How the Joneses change with age, or how I use my quantum physics book to show off

An example of simulated data modelled for the ...

I was recently reading an article about Higgs Boson, and irritated by the fact that I wasn’t sure I entirely understood what was going on, decided that I needed to purchase a book about quantum physics. I’ve been reading it on the train on the way into work.

Reading such a book in public has pros and cons. One pro is that it makes me feel pretty good when I get my book out of my bag and open it up. Yep, I’m reading about really complicated things. Anyone who catches sight of a page will know it’s pretty complex stuff because there are diagrams of waves and electrons and chapter headings like “the structure of atoms”. No, I don’t need a fancy Kindle to hide what I’m reading. Check. Me Out. One con is that understanding it all really requires my full attention, and with half my brain silently crowing at everyone else on the train, that isn’t really happening. One might say that the cloud of smug surrounding me is obscuring my reading ability.

Some people have a similar issue with cars: having a nice car is OK, having a nicer car than everyone else is great. With me, having a good book is OK, having a book that paints me as an intellectually superior being to my fellow-passengers is intoxicating. And intoxicated, as I say, is not a great state to be in to understand quantum physics, although it’s not a bad state for managing to convince yourself that you’ve understood it.

There is a fairly large body of work all pointing to the fact that people really care about how well they’re doing compared to other people. Whether they’re earning more money, got a bigger car, or a nicer house, or more exciting holidays. Some studies suggest that people would actually prefer a situation where they had less income, as long as it meant that they had more than anyone else. No one wants to be at the bottom of the rankings. But does this attitude change over the course of people’s lives?

Economists Alpaslan Akay and Peter Martinsson looked at data on subjective well-being from regular surveys conducted in Germany and Britain, as well as designing their own study with Swedish adults. They found that attitudes appear to change over people’s lives.

You might think that age brings perspective about what matters most for the happiness of the soul, and a greater ambivalence towards material goods. In fact, according to this study, people become more concerned about their relative income and consumption as they get older. Is this something to do with the process of ageing or is it that different generations have different attitudes to life depending on when they were brought up? It isn’t entirely clear, but this study seems to suggest that it could be a bit of both.

But there is one reason why young people might be less concerned about relative income, and that’s if they see the higher incomes of some people as something that they can aspire to and one day achieve.  By contrast, after a long while languishing halfway up the career ladder, perhaps some dreams start to look less realistic.

Clearly it also depends on what your reference group is, i.e. who you tend to compare yourself to. On a train of sleepy commuters reading free newspapers (more pretty pictures than text!), my quantum physics book gives me a head start.

The full paper is here.

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