Well-being in consumer culture and the 'new poor' - Sandra Carlisle and Phil Hanlon


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Dr Sandra Carlisle, from the University of Glasgow, and Prof Phil Hanlon, from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, talk about well-being in today's consumer culture.

The Whose Economy? seminars, organised by Oxfam Scotland and the University of the West of Scotland, brought together experts to look at recent changes in the Scottish economy and their impact on Scotland's most vulnerable communities.

Held over winter and spring 2010-11 in Edinburgh, Inverness, Glasgow and Stirling, the series posed the question of what economy is being created in Scotland and, specifically, for whom?

To find out more and view other Whose Economy? papers, presentations and videos visit:

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  • Phil Hanlon and I have been investigating the relationship between well-being and ‘modern culture’ and their relationship to the modern economy. The connection between the economy and well-being is important – the basic function of any country’s economy is to serve the well-being of all its citizens. A sense of well-being and happiness matters to all of us. They’re not trivial issues. Today, I want to highlight just some of what we’ve found and the conclusions this leads us to.
  • Starting with the relationship between well-being and culture, research by an Australian public health researcher, Richard Eckersley, suggests that the culture of modern societies is fundamentally damaging to our health and happiness. Many would see this as an odd claim. Modernity has brought us innumerable health and social benefits and most of us, regardless of income, live in ways unthinkable to ancestors only a few generations removed from us. So what is he saying? Why the focus on culture? And where does the economy and other aspects of our social structure come in?
  • The reason why our cultural beliefs and assumptions matter is that they reflect the values that lie at the heart of our society. It’s been suggested that modern society is dominated by four particular cultural values: Economism is the tendency to view the world through the lens of economics, to regard a country as an economy rather than a society, and to believe that economic considerations and values are the most important ones for our well-being. Materialism - in modern society, non-material aspects of life may be squeezed out. Individualism has brought us many freedoms and benefits. The downside is that the onus of success in life rests with us as individuals, as does responsibility for failure. We are subject to the tyranny of higher expectations in life and reduced social support and social control, all of which result in a sense of increased risk, uncertainty and insecurity. And then there’s consumerism , which is the attempt to acquire meaning, happiness and fulfilment through the acquisition and the possession of material things.
  • But a number of flaws in economic thinking about well-being have been exposed through research. To massively over-simplify, economists have traditionally assumed that we are all rational beings who maximise our well-being through making rational choices in life. The more choices we have, the happier we are, and choice is facilitated by income and wealth. As research has found that richer people in all societies are happier than their poorer peers, it looks like economists have got this right. Economists have also assumed that increases in average levels of happiness in a society can be related to increases in its purchasing power. If the economy does well, so does our well-being. So, crudely, the assumption has always been that more is better for all of us, as individuals and across society. These key assumptions of economic theory were developed in times of scarcity when it was unimaginable that we might be faced with problems of excess.
  • And those assumptions have been undermined by economist Richard Easterlin, who found that societies don’t necessarily get happier as they get richer. He and others have found that levels of happiness have stayed static since the 1950s, although our incomes have risen four-fold in real terms. That’s what this graph, shows. Since well-being has been regularly measured - from the 1950s onward - the percentage of people who judge themselves as very happy has not increased at all and may be declining, despite real increases in income. This is USA data, but identical patterns exist for the UK.
  • So a number of paradoxes have emerged from research. Firstly, the Easterlin paradox, which says that average levels of well-being increase up to middle income levels, but then rapidly level off. And what counts as middle income levels can be surprisingly low. The main point is that, after basic needs are met, extra income produces diminishing returns for average well-being across society. However, it’s been suggested that UK households with a mortgage need an average income of £50k annually for good levels of well-being. You can see the complexity here. Are we talking about well-being at the individual or social level? How much is enough – and in what circumstances?   And then there’s the paradox identified by psychologist Barry Schwartz: that some of us (but certainly not all) have just too much. We are overwhelmed, even paralyzed, by trivial choices in life. We suffer from what psychologist Oliver James calls affluenza: a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt and anxiety that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. It’s an epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by the pursuit of what we i magine to be the good life.
