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How Counterfeit Financial Culture Leads to Overwork
We're bombarded with unrealistic images of work and spending—which leads to our own ideas of what we need or want being wildly out of whack with what we're earning.
The average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in New York City in the mid-90s was about $2500.
But you'd never know that by watching Friends.
Monica and Rachel's apartment was a 2-bedroom, 1100-square-foot flat in the West Village of Manhattan. As the story goes, Monica inherited the rent-controlled apartment from her grandmother—and paid only $200 per month for it.
Of course, on the open market, an apartment like Monica and Rachel's would fetch about $6500 per month today.
"Over the years of working in financial services," Manisha Thakor, author of MoneyZen, tells me in a recent interview, "I came to have this almost anger that built up in me when I would at media images—whether in TV shows, or movies, or magazines, or more recently Instagram—that portrayed lifestyles that were completely unrealistic." Manisha calls these fanciful portrayals Counterfeit Financial Culture.
Even as a 14 or 15-year-old watching Friends, I knew on some level that Monica and Rachel's apartment was not indicative of what New York City apartments were actually like—especially not for 2 women in their 20s working jobs with questionable incomes. Friends was a fantasy as much as it was a sitcom. But even if I knew it was a fantasy, the Friends' NYC lifestyle still informed my idea of what the trappings of young adulthood were.
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"Just take any legal, police, or media drama—I'm going to pick on Suits," Manisha illustrates.
"There's an assistant to one of the main characters named Donna." Despite taking place in New York City—which features a muggy, humid climate in the summer—Donna "never has frizzy hair. So Donna has clearly come to the office each morning with a fresh blowout."
A blowout at DryBar costs $45-70. They charge an extra $20 if you have extensions. After some Google Image searching, I feel pretty confident that Donna's mid-length hair features extensions for volume, if not for length. So let's say her blowout is $60 plus the $20 upcharge for extensions—that's $80. A professional blowout lasts three to five days. So on the low side, that's almost $500 per month just on blowouts.
And how about cut and color? I spend about $200 (including tip) every couple of months on my cut and color. That's one of the benefits of living in a small town! But in New York City, I could easily spend double that. Donna's hair is a rich copper red, which hypothetically could be her natural color—but the odds that she's getting it punched up at the salon are incredibly high. So let's say that's another $300 every other month. That's nearly $8000 per year on her hair.
"But it's not just that," Manisha continues, "she has a very elegant personal style. You can see that the fabrics and the quality of the clothes she has on, the shoes she's wearing, the handbag she's carrying—are stellar." After returning to my image search, I realize that Donna's style reminds me of a dress I once had—and loved—from the brand Vince. I do a quick price-check at Nordstrom's website and determine that an office-appropriate dress from Vince will set you back about $400. If you're looking for a suit? Well, that's more like $800.
Of course, it's not just material goods that Donna is spending significant sums of money on. "She's going out and having drinks with friends—you know, in Manhattan, there's no such thing as a drink lower than $15 before tip."
Even if Donna is splitting the rent 4 ways, only taking the subway to get around the city, and being frugal about everything else in her life, she's still looking at considerable budget line for discretionary spending. "So I thought," Manisha tells me, "what if I added up what it actually would cost to groom and live like that, and then compare it to the average salary for these positions."
Thanks to the Suits wiki, I know that Donna's title was Legal Secretary—though later she was promoted to COO. And thanks to Salary.com, I can tell you that the median salary for a legal secretary in NYC is about $63k, with the top 10% making about $80k.
"In this case, and in pretty much any other case that I have done this exercise in," explains Manisha, "you need to earn 30-50% more" than the realistic salaries for any of these positions.
Honestly, depending on the show, that estimate might be a bit conservative.
Why does this matter? The answer is mimetic desire.
The mimetic theory of desire, first proposed by René Girard in 1961, argues that what we want is produced socially rather than intrinsically. Basic needs—like water, food, or warmth—are intrinsic, even innate. We'll seek those out regardless of the social environment around us. But our desire for anything beyond those basic needs is heavily influenced by what the people around us desire.
