen as easier to achieve than it truly is. 

This is not to say that people can’t achieve their dreams or that they shouldn’t dream but that what is involved in making those dreams a reality is not accurately portrayed.

We are what we wear

Competitive consumerism and marketing have also made us believe that we are what we wear.

Gone are discrete labels  - it is now the era of displaying brand logos prominently on bags, shoes and belts so that everyone can know that the wearer has enough disposable income to buy something from a luxury design house. 

While it’s not wrong to appreciate beautiful things it becomes harmful when our worth as an individual becomes wrapped up in these material goods.

The consequences of competitive, conspicuous consumption

One of the consequences of this type of consumerism is the levels of personal debt people accrue. 

Studies have shown that people tend to underestimate the amount of debt they believe they have, and worryingly, many also do not have the savings to cover an unforeseen emergency.

Another negative consequence is the hit on a person’s self esteem as they try and fail to emulate people in a different socioeconomic group.

Our skewed belief regarding how easy it is to move into an upper socioeconomic class can leave people feeling personally responsible for failing to move up.

The fact that people from wealthier backgrounds have more opportunity, more support and more time to make money is not frequently acknowledged.

The part that inherited privilege and also the part that sheer luck plays in success is downplayed by not only the successful but also the mass media.

In order to Keep up with the Kardashian’s there’s also a huge resistance to tax, people want to keep their incomes for themselves and this in turn translates into less public spending which impacts on our collective social well being. 

And finally there is the environmental impact of consumerism. Each and every good we make has a negative environmental impact.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

As incomes have stagnated and it’s become harder and harder to keep up with the pace of the consumerist lifestyle, movements such as minimalism and decluttering with Marie Kondo have gathered pace. People are looking to appreciate what they have, rather than hanker for what they do not have. 

However, economies rely heavily on consumer spending and consumerism is deeply ingrained in our culture so it’s here to stay unless there occurs some dramatic shift in societal norms and values.  

The answer may be to be more mindful of how we spend our money and to acknowledge that attempting to emulate a wealthier person’s lifestyle is never a good idea.