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"Keeping up with the Joneses" is an idiom in many parts of the English-speaking world referring to the comparison to one's neighbor as a benchmark for social class or the accumulation of material goods. To fail to "keep up with the Joneses" is perceived as demonstrating socio-economic or cultural inferiority.
The phrase was popularized when a comic strip of the same name was created by cartoonist Arthur R. "Pop" Momand. The strip debuted in 1913, distributed by Associated Newspapers. The strip ran in American newspapers for 26 years, and was eventually adapted into books, films, and musical comedies. The "Joneses" of the title were neighbors of the strip's main characters, unseen characters often spoken of but never actually seen in person. In the 1936 book, The Next 100 Years, Clifford C. Furnas noted: "Keeping with the Joneses" descended from the spreading of the peacock's tail.
American humorist Mark Twain made an allusion to Smith and Jones families with regard to social custom in the essay, "Corn Pone Opinions", written in 1901 but first published in 1923. "The outside influences are always pouring in upon us, and we are always obeying their orders and accepting their verdicts. The Smiths like the new play; the Joneses go to see it, and they copy the Smith verdict."
An alternative explanation is that the Joneses of the saying refer to the wealthy family of Edith Wharton's father, the Joneses. The Jones were a prominent New York family with substantial interests in Chemical Bank as a result of marrying the daughters of the bank's founder, John Mason. The Jones and other rich New Yorkers began to build country villas in the Hudson Valley around Rhinecliff and Rhinebeck, which had belonged to the Livingstons, another prominent New York family to whom the Jones were related. The houses became grander and grander. In 1853 Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones built a 24-room gothic villa called Wyndcliffe described by Henry Winthrop Sargent in 1859 as being very fine in the style of a Scottish castle, but by Edith Wharton, Elizabeth's niece, as a gloomy monstrosity. The villa reportedly spurred more building, including a house by William B. Astor (married to a Jones cousin), a phenomenon described as "keeping up with the Joneses". The phrase is also associated with another of Edith Wharton's aunts, Mary Mason Jones, who built a large mansion at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, then undeveloped. Wharton portrays her affectionately in The Age of Innocence as Mrs. Manson Mingott, "calmly waiting for fashion to flow north".
A slightly different version is that the phrase refers to the grand lifestyle of the Joneses who by the mid-century were numerous and wealthy, thanks to the Chemical Bank and Mason connection. It was their relation Mrs William Backhouse Astor, Jr who began the "patriarchs balls", the origin of "The Four Hundred", the list of the society elite who were invited. By then the Joneses were being eclipsed by the massive wealth of the Astors, Vanderbilts and others but the four hundred list published in 1892 contained many of the Jones and their relations—old money still mattered.
The philosophy of "keeping up with the Joneses" has widespread effects on some societies. According to this philosophy, conspicuous consumption occurs when people care about their standard of living in relation to their peers. The term was re-introduced in 1976 when an article about parenting included it and has remained a commercial and cultural watchword ever since.
According to Roger Mason, "the demand for status goods, fueled by conspicuous consumption, has diverted many resources away from investment in the manufacture of more material goods and services in order to satisfy consumer preoccupations with their relative social standing and prestige".
Social status once depended on one's family name; however, the rise of consumerism in the United States gave rise to social mobility. With the increasing availability of goods, people became more inclined to define themselves by what they possessed and the subtle quest for higher status accelerated. Conspicuous consumption and materialism have been an insatiable juggernaut ever since. The desire to increase one's position in the social hierarchy is responsible for much of the social mobility in America. The upward mobility over the past few decades in America is due in part to the large number of women joining the labor force. U.S. women have slowly and steadily increased their participation in the labor force from 46% of all women (age 16+) in 1974 to almost 60% in 2004.
Even in countries where the desire for upward social mobility via consumerism and conspicuous consumption is strong, the poor may not be able to better themselves. Doug Henwood observed that "both the US and British poor were more likely to stay poor for a long period of time: almost half of all people who were poor for one year stayed poor for five or more years, compared with 30% in Canada and 36% in Germany. And, despite claims of great upward mobility in the United States, 45% of the poor rose out of poverty in a given year, compared with 45% in the UK, 53% in Germany, and 56% in Canada. And of those who did exit poverty, 15% of Americans were likely to make a round trip back under the poverty line, compared with 16% in Germany, 10% in the UK, and 7% in Canada". The level of income inequality in a country has an inverse relationship with social mobility according to the authors of The Spirit Level.
Inability to "Keep up with the Joneses" might result in dissatisfaction, even for people whose status is high.
One area in which "living above one's means" has caused negative social effects is that of credit card use. In the first quarter of 2002, total credit debt was $660 billion. By 2005, the total credit card debt had increased to $735 billion. America's average credit card debt in 2007 was $8,400 per household. By the end of 2007, consumer debt in America had risen to $2.5 trillion.
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