Consumers left hungry for meaning

Consumerisation’s spread to all aspects of life and work leaves a hollow feeling, finds Cary Cooper

August 8, 2013

We live, argues Mats Alvesson, in an increasingly consumer-orientated society, where substance has been subsumed to branding, “looking good”, media friendliness and the use of trendy jargon. The success of individuals, groups and organisations, he contends, is based on packaging rather than anything substantive: “The brand is often more crucial than the actual product, and the CV is more important than expertise and ability…The ambition is to put a gilt edge on life by applying attractive indicators that often have no or little substance.”

As a psychologist, I expected to have trouble with the sociological orientation of The Triumph of Emptiness, but it began to grow on me as I read, forcing me to reflect on many aspects of our consumer-based society, on the shift in higher education away from scholarship to metrics, and on a workplace that has become less loyal, more short-termist and lacking the kind of leadership the future requires. These three themes are the book’s primary concern, and in the introduction Alvesson begins to train his focus on what he calls “zero-sum games, grandiosity and illusion tricks”. When I first saw the table of contents, I assumed that these were three unrelated elements. But as I moved through the book, I could see the logic and essence of his thesis, and how the “illusion tricks” (“declining interest in substance and a greater interest in conveying images and ideas that give the impression of something positive”) permeate the changes he discusses.

Chapters on consumption explore the shortcomings of affluence and what Alvesson terms the “consumption paradox” (as we become more affluent, we become less satisfied). This is a similar argument to the Easterlin paradox (named for the economist Richard Easterlin), which draws on income and happiness data and suggests that above a certain level of income, life satisfaction stabilises or declines. The observation is not new: as early as 1853, Henry David Thoreau wrote: “How prompt we are to satisfy the hunger and thirst of our bodies; how slow to satisfy the hunger and thirst of our souls!”

Succeeding chapters consider how higher education has become a vehicle for jobs and growth, rather than for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. The suggestion is that higher education institutions are more interested in rankings and reputation, and attracting students and getting them into jobs, than in increasing those students’ intellectual firepower. Moreover, teaching takes a back seat to reputation via research.

Alvesson also explores organisational structures, occupations and leadership. The point made here is that workplaces are packaging themselves as being something they are not, not only to the outside world but even to their own employees; at the same time, a growing focus on professionalisation persuades people to pursue only high-status jobs, ignoring less glamorous but socially essential work.

Finally, Alvesson looks at leadership, where the concept of “grandiosity” comes into close focus. He suggests that “expanding the leadership industry gives a somewhat beautified picture of relations and practices referred to as leadership…[In] transformational, authentic, Superleadership and other impressive forms…the leadership ideal is espoused rather than enacted.” Leadership should instead be about achieving things through others; as Lao Tzu wrote, “a leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, people will say, ‘we did it ourselves’.” As an occupational psychologist, I found these chapters particularly apposite.

This is a well-written, powerful book that makes you think and reflect about some of the key issues of our time. You couldn’t ask for more.

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