The Work of Consumption

Why Aren't We Paid?

How to Cite

Green, L. (2001). The Work of Consumption: Why Aren’t We Paid?. M/C Journal, 4(5).
Vol. 4 No. 5 (2001): Work
Published 2001-11-01

Russell Belk,in an amazing 1995 essay on consumption (where 22 of the 38 pages are references, demonstrating hyper-consumption in action), argues that the 1990s heralded a new understanding of consumer behaviour. In the shifting paradigm identified by Belk, the analytical focus of consumer behaviour research became translated from 'Economic/Psychological' to 'Sociological/Anthropological', and from a 'Focus on buying' to a 'Focus on consuming' (61). This made intuitive sense in a world of postmodern marketing (Brown), and it re-enforced an idea that had been put forward by Dallas Smythe that audiences are sold to advertisers . The value of an audience lies in its potential to consume, and Virginia Nightingale subsequently explored this dynamic in her argument that consumption is work:

"It is because of the relationship between advertising and television that watching television is work. Watching television is a leisure activity in the pursuit of which viewers are asked to lose themselves, to blur the distinctions between reality and fantasy. They are asked to forget that watching television is also work, to see television advertisements not as a continual reminder of the work of purchasing, but as entertainment. They are asked to believe that what they see on television is what they want to see, specially selected to please them." (33-4)

Nightingale had previously argued that consumption in the domestic context was not only work, but quintessentially women'swork:

Commercial television is an integral part of the modern shopping world. In this age of image advertising, it is from television that the meanings of brands are learned. If women learned to shop in the nineteenth century, they had to be taught to shop for others in the twentieth. The unpredictable woman of the nineteenth century had to be transformed into predictable, programmable 'Mum' one hundred years later. The branding of food commodities and the establishment of television as an efficient system of brand information assisted a change in the mode of address of the shopping world to women purchasers. In the cut-price world of the 50s and 60s seduction was out and value was in. In a shopping world of comparable brands, Mum has to learn not only the meaning, the lifestyle connotations of branded products from television advertising, but their meanings for the members of the family destined to consume her purchases (33).

This way of looking at the world although illuminating begged the question as to an appropriate definition of work. Why did watching television seem so much less like work than, say, typing an article, or working as a waiter? Staying alive breathing, metabolising requires work at some level; what differentiates the 'going to work' side of working: and how does this relate to a consumer society which (as Belk identifies) increasingly involves an emphasis upon consumption rather than production?

Greg Hearn, Tom Mandeville and David Anthony estimate that "consumption now accounts for about 60 per cent of GDP ... mass communication, advertising and the consumer economy form a nexus that is centrally implicated in the operation of Western societies" (104). They go on to argue that the "central assertion of postmodern views of consumption is that social identity can be interpreted as a function of consumption" (106). Citing Lunt and Livingstone, Hearn et al. suggest that "fuelled by their ability to modify and process the building blocks of identity (images, visual codes, phrases and ideas), our current mass media, via identity construction, have expanded consumption in advanced industrial societies" (107). Identity construction, however, is a given of existence it is impossible to live without some kind of identity, and impossible to adopt an identity in a vacuum, with no relationship to the social world in which the individual lives. Given that identity-construction is a necessity of existence, and will also necessarily reflect an individual's social practices and their consumption characteristics, can it be seen as 'work'? (And, if not, why not?) One way this problem can be investigated is through changes in work patterns in contemporary societies.

Among the most dramatic socio-economic developments of the past two generations has been the changing role of women in the workforce. Some women still in employment are members of the generation which, as recently as the 1960s, were obliged to surrender their jobs upon marriage. Many were subsequently re-employed on a casual basis, but others were unable to resume a career of any sort given that they now had 'family responsibilities' (even if that 'family responsibility' was their spouse alone). The reason behind the compulsory female resignations was the patriarchal view that it was the husband's role to provide financially for his wife. For a married woman to hold a job was akin to double dipping the job was there to support a woman who had no husband to support her; or for a man with a wife (and sometimes other family) to provide for.

When women successfully campaigned against this discriminatory practice, and later in favour of equal pay for equal work, the ultimate result was that the real wages of men fell. Two-income families do not earn twice a 'living' wage; they earn a living wage between them. The advent of equal pay for women means that only a small proportion of women (or men) have the choice of making domestic and community-based unwaged labour the focus of their daily life, without the effect of this choice being a much smaller financial engagement in consumer society.

The gender dimension to money-earning remains considerable, even in this age of equal opportunity legislation. In particular, the 'wages for housework' campaign has been all but lost over the past thirty years. Further, although it is now unlawful for women to receive less money than their male counterparts for equal work, women's average pay continues to lag significantly behind that of men (WEL). This is one way of demonstrating that traditional women's work tends to be less well paid than men's work. Nursing, teaching and office work all remain low-paid compared with executive occupations, although compulsory post-schooling study requirements might be higher in the female areas. And it is commonplace to note that in traditionally female occupations (like primary school teaching) although males might be out-numbered 5:1 it tends to be a man who gets promoted. (Less a case of the glass ceiling: more a case of the invisible escalator.)

