#220      19 min 16 sec
The new gilded age: How consumerism and grandiosity have pervaded post-affluent societies

Organizational theorist Prof Mats Alvesson takes a critical look at the pervasive cultures of consumerism and status elevation in the 21st century. Presented by Jennifer Martin.

"I think that we tend to fool ourselves to some degree if we put too much hope in knowledge society being the solution to problems with international competition and so on in the more advanced or richer countries in the world." -- Prof Mats Alvesson




Prof Mats Alvesson
Professor Mats Alvesson

Mats Alvesson is Professor of Business Administration at the University of Lund, Sweden and at University of Queensland Business School, Australia. Research interests include critical theory, gender, power, management of professional service (knowledge intensive) organizations, leadership, identity, organizational image, organizational culture and symbolism, qualitative methods and philosophy of science. His research generally is based on a critical, ironic and demystifying approach to social, organizational and managerial phenomena, but he also favors in-depth studies, typically asking three questions: What goes on here? What do the natives think they are up to? and What in hell do they think they are up to? 

Recent books include The Triumph of Emptiness (Oxford University Press 2013), Qualitative Research and Theory Deveopment (Sage 2011, with Dan Kärreman), Constructing Research Questions (Sage 2013, w J Sandberg) Interpreting Interviews (Sage 2011), Metaphors we lead by: Understanding leadership in the real world. (Routledge 2011, ed with Andre Spicer), Oxford Handbook of Critical Management Studies (Oxford University Press, edited with Todd Bridgman and Hugh Willmott). Understanding gender and organizations (Sage, 2009, 2nd ed with Yvonne Billing), Reflexive methodology (Sage, 2009,  2nd ed, with Kaj Skoldberg), Changing organizational culture (Routledge 2008, with Stefan Sveningsson), Knowledge work and knowledge-intensive firms (Oxford University Press, 2004). 

Credits

Presenter: Jennifer Martin
Producer: Kelvin Param
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

View Tags  click a tag to find other episodes associated with it.

 Download mp3 (18.6 MB)

VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
I'm Jennifer Martin, thanks for joining us.  On today's episode of Up Close we ask how do we find meaning and satisfaction in a post-affluent society where we're driven not by need but by desire.  Today's guest says manufacturers have long given up catering to need and instead aim to meet our desires.  We need look no further than a glass of water for proof.  The Scandinavians import bottled water from France, while Central Europeans demand the same from Norway.  What does it mean when spin, gloss and the appearance of excellence is paramount yet, as today's guest will argue, there is little of substance to justify the hype?  Mats Alvesson is a professor of organisational theory at the University of Lund, Sweden and professor at the University of Queensland Business School.  His book, The Triumph of Emptiness, the social limits of grandiosity, challenges the conventional wisdom that as we all get smarter, that well paid satisfying jobs and lives will follow.  Taking us through the looking glass of our consumer culture, he shows us how little lies behind the hype of a so called knowledge intensive society.  Mats joins us via Skype from Lund University in Sweden.  Mats, thanks for joining us.

MATS ALVESSON
Thanks for inviting me, Jennifer.JENNIFER MARTINFirst of all, can you tell us what you mean when you call us a post-affluent society?

MATS ALVESSON
Well, in the richest parts of the world we have increased productivity and economic growth with about two per cent per year, and that means that we are about twice as rich as our parents were 30 or 35 years ago.  In 1958 John Kenneth Galbraith published a book, The Affluent Society, mainly referring to US conditions, but on the whole in the world, at least in the richest parts, we are now almost three times as rich as then, and as his description, affluent society seemed to be relevant in 1958, then I think that we can argue that we today live in a post-affluent society, where a very large proportion of all people there are very rich and can consume much more than they reasonably need or even benefit from.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So three times as rich but the happiness scale hasn't kept pace, has it?

MATS ALVESSON
No, it seems to be constant. So according to a US study the same amount of people see themselves as very happy today as 50 years ago, despite being about three times as rich.JENNIFER MARTINSo this brings us to a concept you talk about at length in your book, the consumption paradox.

MATS ALVESSON
We all tend to assume that we become much more happy if we can consume more, that the consumption will fulfil our needs and meet our wishes, but it doesn't seem to work like that.  So we invest more and more hope and more and more energy into consumption in order to create happiness, but the net effect of this seems to be close to zero.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So you refer to this as a vulgo-economy.  Can you give us some examples of that?

MATS ALVESSON
The basic assumption is that we have needs and wants and desires that we try to satisfy, but it doesn't really work like that.  A lot of efforts are being put into really persuading us to go for all this but it doesn't work. So a lot of the consumption efforts are more or less in vain, while we desperately try to increase the happiness satisfaction of consumption, it becomes more and more absurd in a number of different ways.

JENNIFER MARTIN
I've mentioned the example of bottled water.  We could look at the use of Smartphones, couldn’t we?