  • Evidence from many disciplines now suggests that the individualised, materialist, consumer–driven culture produced by the modern economy results in increased mental distress and static happiness levels for many people. Social commentators observe that many of us live with ambient fear, anxiety and insecurity. In the modern economy, jobs for life are now only for the privileged few, with compulsory flexible working practices for the rest of us. And we have also seen the emergence of what Zygmunt Bauman calls the ‘new poor’. Why new? Because our social structure and our economy has changed from one built on production to one dependent on consumption. In the past, unemployed people were the reserve army of labour – for the factory or the battlefield. But the modern economy means that we are no longer a society of full employment based on the productive capability of labour, and may never be so again. So, from the perspective of the modern economy, unemployed people are left without a function which is useful, let alone indispensable, to its smooth and profitable running .
  • In the modern economy, the hidden truth is not that we are all transformed from citizens into consumers. That’s blatantly obvious. It’s our more subtle transformation into sellable commodities with market value. We ourselves are consumer goods, are obliged to ‘sell’ ourselves in order to have jobs and careers, social standing and even intimate relationships. And social analysts note that, however affluent the economy, it will always produce unhappiness, frustration and dissatisfaction because the unlimited production of goods is intimately tied to the unlimited production of wants. What this suggests is that, unless we change our values, no matter how much our lives improve in material terms, we’ll never feel we have enough and we’ll never feel we are good enough. We’ll never get off the treadmill.
  • We investigated some of these academic ideas through a piece of qualitative research. I wanted to give you a very brief flavour of the very different perspectives we found across different socio-ecomic groups. There are of course established social science ways of categorising such groups but I want instead to use novelist Neal Ascherson’s striking and evocative description of Scotland as a nation divided by what he calls the St Andrew’s Fault – a geological image used to imply a traumatic chasm in society, dividing the confident minority from the mistrustful majority. The winds of industrial, de-industrial and post-industrial change that have hit Scotland over the last two hundred years or so have been experienced differently across that fault. On one side of the Fault, we have those who have been able to thrive and protect themselves and their children. These people are the confident minority: the affluent, the secure, the fortunate amongst us. Those potentially damaging winds of change have been experienced by those people as just a slight breeze. On the other side of the St Andrew’s Fault are those who have felt the full social and economic storm-force of profound upheaval. These are the children of the hurricane: the disadvantaged, the excluded.
  • The force of the hurricane in disadvantaged people’s lives was very well understood by two of the public health groups we spoke to. They knew that, in an individualised society, it’s look out for yourself, as there’s little protection elsewhere. (first quote) And they weren’t very optimistic about how much could change, saying that… (second quote)
  • A group of prisoners spoke to us at length about the sense of isolation, pressure and resulting vulnerability that many people feel nowadays. As one said:
  • The experience of exclusion, low social status and stigma was voiced by a group of people who had all suffered mental health problems. As one said: (first quote) Another suggested that the problems of individualism, materialism and consumerism we’ve highlighted are ‘symptomatic of a kind of society that doesn’t value people but does value possessions’. He went on to say that, it may be that for a certain group of people it’s becoming OK to sneer at the poor’.
  • How to escape the hurricane? Well, one way out – for those able to take this route – is of course education in order to secure a good (by which we usually mean well-paid) job. As a headteacher told us: (quote)
  • One of the most powerful statements about the ills of modernity came from that group of prisoners, one of whom said: (first quote). Again, he was not optimistic for change, suggesting that: (second quote)
  • It is in the interests of many to preserve the status quo, and they are able to give rational, even ethical, reasons for doing so. One group we spoke to argued strongly that: (quotes)
  • One final comment ,from a child of the breeze, suggests that there’s a gulf in social understanding across the St Andrew’s rift: (quote) This was a throwaway comment made by the most senior manager of a national private sector company. It wasn’t intended to be provocative or something that would invite challenge. Just a casual observation of how things are, from the secure perspective of those who have little understanding how it feels to experience the hurricane.
