Aristotle made the ancient distinction between ‘needs’ — objects that we must have to survive, such as food, shelter, clothes and other essentials — and `wants’, which are those things we want to make us feel superior to others. Over the years, money has tended to be spent on wants as people try to distinguish themselves from each other. Indeed, for years money was the ultimate want and for many people it still is.
Because only a privileged few could drive around in convertibles or holiday in St Moritz, those people with cash threw the stuff around like confetti. Thus, for centuries, wants have superseded needs on the social pecking order.
However, boom years have a strange effect on that order. This column has argued that a financial boom, in which money cascades down on a country like Ireland, rocks the social status quo to its foundations.
A society with loads of people and no cash — as Ireland was up to 1994 (evidenced by low house prices, unemployment and emigration) — is quite different to a society with loads of cash and not enough people (as measured by soaring house prices, full employment and immigration).
In pre-1995 Ireland, wants beat needs hands down in determining where you fitted into the scheme of things.
All this has changed with the boom and there is no better time than Christmas to observe the subtle social fingerprints in the spending patterns of the nation.
In the past, when cash was scarce, spending patterns told us who had real cash as opposed to those who were on speaking terms with a pawnbroker.
Now with personal borrowing increasing at 20 per cent per month year on year, available cash no longer distinguishes the middle classes from the nouveau riche.
Yet, what people choose to spend their money on gives the game away and, as we are the ultimate nation of snobs, people’s sensitivity to status spending is particularly acute.
There has been a noticeable change in the needs and wants pecking order, particularly among the genteel classes.
Whereas the lads in the construction sector, who have made a recent fortune, can cruise around in their flashy cars, waving minute mobile phones and wearing designer clobber, real snobs have found an intriguing way of distinguishing themselves.
They might think of it as “virtuous shopping” for, of course, these needs aren’t really needs at all. (As Lear said, “Reason not the need — our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous”.)
It is no longer kosher to spend lavish amounts of cash on wants, but it is fine to do so on needs — things of virtue. Aristotle would be amazed at this role reversal.
The middle classes or the genteel élites think it is fine to spend €15,000 on a kitchen, but it’s the height of vulgarity to splash out €10,000 on a plasma TV. A Jacuzzi is for philistines, yet an Aga is seen by the snobs to be tasteful.
To buy a high-spec BMX bike — associated with exercise — is not only fine, but actively virtuous. That’s why we see entire families on `his and hers’ mountain bikes with matching lurid helmets.
On the other hand, a flashy speedboat — the definition of 1970s wealth — is totally passé. Therefore, a tool such as a bike or an Aga is kosher, while a mere plaything like a sound system is trashy. The very name `sports utility vehicle’ denotes activity, even though most of the SUV drivers I’ve seen wouldn’t know a game of five-a-side from a kick in the head.
These changed spending patterns are again the result of the explosion of cash in society. What’s the point in having loads of flashy, cashy goods when everyone else has the same?
This change has coincided with two factors that will dictate shopping for the next generation.
The first factor is that our populations in the West are getting older and healthier.
The second factor is that as we get physically healthier we will put much more emphasis on fighting outward signs of ageing.
Both of these factors will revolutionise shopping habits.
The ageing population implies that the key shopping age will be people aged 40 and over. Advertisers spend so much time targeting the young market, yet people under 25 have no money. The real cash is with people in their middle youth, which is anywhere between 45 and 65.
Over the coming years, this important group will feel much healthier, fitter and will distinguish themselves from their lessers by their physical state, the firmness of their tummies, the fullness of their lips, thickness of hair and so on.
Even today we can see the difference between trailer trash on Jerry Springer with their spare tyres, tight perms, double chins and yellow teeth and the well-heeled, slender, genteel folk on highbrow talkshows.
The falling birth rate will put even more cash in the pockets of the new spending locomotive of the economy.
As the movement continues toward spending more on needs than wants, excellent physique will become the ultimate possession.
A good, healthy figure at 50 will be the most prized commodity of all. It will also allow the ultimate want (beauty) to become the ultimate need (health) and, as such, it will be the ultimate consumer good for the middle classes.
Because, it is socially acceptable to spend on `health’ — as distinct from cosmetic, fabricated and bought `beauty’ — we will throw more and more money at `natural’ this and `natural’ that.
Expect an explosion of goods from places that are instantly associated with health and nature. For example, I predict an avalanche of all things Scandinavian. Scandinavia: the home of everything pure, sleek, clean and earthy.
In our Scandinavian interiors, we will eat Scandinavian yoghurts, washed down with bottles of pure water from Arctic springs.
We will apply Eskimo lotions culled from the gall bladders of unpronounceable fish that live in the deep fjords off Norway and go on weekend nature trips to the volcanic pools of Iceland.
The deep irony is that it could have been us. We had the monopoly on all things natural a few years ago. But we pissed it all away in our filthy boom, our countryside puckered with landfills, our roads cluttered with SUVs and our beauty spots blighted by cultural cash registers otherwise known as interpretative centres.
In the coming years, all things Irish — synonymous with get rich quick, mass-produced tosh — will be abandoned by the Irish élite in the ongoing desperate attempt to distinguish ourselves from the pack.