MATS ALVESSON
I think that's a good example.  A telephone is mainly something that you can communicate with but it becomes also now a symbol for being extremely sophisticated, to impress your neighbours, to change it all the time and be ahead of other people around, making them perhaps envious and really show that you are somewhat better than other people.  You may feel like that but it's always at the expense of other people so you have a temporary happiness, but it's mainly because you are a bit ahead of other people whose unhappiness would be an outcome of your own efforts to be a bit ahead of them.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Now Mats, that goes to the heart of the theory that you're arguing in the book.  Can you explain how this measurement of satisfaction has shifted from what we have to how much more I have then everyone else?

MATS ALVESSON
Like I said, we have moved from being concerned with what is individually satisfying us to what is satisfying us in relation to the level that others have.  In economics there is talk about positional goods, so it's your relative position compared to others that is significant in terms of consumption, travelling, level of education, job titles and a lot of other conditions.  So from being mainly focused on non-positional items and stuff in life, the positionality or relativity compared to others, that becomes more and more significant as economic growth progresses.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Mats, you used the example of higher education to highlight what you call grandiosity and indeed a place that's full of illusionary tricks.  Can you explain this to us?

MATS ALVESSON
One would normally assume that wisdom, critical thinking, ability to reflect and so on would benefit from higher education.  This is the kind of substantive matter, basic rationale for higher education, but what's happened is that higher education has exploded to a tremendously large sector and it really looks good.  Polytechnics have changed into universities, all kinds of topics have become university disciplines. And you can get a good degree in almost anything from running a spa to beverage management to tourist science and so on.  This really looks good.  People assume that they can then receive qualified jobs benefiting from theoretical and intellectual knowledge and so on, but the problem is that it becomes increasingly empty because the content, the learning and the job opportunities are not at all in line with the expectations and the singling of this enormous university sector.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So you're saying as we are all striving to get smarter in the hope of getting a better job, which means better pay and a better life, that that is just not the trajectory, that it's not sustainable or possible?

MATS ALVESSON
Not on the level that we perhaps normally assume and that a lot of policy-makers think will be the case.  So of course some of all the people that get a higher education will get reasonably good jobs in line with education, but for an increasing part of the population that will not be the case.  So there will be enormous discrepancy between formal education and the lack of real substance in not all but many cases.  Then you also have the discrepancy in terms of where people are ending on the labour market and a lot of disappointments and frustrations.

JENNIFER MARTIN
You talk about the professionalisation of every job and you use hospitals as an interesting example.  So if you could talk us through what's been the consequence of nursing training becoming more academic?

MATS ALVESSON
Well I think that in many cases there are some mixed blessings.  Students get more theoretical knowledge and they think that status and job conditions, they will improve all these efforts to professionalise themselves.  But then the problem is that jobs, in many cases, they are more or less the same as previously and in most workplaces there is a competition for the really interesting, sophisticated, independent key jobs and a lot of activities that is more in terms of support and service and doing routine jobs and so on.  So I think it's a mixed blessing and one problem is that so many occupations they want to climb the status ladder and try to professionalise themselves, so you get a lot of competition about being in the spotlight or being better than others in terms of status and formal qualifications than professionalisation.  So at the end of the day it's difficult to increase status and position of everybody, so it's a bit like a zero-sum-game.

JENNIFER MARTIN
And looking at this ladder and the professionalisation of nursing, what impact has it actually had on registered nurses breaking through the barrier that separates them from doctors?

MATS ALVESSON
I know that in many places there are tensions and conflicts because nurses would like to have respect and their autonomy and have their own areas independent of physicians.  Physicians still think that they are the key operators in healthcare and in order to be as efficient as possible they need support. And so you have tensions.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Looking at the other side of the equation, Mats, can you talk us through the tensions that can happen with assistant nurses and registered nurses?

MATS ALVESSON
I read a dissertation from Sweden some time ago, but I think it's probably similar in Australia and in a lot of other countries, where the number of nurses increased and the number of assistant nurses decreased.  The assistant nurses felt that they had to do the same amount of work as before, with taking care of elderly and sick patients, helping them to the toilets, feeding them, taking care of their bodily needs and so on.  But they had to do twice as much as before because the nurses were not so interested in this kind of work because they felt that their profession and their work focus should be very much on the pure nursing side of things.  So a lot of tensions regarding the not so attractive work tended to dominate.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Yes, because in the occupation of nursing, I can imagine, having a tertiary degree doesn't matter when it comes to emptying a bedpan.

MATS ALVESSON
No, I guess that parts of the work are much in line with a tertiary degree education, but still a lot of work tasks are definitely not.

JENNIFER MARTIN
It's an excellent example, isn't it, because it combines both sides of it?  You've got the hard, practical, manual work and the more advanced caring side.

MATS ALVESSON
In the best of the worlds we could get rid of most manual work and then only more intellectual professional, sophisticated kind of work would prevail.  But the problem is that still in the economy and most parts of working life there are lots of activities that are quite routine and not in line with this grandiosity of increased higher education and 30, 40, 50 per cent of everybody having a university degree.

JENNIFER MARTIN
You're listening to Up Close, I'm Jennifer Martin.  We're talking about the nature of consumption in a post-affluent society with organisational theorist, Mats Alvesson.  You say a consumer culture generates narcissism, which is characterised by an unstable sense of self and intense efforts to fill that void with something such as expensive products.  What are the ramifications of this for us as a society?