  • I’ve already mentioned the interconnections between our consumer culture and our chronic anxiety. The larger point is that we are also facing a set of other trends and problems, driven by certain aspects of the modern economy and the society and cultural value system that it’s produced. In already developed societies, the modern economy has enticed us all with visions of the good life that are just unsustainable at the global level. The high levels of consumption involved in pursuing affluent lifestyles draw so extensively on planetary resources that we’ve seen the emergence of much larger problems which threaten us all. Those include global economic crises; climate change, the decline of key non-renewable resources such as oil; and massive global increases in inequality and injustice. Modern society and its economy has produced a system obsessed with limitless economic growth. That’s now a global ideal exported everywhere and its consequences are alarming.
  • As this extract from a report by the New Economics Foundation demonstrates, all affluent societies are now living well beyond the capacity of the earth to sustain – a condition known as ‘overshoot’. If the whole world were to live at UK levels of consumption, we’d need over three earth-like planets to sustain us. If we follow USA patterns of consumption, we’ll need five or more. But let’s be clear that it’s not people on a low income who have contributed much to this problem. Their resource use is comparatively low, and their ecological footprint is comparatively light. But they are sure to bear the brunt of the coming storm.
  • Change appears inevitable, given that patterns and levels of consumption in affluent societies are not sustainable on a global scale. And it’s becoming clear that they contribute little to human well-being. So we really need to think about how we can all find ways of living differently that will promote and sustain well-being - for us as individuals, for our families, communities and the society we live in, and for the world as a whole.
  • There are many models and ideas that can help us think differently and challenge conventional thinking. Just one of those is contraction and convergence ,a concept that has been developed, by Aubrey Meyer, in response to the threat of runaway climate change. The whole world needs a contraction in the production of carbon dioxide - an output of increased industrialisation and economic growth. Rich and poor nations must eventually converge in their carbon production, to avoid catastrophe. Less developed nations must be allowed to develop – so their carbon use goes up - whilst industrialized and post industrial nations must make substantial reductions. There’s another word for this: redistribution. And this model, of course, can apply to many resources and not just the carbon that affluent societies depend on. This might not look like a vote winner, but the evidence suggests no really viable and sustainable alternatives. It seems likely that changing the social structure and the economy will not, by themselves, achieve this – even if we knew how to do it. If we are to survive and thrive, then cultural change is also necessary. And that means we need to change ourselves as well, however little that appeals.
  • I’ll end by pointing you to our new website, AfterNow, where more of the material I’ve presented is available in more depth. In it we ask ‘what’s next for the health of society?’ and we try to provide some tentative answers. This is very much a work in progress! Thanks very much for listening.
  • Well-being in consumer culture and the 'new poor' - Sandra Carlisle and Phil Hanlon

    1. 1. Well-being in consumer culture and the ‘new poor’ Oxfam and UWS ‘Whose Economy?’ seminar series, March 2011 Sandra Carlisle & Phil Hanlon Centre for Population and Health Sciences University of Glasgow
    2. 2. The malaise of modernity <ul><li>“ We are living longer, but are no happier. We do not believe life is getting better… </li></ul><ul><li>Modern Western culture seems to be based on the very things that are detrimental to health and happiness.” </li></ul><ul><li>(Richard Eckersley 2006) </li></ul>
    4. 4. Economic growth is good for well-being! <ul><ul><li>People maximise their well-being through making rational choices, so the more choice we have, the happier we are </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Changes in average levels of happiness in a society can be equated to changes in its purchasing power </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>More is better for all of us! </li></ul></ul>
    5. 5. Or is it? ( USA life satisfaction & personal income 1956-1998, Myers and Diener [1996])
    6. 6. <ul><li>The Easterlin Paradox: </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Average levels of well-being increase up to middle income levels and then rapidly level off. </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>After basic needs are met, extra income produces diminishing returns for well-being. </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><li>The Schwartz Paradox: </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>The tyranny of choice </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>More is just too much (Affluenza) </li></ul></ul></ul>Well-being Paradoxes
    7. 7. The modern economy gives us...
    8. 8. Are we consumers – or commodities?