In capitalist societies, the original source of monetary wealth lies in power the power to control labour/work for the profit of an individual other than the labourer. This is a hangover from feudal agrarianism, and a precursor to the information age (Bell). In all human society, power confers advantage, including the capacity to direct the work of others. While this was true of the feudal lord, the merchant prince and the early industrialist, it achieved its purest form with the introduction of monetary rewards for labour. Frederic Jameson (77) comments that:

"technology may well serve as adequate shorthand to designate that enormous properly human and anti-natural power of dead human labour stored up in our machinery, an alienated power, what Sartre calls the counterfinality of the practico-inert, which turns back on and against us in unrecognizable forms and seems to constitute the massive dystopian horizon of our collective as well as our individual praxis."

What Jameson says of technology in general would be equally true of the particular technology of money. Accumulated capital, and its constituent parts of coins, notes, currencies and data sets represents 'dead human labour', in the sense of work expended in the past in the production of goods and services. It is this stored human labour which buys the carrots, or the magazine subscription, and which represents an exchange for the time and energy that would have been required to grow the carrots, or produce the magazine. Similarly, the income paid to the carrot-grower, the journalist, the designer and the advertiser represents to them a distilled recompense for their work. Arguably, the energy that produced the labour for which one is paid is 'dead' energy controlled by another and exchanged for money.

At an individual level, the roles played in the personaeof a person earning money, or a person spending money (a common indication of consumption) are very different: with the role of the person earning money much more circumscribed. Joshua Meyrowitz (29-31) spends some time in explaining Goffman's analysis of the roles of the waiter, using metaphors from drama of front/back region/stage:

Waiters for example are in a front region when they serve people in a restaurant dining room. In the front region waiters are usually polite and respectful. Their appearance and manner is one of cleanliness and efficiency. They do not enter into the dinner conversations of restaurant patrons. They do not comment on their customers' eating habits or table manners. They rarely, if ever, eat while in the sight of patrons.

When waiters step from the dining room into the kitchen, however, they suddenly cross a line between the onstage and backstage areas. In the kitchen waiters are in an area which is hidden from the audience and they share this area with others who perform the same or similar roles vis-a-vis the audience. Here, then, waiters may make remarks to each other about the 'strange behaviour of the people at table seven', they may imitate a customer, or give advice to a 'rookie' on methods of getting big tips. In the kitchen food may be handled and discussed with somewhat less respect than in the dining room, and waiters may 'get out of costume' or sit in a sloppy position with their feet up on a counter...

We expect to be treated differently in a restaurant than in a doctor's office. We expect the doctor to appear confident, concerned, patient and professional and slightly superior. We expect a waitress to be efficient, respectful and nonintrusive. And we demand these differences in 'character' even if the waitress is a student earning her way through medical school.

This analysis indicates that where behaviour is related to money where a person is paid to fulfil a role; the production of the goods or services the behaviour is more constrained and circumscribed by the expectations of the employer/consumer. The behaviour of people who are paying for a service, whose intention is to consume, is the least constrained. It may be that Kerry Packer has awful table manners, but few restauranteurs would fail to be pleased to see him walking through their door.

At the level of the individual producer/consumer in consumer societies, money is seen to exert decisive control in the lives of workers. Is it possible to think of a better, less obviously coercive way to get people into cars, and onto freeways and clocking into the office on such a regular, reliable basis: other than their being paid to do so? American academic Camille Paglia does not think so: "Capitalism, whatever its problems, remains the most efficient economic mechanism yet devised to bring the highest quality of life to the greatest number... Because I have studied the past, I know that, in America and under capitalism, I am the freest woman in history" (Menand 27).

Paglia obviously considers herself sufficiently well paid. Since access to money limits access to goods, to some experiences and to travel, money is a potent incentive to behave in a way that is rewarded by society. Even so, not everyone is able to exhibit the work behaviour that social systems are most inclined to reward. The stresses of unemployment lie in its curtailing of options; in its implications for health, housing, leisure, and educational opportunities; and in the fact that the need to get more money monopolises the time of the unemployed.

The old adage 'time is money' is only partly true. In some respects the two share an inverse relationship: 'free' time is inversely related to money. For the vast majority of the population, the opportunity to convert work/labour into money significantly limits the time available in which to enjoy consuming the rewards for their labours. When people have 'free' time, it is frequently because the opportunity to earn money by the production of goods and services is absent. Consequently possible consumption activities are also severely limited.

There are no hard and fast rules in Jameson's late capitalist society, but the general case might be that we are paid to produce goods, services and information through our controlled work, while consumption is generally constructed as a voluntary activity. It is partly that voluntariness which implicates consumption in identity construction, makes it an expression of individual difference, and renders it potentially pleasurable. Arguably, however, the voluntary nature of consumption together with the impossibility of notconsuming prevents it from being categorised unambiguously as 'work'.

The relationship of work to money helps explain why it may be work to watch television, but it's a different kind of work from that performed at the Coles check-out. Identity-construction may be a major consumer project using raw materials provided by the mass media, but it is not work we're paid to do. No-one else is prepared to use their stored labour to recompense us for our everyday work as non-professional television viewers, or for our project of self-individuation as expressed through the production of our personal identity.

Author Biography

Lelia Green