What's something you want right now? Where have you seen that desire modeled for you?
I've shared before that I'm considering applying to Ph.D. programs in the fall. Note to self: it's time to get your act together! I want to go back to school and get an advanced degree. This is certainly not a basic need. It's not even a career need. So why do I want to do this?
On one level, I just really want to be back in that kind of environment. And I'd like to finish what I didn't quite start.
But on another level, the writers and thinkers who are models of possibility for me almost all have advanced degrees. I want to close the gap between their credentials and my credentials. I want what they have., a writer and entrepreneur, wrote about Girard's theory of mimetic desire in his book, Wanting. "Buried in a deeper layer of our psychology," he explains, "is the person or thing that causes us to want something in the first place. Desire requires models—people who endow things with value for us merely because they want the things."
Desire requires models—people who endow things with value
for us merely because they want the things.
—Luke Burgis, Wanting
A TV show character like Donna is a model. The way she styles her hair, the clothes she wears, the meetups with friends for a drink—each of those details represents something that Donna desired and attained. As a result, we're more likely to desire and try to attain them as well.
Burgis explains that the influence a TV show character or celebrity has over our desire is mediated by the social distance we have from them. Sure, I can look at an outfit that, say, Tina Fey wears in an interview and recognize that I would love to wear something like it. But I'm less likely to actually go to a store and try to find it than if I saw a friend wearing a similar outfit.
Tina Fey lives in, as Burgis puts it, "a different universe of desire." She has access to things that I won't ever have access to by virtue of her celebrity, wealth, and network. When I see my friend wearing an outfit, I imagine that it's within my reach. I might ask her where she got it or do some internet sleuthing to figure it out. In other words, the influence of a mimetic model is dependent on social context.
There are plenty of factors that complicate influence today, though.
First, there's the sheer amount of stuff we have access to.
In the past, one wealthy person would have roughly the same kind of stuff as another wealthy person. One middle-class person would have roughly the same stuff as another middle-class person. One working-class person would have roughly the same stuff as another working-class person, and so on. But today, working-class, middle-class, and wealthy people can often be found buying similar goods—if not at the same price point, then at least with imitation as an explicit intent.
Second, our mimetic models are all out of whack.
The line between a celebrity and a friend is blurry. Celebrities show up on social media looking like friends, and friends show up looking like celebrities. It can seem like we're all trying to be relatable and authentic while also positioning ourselves as people to imitate.
And a third factor complicating what influences us today is our fractured media landscape.
The monoculture is gone. And with it are de facto class agreements about trends, goals, and lifestyle. Your idea of what "wealthy" looks like might be completely different from mine. Your idea of what "middle-class" looks like might be completely different from mine.
Add to that the social element of media, and our unconscious imitation of others gets really out of control. In her book, Manisha cites a 2018 study that found that almost 90% of Millennials "say social media has caused them to compare their own wealth and lifestyle to that of their peers." And while the percentage was lower among Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, it was still a majority for both generations.
So we might be able to buy stuff similar to what celebrities and other rich people buy. We're definitely exposed to a wider variety of mimetic models without the usual context. And trend-wise, our culture is more diverse than ever. That sounds like a recipe for getting our wires crossed.
When we look at Rachel and Monica's apartment, or Donna's perfect hair and designer clothes, or even a seemingly middle-class family taking an extravagant vacation on Instagram, we lack important financial context. We lack the kind of distance we normally have from models who represent that "different universe of desire."
The mimetic playing field is being leveled—and probably not in a productive way. "We are bombarded with these false financial images," Manisha fumes. Add to that the way "we use work to value people," as well as a snap judgment about how people self-present, and we get a really skewed view of what success looks like. Not only do we misjudge others, but we also misjudge ourselves and what we "should" want to buy. "You stir all of that together, and you get a Counterfeit Financial Culture."
