Who Do We Keep Up With Now That The Joneses Are Gone?
Keeping up with the Joneses has been almost as American as Apple Pie and “Leave it to Beaver.” The whole concept is actually something that harkens back to a kinder, gentler time – not that coveting thy neighbors property wasn’t in play, since well, the beginning. But before unlimited credit and the invention of Reality TV it lacked the hard-core have it at all costs (which sadly in many cases has ended up for many being all costs) dynamic it has now.
In Confessions of a Shopaholic, the film I adapted from the book, the lead character uber shopper Rebecca Bloomwood’s shopping obsession starts as a child when she watches The Joneses get sparkly, colorful shoes while her more thrifty, Cleaverish parents buy her sturdy brown clunkers “that will last.”
There is no question that the outer or inner shopaholic in most of us starts with the kernel of “Keeping up with Joneses. Whether it’s Madison Ave ad execs convincing you you’re incomplete without it whatever it may be, or your neighbor driving home with a brand new Escalade, the “wow look what they got, I want it too” feeling has become foundational in the American psyche. I remember when the Cleavers’ neighbors got a new car, Beaver and Wally were in awe. But Ward did not have access to zero down, no payments for six months plans that allow for the instantaneous we’re as good as the Joneses fix and perhaps financial ruin. He got the things he might covet the old fashion way: He delayed gratification and saved up until he could pay cash, thus teaching his kids and America the value of both saving and not getting what you want just because you want it or someone else has it. He was a product of the post- war era where the thought of owing money was just coming into play and was abhorrent to many, including my parents. So, “Keeping Up With The Joneses was part of a long-term goal, not a way of life. Competition has its upsides; there is nothing wrong with capitalism or a free market economy: it keeps you working and always on your toes; it allows for you set hurdles and toil to clear them. It was the engine that drove America. The problems really started coming when credit became the ruling currency and the Joneses got too rich.
When I was a kid and Wally and Beaver were waiting patiently for Ward to save up for the better car, the Joneses were doctors, lawyers and for the most part normal people who had jobs that gave them just a bit more money so the American Dream came a little sooner. But they were the Joneses and in their very simple every man name it tells us that they were for the most part average people and keeping up with them wasn’t like keeping up with The Beckhams or The Cruises or with CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies.
I live in New York City where, for the most part, The Joneses had a hedge fund, or worked on Wall St. and their giant salaries were not that of the Joneses of yester decade. These Joneses brought home salaries that were bigger than the GNP of many small countries. And they didn’t just drive in one evening with a new Buick; their kids announced at school that daddy just bought mommy her own island off Tahiti, or it appeared in a magazine that daddy’s just been bumped to the top of the wait list for the newest Gulf Stream. They out-priced the old Joneses, the doctors, and lawyers out of family housing in the city. The Joneses became rock stars and were glorified in US Magazine and on Reality TV. Families who never read Forbes could recite the richest people in the country the way they used to recite the presidents.
Kids no longer aspired to be doctors and lawyers; they wanted to be hedge fund managers and Investment Bankers. This isn’t the stuff dreams are built on, as we find out; it’s what nightmares are built from.
And while the new Joneses were busy spending their ill-earned ginormous bonus and the folks next door were racking up monumental credit card and mortgage debt just to get a tiny piece of the American Dream, Rome burned, along with Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, AIG, our kid’s college funds and too many people’s hard earned retirement savings. These Joneses were not the masters of the universe like we were led to believe, but masters of destruction. They were nothing to aspire to or emulate but something to run from. I’m happy President Obama has capped salaries and is implementing restrictions.
I’m happy the Jones’ are moving out of the neighborhood and I’m hoping the Cleavers with their sturdy shoes and good old fashioned values can now afford the house and move back in.
This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post Style section, February 12, 2009.