The Consumer: Land of Too Plenty

by , Nov 3, 2008, 3:47 PM
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The Consumer:Land of Too Plenty-Paul PartonWe're working too hard. And by "we" I don't mean my colleagues and me at the Brooklyn Brothers, I mean the collective we. The people of America. We're working too hard. This strikes me as I sit on a JetBlue flight from LA to New York after a night of focus groups, balancing my Mac on the rather shaky seat-back table in order to meet a deadline I've already had to extend once.

There's no great revelation in it, of course. I'm sure you're all quite conscious of the fact that you seem to be working harder than you were a few years ago. But there's a natural inclination to put it down to the fact that we're advancing in years and careers, and that, as we grow older and more senior, we naturally have to put in a little more effort. But when you look beyond the anecdotes, the facts are quite striking.

The average American today works longer hours than a medieval peasant. We're more stressed out, run down and overworked than we have ever been in history.

A friend, the anthropologist and neuroscientist Dr. Bob Deutsch, refers to our predicament as "living in the land of too." We are in a society that has become too fast, too complex and too competitive. He calls it the most significant cultural shift in the past two decades. And by way of illustration, he quotes a 46-year-old woman in Kansas City: "Things are always advancing, getting better, sometimes for the worse."

Interestingly, less technologically advanced - and more vacation-oriented - countries in Europe enjoyed higher productivity growth than the United States in 14 of the 19 years between 1981 and 2000 (the years in which the personal computer came into dominance). Australians take five weeks of vacation time every year, compared to the two or three weeks Americans get, and they outperformed us in productivity, too.

In fact, U.S. workers gave back more than 438 million vacation days in 2006 - worth about $60.5 billion, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics and a survey by expedia.com. In 2007, Americans gave back another 460 million days of unused vacation time to their employers, worth $65.5 billion. [Ed. note: That's 1.26 million years' worth of unused vacation days, just in 2007. Feel free to call in sick tomorrow.]

It's having a serious effect on our health. Researchers at SUNY found that regular vacations lowered risk of death by almost 20 percent. A separate study revealed that women who took two or more vacations a year cut their risk of a fatal heart attack in half. "Taking a vacation is a serious health issue that should not be ignored. It could save your life," says Dr. Alan Muney, chief medical officer of Oxford Health Plans.

We are so connected to our work that we've become allergic to taking time off. Dutch researchers found that as many as
3 percent of all workers could be affected by "leisure syndrome," the signs of which include cold- or flu-like symptoms such as headaches and intense fatigue.

But what does all this have to do with media and brands? Well, I saw another brilliant statistic last week: The gaming industry is now larger than Hollywood and the recording industry combined.

Here's why I think that happened. We're working too hard. We need a break. But we're not taking physical breaks any more because we can't find time for vacation. So instead of physical breaks, we're taking virtual breaks - seeking out entertainment in any form we can get it. Hollywood is still pretty big. So is the recording industry. It's just that the gaming industry is bigger. Network TV is still big, too, it's just that cable TV is bigger. We're not sacrificing one form of entertainment for another, we're simply adding more. The average American still watches 40 hours of TV a week. The average white-collar worker plays around online for 2.4 hours a day. It's not movies or gaming. It's movies and gaming. Not Internet or TV. Internet and TV.

We need to be entertained because it's the only escape we have left. And that's an opportunity for brands. Because the brands that entertain their consumers are going to do better than those that don't. There's a clear economic benefit for entertaining brands. Shopping for them is going to seem like fun, rather than work, and more work is the last thing any of us need.

Paul Parton is the brand-planning partner at The Brooklyn Brothers. (paul@thebrooklynbrothers.com)

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