Counterfeit financial culture—that's a pretty evocative phrase.
I think the counterfeit isn't so much like a counterfeit $50 bill or a counterfeit Rolex. It's the effort and money we put into trying to create our own counterfeit lives. We're counterfeiting a presentation of wealth or status through the clothes we wear, the handbags we carry, the cars we drive, and even the way our hair is styled. What we don't realize, though, is that our expensive imitation isn't even based on reality.
Imitation is part of the human experience. Burgis writes:
Humans learn—through imitation—to want the same things other people want, just as they learn how to speak the same language and play by the same cultural rules. Imitation plays a far more pervasive role in our society than anyone had ever openly acknowledged.
Counterfeit financial culture, as Manisha describes it, not only creates false desire, it often robs us—literally—of what we do want and even what we actually need. "We're working to not just meet our basic needs," explains Manisha. We work because our perception of needs has expanded to include "having a gorgeous home, taking lovely vacations, and having all the right gadgets."
"We have to keep earning more money," she tells me, "because the measure of success is defined by having a collection of physical things or fancy experiences that you can brand to your friends about—so that they think you're more successful."
The system works as designed.1 The growth of consumer capitalism is predicated on our desire for more. A company's bottom line is predicated on how much work they can get out of you without paying you more. We work more to buy more and then have to work even more to buy even more. At this point, it's not only stuff. It's, perhaps, not even stuff at all.
Philosopher Byung-Chul Han put it this way:
All in all, today we do not consume things so much as emotions. The former cannot be consumed without end – but the latter can.
In fact, capitalism is built on an assumption of scarcity—whether that scarcity is real or invented. And today, at least in the Global North, most scarcity is indeed invented. This is true both of the scarcity that keeps a much too large segment of the population in poverty. It was invented as a political tool to grab and hold power. And it's true of the scarcity that fuels our individual feelings of "not-enoughness." That kind of scarcity is invented by marketing messages, individualism, and alienation.
Scarcity, like mimetic desire, lives in the space between what we have and what others have.
Between what we thought we wanted and what our models convince us we want instead. As Han points out, the scarcity that we either feel or fear today is most often emotional. It might be signified by a status handbag, swanky apartment, or the perfect blowout, but beneath those commodities is an emotional chasm that can't ever be filled by their consumption.
The perception of scarcity has real effects on our personal finances.
"Most people," stresses Manisha, "struggle with understanding what is reasonable spending within the context of what they are earning. It's a slippery slope." Excessive spending leads to debt. Debt leads to working more. Working more leads to more excessive spending, which in turn leads to more debt. "The linkage between consumption and work is a vital one," she argues.
I agree—it's critical to understand the linkage between consumption and work. And it's critical to acknowledge the ways both our consumption and our work habits are influenced the models we encounter every day—whether online, in-person or in the media.
"Desire," writes Burgis, "like gravity, does not reside autonomously in any one thing or person. It lives in the space between them." If we want to make more intentional choices about how we work and what we buy, it's that space between that we need to explore.
I'll give the last word to Manisha. She writes:
It's wonderful to feel inspired to strive for more, to earn more, to be the best version of yourself. But it's crucial that we look beyond the curtain of Counterfeit Financial Culture and ask whether the wealth narratives we are watching play out on TV, in movies, in social media, and among our peers actually reflect financial reality.
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Self-sabotage—any of the myriad ways we can make it harder on ourselves to make or do the things we want—is something most people deal with. And once you're in the self-sabotage cycle, it can be hard to break out. Self-sabotage behaviors tend to feed other self-sabotage behaviors.
"Follow-through isn't about the quantity of energy you bring to a project. It's about the quality of energy. It's finesse."
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I first (I think…) encountered this phrase in Ijeoma Oluo’s book, Mediocre. But it’s a common phrase from within racial and economic justice circles. Oluo writes:
This is a comment that I and many of my fellow racial justice commentators have made when truly horrible things happen, just as they were intended to.