Just about everything around us is changing. Changing really fast, we might add. Still, when it comes to why people buy stuff or not, vote a certain way or another way, or join your organization or shun it, we'd argue that many of their reasons trace back to things that don't change, ever. Things as old, immutable and responsible for motivations and behaviors as humans themselves. Things like fear, which is about wanting not to lose the stuff one has, including the feeling of safety, and envy, which is about wanting what somebody else has. As skeptics, we've long tended to look at fear as the top-ranking motivator of consumer behavior and purchase intent. But we're thinking these days, as the gaps between haves and have-nots get wider in more and more ways, it might be time to check out where people come out on the covet-thy-neighbor's-goods meter, sort of the dark underbelly of aspiration.
Well, to listen to what Americans admit about themselves, envy would appear to be predominantly the province of younger people, a phenomenon older people say they've outgrown. Plus, nowhere is today's self-avowed envy better illustrated than in prime-time TV's reality environment. The way this reality works, shows plunk some lucky devils out of the real world like lottery winners, give them far more than their fair share of 15 minutes of fame, a modicum of fortune, and makes them over as post-millennial idols, whose celebrity, by the way, everybody else wishes they had.
This new form of idolatry requires nothing more of the idol than a good smile, a good physique, and a tolerance for exposing one's entire life to mass TV audiences.
As a way of trying to measure and benchmark this new form of envy and idolatry in society, American Demographics teamed up with Harris Interactive to field an exclusive survey of 2,013 respondents in late April. The questions in the poll focused on the desires and objects of desire possessed by others. Younger respondents either tell the truth about their envy more often or are just more green-eyed than older ones. Among those aged 18 to 34, 23 percent of men and 26 percent of women fess up to always or frequently coveting their neighbors' goods. An average of only about 6 percent of older respondents admit they frequently or always experience envy, and 60 percent of the over-55 age group said they never or rarely felt jealous of others' possessions.
We credit the age disparity largely to the fact that younger people cling to childhood dreams of becoming rich and famous, dreams that older people relinquish as the years go by.
The real fun starts when one observes who most stirs envy among us. Is it the kids who grew up in the nice house on the outskirts of town? Is it The Donald? A majority, almost 60 percent of 18- to 34-year-old respondents, confirmed they were jealous of celebrities or public figures. Only 3 in 10 older respondents say they envy societies' jet set. Adding fuel to the fire of jealousy among younger people, are television shows like VH-1's The Fabulous Life which focuses on celebrities' expenditures and indulgences. The show's Web site goes so far as to provide a link to a page called the Little Black Book, offering viewers contact information on the vendors and services patronized by the rich and famous.
Naturally, money ranks as the No. 1 coveted item. Interestingly, respondents in the Northeast differed by a wide margin from those in the West (40 percent versus 28 percent) in citing other people's money as the object of their envy. Others' good health or physical appearance and physical fitness rank a distant second and third in striking jealousy in the heart of respondents. Investments or real estate, a spouse or partner and a nice car also came in for mention on the envy-meter.
Finally, we asked respondents to plot the intensity of their experience of envy over time. Are they more envious of others than they used to be? About a third of the 18-to-34 age cohort (including 40 percent of women in the age group) cites an increase in their covetousness. Again, age seems to mellow these jealous passions. In the 55-plus category, more than half admit similar feelings somewhat to much less frequently.