MATS ALVESSON
I think that the basic problem is that we need to sell stuff.  The demand for a lot of products, education, mass media and so on today is relatively low in relationship to enormous offerings and surplus of production.  This calls for a lot of effort to sell.  This tends to fuel narcissism because you may feel that you become a grandiose person if you buy that or that product or take that or that education and buy into all these promises of a better life and satisfaction and so on.  The problem is that we get expansion of anticipations, the demands for the good life and then introduce tremendous discrepancy between all this fantastic stuff and reality.  One key element here is you fluctuate between a grandiose self and then the feeling of frustration and emptiness that follows when all these good things are not really delivered and your expectations and satisfactions are not being met.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Now is the knowledge society really such a straw man?  I mean surely it's in our nature to want more, to strive harder, to reach further?  How can that be bad and how can you stop it?

MATS ALVESSON
No, I think that knowledge society is an excellent idea and with higher education and more knowledge research and efforts for people to learn, I think that's a fantastically positive thing.  The problem is that large parts of the richer world are facing competition from China and India and other upcoming economies. And then you need to grab onto something to feel [the] promised improvements, and then knowledge society is the formula.  The problem is that very large parts of the economy and the working life is not really that knowledge intensive.  So it sounds really good and it's really appealing and really seductive, but you can overplay that card.  Then you introduce a bit of a myth in the understanding of what is the nature of contemporary society.  I think that we tend to fool ourselves to some degree if we put too much hope in knowledge society being the solution to problems with international competition and so on in the more advanced or richer countries in the world.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Is that what you mean when you say satisfaction in our consumption driven society is a zero-sum-game?

MATS ALVESSON
Well the zero-sum-game is that we may increase our status through consumption, through good education or through a good job title, but it's only worth something as long as others are not successful in doing the same.  So there is a zero-sum-game about the good things in life.  It's not a pure zero-sum, but that aspect, the quality tends to be increasingly dominant, so we have zero or small-sum games characterising very many sectors and very many parts of our lives.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Now can you talk to us about the gulf that you see between talk about leadership skills and actual management practice?

MATS ALVESSON
Yes, this is an area that we have done a lot of in-depth study, so we have looked at managers who are supposed to do leadership in their workplaces and then interviewed them, interviewed subordinates and made observations.  Most managers claim they do leadership, they coach people, they try to transform them through visions and missions and managing meanings and they work with strategic issues and everything like that.  All this sounds really nice and impressive, but if you look more carefully at what they are really doing, it's a lot of admin, they nag and try to flatter and argue with people and so on.  So these fantastically impressive notions of doing leadership, being a leader, not the manager, it sounds impressive but most managerial work is not at all in line with these grandiose notions of doing managerial leadership.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So Mats, I'm really interested to hear what you think our options are then to live a life with more meaning and substance.  Are there solutions?

MATS ALVESSON
Well I think it is tricky because a basic problem here is that the contemporary economy is very much a matter of trying to raise demands.  There is probably an over-production of goods, of mass media, of cultural activities, of higher education and so on.  Then the trick is to keep people occupied and regulation of demand is a key issue for the contemporary economy, because basically we need relatively little of everything that is being produced.  So the economy is very much geared to persuading us to want all these things.  So in that sense it's a basic force that tends to drive grandiosity and drive these hopes and efforts to produce better lives, to climb above everybody else.  What can we do about this?  Well I think that at the level of policy-making, I think one could do much more, for example in the area of higher education, to get back to substance and not just make all polytechnics into universities and encourage all occupational groups to become more and more professional.  I think that one could have clearer demands and focus much more on what is the output, what is the substance, what do people really learn here.  Higher education could do much more to go from image production to focus on substance alone.

JENNIFER MARTIN
Mats, can I ask you what you think a good life is?  What does a good life mean to you?

MATS ALVESSON
Well Freud was asked about that and Freud said to be able to love and maybe to work.  I think that genuine relations, a satisfying job that is meaningful, you actually know what you're doing and you're doing something valuable, I think that these are very important aspects about life.  So meaningfulness and that can be accomplished in many different ways, but I think that this is something that we should at least reflect upon and take seriously in how we try to live our lives, and not jump over to these seemingly easy solutions to boost your CV, to get a better title, to buy the iconic brand that looks really impressive and so on.  So be grounded in life and have a relatively clear view of what you are doing and what you stand for.

JENNIFER MARTIN
On that note, Mats, thank you so much for talking to us today.

MATS ALVESSON
Thanks very much for the interview, Jennifer.

JENNIFER MARTIN
You've been listening to Up Close and we've been talking with organisational theorist, Professor Mats Alvesson from Lund University, Sweden, about the nature of consumption in a post-affluent society.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia.  This episode was recorded on Tuesday 23 October 2012 and our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I'm Jennifer Martin.  Until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER 
You've been listening to Up Close.  For more information visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2012 the University of Melbourne.


show transcript | print transcript | download pdf