Why young people aren’t keeping up: from the Joneses to the Kardashians

Youth in France protest changes against changes to unemployment benefits. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Across the world, the current generation of youth has been remarkably active in mobilizing against inequality. From the Arab Spring and the global Occupy movement to many political campaigns across the world, young people are often at the forefront of the fight. Efforts to explain this strong mobilization often invoke romantic notions of youthful idealism, economic self-interest or better access to online means of mass mobilization.

Yet, it may simply be that inequality has become more severe among younger groups of people than it is among older ones.

In new research on global population and inequality at Cornell University, my colleague Anila Rehman and I show that inequality among the world’s youth often exceeds – and need not follow the same trend as – inequality among adults.

It is unclear how long this has been the case. More historical research is needed, but we can still learn something by contrasting the Joneses and the Kardashians – two iconic families that illustrate social competition in the U.S.

‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ comic strip. Wikimedia Commons

A century ago, people only had to “keep up with the Joneses,” an expression that evolved from a 1913 comic strip. Competition for social status was straightforward and it followed three simple lines: it was waged against one’s immediate neighbors, it was waged over material possessions and, perhaps most importantly, it was waged mostly among adults. Adults could check their neighbors’ possessions and easily see who was holding the short end of the material stick. Compared to these simpler times, competition has since extended beyond the local, beyond the material and beyond adulthood.

Beyond the local

Over time, globalization has transported social competition from a local to an international stage. Neighbors are no longer just seen across the fence. At a time of rising internet access – up from just 1 percent in 1995 to about 40 percent today – neighbors are also peered at through the internet or TV screens.

Families across the world now take their consumption cues from a global elite. This creates risk of overstretching inequality within poorer nations as their upper classes hoard local resources in frantic efforts to keep up with global trendsetters.

The Kardashians, who have a large following around the world, and for some perhaps represent the top of the social ladder in the U.S., have come to replace the Joneses as social trendsetters.

Work by sociologist Arland Thornton and colleagues has captured this convergence in aspirations, showing how survey respondents in countries as far apart as Albania, Vietnam and Malawi agree closely on the meaning of what constitutes a good life.

Beyond the material

As social competition becomes global, its material standards ratchet up. Cornell economist Robert Frank and other social scientists have described this “luxury fever” that has everyone scrambling to keep up with the very rich who are constantly upping the ante.

Yet, as competition over money and trinkets ramps up, it extends beyond the strictly material. Social status is increasingly based on perceptions, labels, influence and social attention. The Joneses, by simple virtue of proximity, could always call their neighbors’ bluff if they attempted to spend well beyond their means. This is less possible with the remote fantasies hawked in the media.

With respect to labels, influence and social attention, it is no longer just about a car, but also its make and model. Not just affluence, but influence. Not just upstaging the neighbors, but taking them off the stage and getting them to become followers, rather than competitors for social attention.

The Kardashian sisters, Kim and Khloe. REUTERS

Indeed, the Kardashians’ invitation to “keep up” is not so much about competing with but instead “following” the family’s tribulations. Mere mortals who cannot draw a TV following can always turn to Twitter and Facebook as vehicles for attention. Despite warnings against its superficial or risky nature, internet followship, and the patina of celebrity it confers, has emerged as a modern marker of social status.

Indeed, to appreciate how much social competition has changed, one needs only to see how the role of television, phones and computers has evolved from commodity to social space. Whereas social status was once derived from having a television or computer, it is now more about being on television or being followed on the internet.

Beyond adulthood

As a third and subtler trend, social competition has seen its center of gravity slightly slide from adulthood to youth. The Joneses competed as a unit, with the adult parents in focus and children in the background. This script has almost reversed, with the Kardashian matriarch directing traffic in the background and her children at the forefront.

Part of this may reflect a broad trend in which cultures are becoming more youth-centric. Yet, it may also signal a faster increase in inequality among younger populations compared to adults.

Youth is a time of economic dependency, and thus analyses of inequality focus on families or parents. We tend to assume that the levels and the experience of economic inequality among the young mirrors the overall inequality, but this is not accurate for several demographic reasons.

In simplest terms: affluent people tend to marry other affluent people, wealthier families tend to have fewer children than poorer ones and affluent parents are more able to invest resources in their children’s education and economic mobility.

These demographic patterns work to widen inequality among the world’s youth, relative to the inequality found among adults. Moreover, these adverse conditions are increasingly found to some degree across the world. As long as these demographic trends persist, they will continue to raise inequality among youth.

Some of these trends fall outside the realm of policy. Strictly speaking, one cannot legislate romantic love or prevent highly educated people from exclusively marrying one anther. However, one can create macroeconomic circumstances that offer realistic incentives for lower-income parents to trade larger families for smaller and better-educated progeny. Most importantly, one must strengthen public support for children in countries with the most severe mix of economic and demographic inequality.