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Why the Age of Hyper Superficiality Makes People Desperately Unhappy

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The aim of the game is to become rich; how you get there doesn’t matter

Winning in society is all about having the most money. If you have the most money, you can buy the best house, the best cars, the best clothes. You can travel first class, stay in five-star hotels and visit the best restaurants. But no one stops to think, has this person become rich by making a positive social contribution? With such a superficial goal, that’s beside the point. Here is the paradox that lies at the heart of the age of hyper superficiality. Everyone is in a ruthless rat race to get a step ahead, but more often than not, the winners win by leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, all the while the goal leaves everyone desperately unhappy. 

It doesn’t seem to be the most logical social goal, particularly when you consider the whole point of the economy is to produce and then distribute the goods and services needed to provide for people’s needs. By doing so, it creates shared prosperity that allows each person to thrive. 

In the age of hyper superficiality, the idea we should aspire to create shared prosperity has blown away in the wind. The goal of making the most money means what I do to make that money, and my social contribution has little importance. Perversely, those who earn the most tend to have the least benefit to society. 

The New Economics Foundation makes this point in A Bit Rich, which assesses how much people earn against the wider social contribution work creates. In the City of London, bankers earn million-pound bonuses. Their roles provide them with an elevated social position which demands respect. Yet, for every pound they generate, they destroy £7 in social value. 

Advertising executives are visionary creatives who can be awarded millions for their ability to create pioneering advertising campaigns that entice you to buy stuff. But successful advertising often works by inducing strong feelings of dissatisfaction. For every £1 of value they generate, they destroy £11 of social value.

Childcare, meanwhile, is fundamental to the broader functioning of society. It is essential because, in many cases, both parents now have to work to make ends meet. The household is excluded from the market, so ‘being a parent’ isn’t considered socially valuable. If anything, being a stay-at-home parent is often vilified and questioned; the association is that the person is a lazy scrounger, surviving on benefits. Yet raising children is one of the most vital roles there is. For every £1 they earn, childcare workers create between £7 and £9.50 in social value. 

Meanwhile, hospital cleaners are crucial in maintaining high hygiene standards and protecting against infectious outbreaks, yet they are underpaid and undervalued. For every £1 they are paid, it’s estimated they add £10 in social value.

Those who create high social value are rewarded the least, and those who suck value out of society are rewarded the most. This weird dynamic exists because people aren’t paid based on how much social value the role contributes but rather how much wealth is generated from that role.

Reward mechanisms align to roles that help increase GDP. Bankers and advertisers fit that category. The best minds and best talent are often drawn to roles that pay the most, in this case, jobs that have destructive social consequences. Essential workers, meanwhile, are underpaid because their roles don’t add value to GDP.

Nurses’ pay illustrates the point. According to the Office for National Statistics, the average wage for a nurse in 2021 was £35,554, just above the median wage in the UK. But when we consider their vital role in maintaining the health of the population, nurses are chronically underpaid. This is understandable, though, because rather than generating wealth, health care is a cost to the government. Nursing may have high social value and be integral to the functioning of society, but the occupation serves no purpose in generating wealth.

This perverse dynamic is at the heart of the age of hyper superficiality and is the result of what David Graeber describes as bullshit jobs. The essence of a bullshit job is that;

“If the position were eliminated, it would make no discernible difference in the world.)

Graeber, David. 2018. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, p. 2

If anything, society would be better off if these jobs didn’t exist because they reward predatory behaviour that have ruinous social impacts. But while bullshit jobs tend to add the least social value;

“Those who work bullshit jobs are often surrounded by honor and prestige; they are respected as professionals, well paid, and treated as high achievers.”

Graeber, David. 2018. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, p. 15

They may well know have destructive social consequences, but who cares? The jobs pay well, so it stands to reason that the people who earn all that money should be socially respected. 

What makes the aspirational goal of being the richest so odd is that it doesn’t translate into increased happiness or social wellbeing. It may seem counterintuitive, but in The High Price of Materialism, the psychologist Tim Kasser argues that beyond the point of meeting the basic needs of food and shelter, increasing incomes “do little to improve everyone’s wellbeing and happiness.”

The reason why is that if everyone’s income increases, then you don’t feel any better off than you did before because self-worth is defined by how we compare to others in society. But in a consumer society, everyone has a desire to keep up with the pack, and the way to do that is to buy the stuff everyone else is buying. To ‘look the part’, even if you can’t afford to do so. 

What makes the social goal even stranger is that there is only so much wealth. For some to have far too much, others must have too little to meet their basic needs. The goal translates into rising inequality because it’s easy for those that have too much to siphon more wealth into their hands. Meanwhile, the rest of society struggles to make ends meet. 

Our reward mechanisms are twisted upside down. Rather than celebrate those who are integral to the fabric of society, we celebrate those who have a ruinous impact on the social fabric and live lives that revolve around themselves. Rampant individualism feeds into this. Each person is encouraged to be self-serving, so it’s no surprise that the qualities exhibited in society revolve around greed, selfishness, ruthlessness, a lack of compassion, mistrust, envy, and jealousy. Behaviours that are most likely to see you ‘win’.

It’s hard to imagine these character traits would be associated with a successful society, yet here we are. Everyone is chasing a dream that leaves society worse off. It doesn’t seem all that logical, and yet wealth and the power it creates are intoxicating. Those that have it want more of it, and those that don’t want to join the party. So long as the illusion that happiness can be bought is sustained, society will continue on its death spiral towards decay and mutual unhappiness.