    9. 9. The ‘St Andrew’s Fault’ Children of the breeze or the hurricane? (Neal Ascherson, ‘Stone Voices’)
    10. 10. Look out for yourself <ul><li>“ In this city you’ve got families growing up with no expectations of ever working and any jobs there are, are crap work for crap money. In days gone by when you had manufacturing or mining, you had your union which was strong, and you were part of a community. But now the only jobs you can get are call centres where there are no unions. So you just look out for yourself.” (Health Promotion Group) </li></ul><ul><li>“ To some extent you’ve got to help young people live their lives on the minimum basic income, taking into account that they’ll maybe never get a job, that those children won’t be able to afford a nice gym, won’t be able to afford Nike this and God knows what else unless they acquire them by some other means or going into debt.” (Public Health Network) </li></ul>
    11. 11. Life and loss in the consumerist bubble <ul><li>“ People live in their own bubble, getting in their own car to drive to work, staying in their own home. Community spirit has gone and this compounds the issue. We’re all in debt. You’re stressed, you go to work, you go home. You sit in front of the TV. There’s no family dinner, no time to talk problems through, sort things out. You’re just working to afford that TV. There’s no time for your children when you come home at night. No time to talk.’ </li></ul><ul><li>(Prisoner group) </li></ul>
    12. 12. Living in the hurricane <ul><li>“ In a third world society I would be a millionairess with money, a home, warmth. I’m low down in my society because I don’t work and live on benefits.” </li></ul><ul><li>“ It’s symptomatic of a kindae society that doesn’t value people but does value possessions. I think it may be that for a certain group of people it's becoming okay to sneer at the poor. ” </li></ul><ul><li> (Mental Health Advocacy Group) </li></ul>
    13. 13. Escaping the hurricane <ul><li>“ People everywhere live busy, consumer-driven lives. Their energies are devoted to money, mortgages and there’s no time for emotional energy. </li></ul><ul><li>Parents round here want to be something, they’re conscious of material wealth and income and have worked hard to get here. They have more stuff - cars, washing machines – but they’re still dreadfully poor, because it’s relative. </li></ul><ul><li>They know that educational qualifications are what allow you to make that step up, so they push for results. </li></ul><ul><li>Their children are the same. It’s very much ‘I want to be a lawyer, doctor or dentist’. They’re very materially focused.” </li></ul><ul><li>(Headteacher) </li></ul><ul><li> </li></ul>
    14. 14. Fear and Power <ul><li>“ Our focus needs to go down to the spiritual – to the value and worth of a human being. Virtually nothing in society promotes that. We are exploitable because we are fearful.” </li></ul><ul><li>“ We‘re all trapped in the cycle of consumerism. And powerful groups can’t be expected to support anything that will counter techniques for maintaining social dominance.” </li></ul><ul><li> (Prisoner Group) </li></ul>
    15. 15. In defence of the market economy <ul><li>“ The market economy is the prevailing culture and ideology of the modern world, including Scotland. </li></ul><ul><li>Alternative social models tend to be coercive and corrosive of freedom so there really is no alternative to market capitalism. It’s the least worst option. All we can do is find mechanisms to mitigate the excesses. </li></ul><ul><li>It’s better to make people pay for their choices, rather than restrict them. Markets remain the most efficient and least unjust way of organizing society, even though this involves great disparities of wealth.” </li></ul><ul><li>(Consumer Council) </li></ul>
    16. 16. The St Andrew’s Fault <ul><li>“ Life is easier for parents who can’t afford to give their kids stuff. </li></ul><ul><li>It’s harder for those who have money to say no, when they can afford it.” </li></ul><ul><li>(General Manager) </li></ul>
    17. 17. The modern economy also gives us...
    18. 18. The UK’s growing ecological footprint: number of planets needed to support the whole world at UK levels of consumption An unsustainable economy: who pays?
    19. 19. Possible Responses
    20. 20. The certainty of an uncertain future Current levels of consumption in affluent societies cannot be sustained globally and contribute little to human well-being Fact How can we live differently - in ways which promote and sustain well-being for individuals and all societies? Question
    21. 21. Contraction and Convergence
    22. 22. www.afternow.co.uk Website Resources: Videos Podcasts Papers
    23. 23. To view all the papers in the Whose Economy series click here To view all the videos and presentations from the seminars click here