We all have deep human needs—for belonging, for autonomy, for creative expression, for safety and security. But modern life can make it a real challenge to get those needs met in meaningful ways. Instead, we’re offered products with flashy marketing messages. Kitchen gadgets, social media platforms, clothing, personal care products, and many others offer to help us live our best lives. Financial and educational products promise a greater sense of security and autonomy. But do these commodities really satisfy our needs? Or do they merely stave off the hunger a little longer?
Something peculiar is happening to my clothes.
They’re wearing out.
The cotton has worn thin, the stitching has come undone in places, and the colors have faded.
When I first noticed a few pieces of clothing looking a bit worn, I was disappointed. But when it became a pattern, I wondered why many of my clothes were on their last legs.
The reason? Well, I’ve had them for four or five years and wear them at least weekly. Most of them do double-duty as daytime wear and workout wear. In other words, I earned those holes and faded colors.
It also dawned on me that I’ve rarely noticed clothes wearing out before because I used to purchase new clothes at a much faster rate. I’d throw things into the thrift store donations pile before they ever had the chance to wear out. But my wardrobe churn has slowed dramatically in recent years.
I stopped traveling for work so much in 2018 or so. Without getting on a plane ten or 12 times a year or speaking on stages as often, I didn’t feel the urge to update my look as often. Then, when the pandemic hit in 2020, I pretty much stopped shopping for clothes. It’s not that I didn’t purchase new items as I needed them, but my desire for new clothes all but dried up. Since I wasn’t out in public all the time, I was far less concerned about whether what I wore helped me fit in. And essentially, my behavior hasn’t changed since March 2020. So it’s no wonder the clothes I purchased in 2018 or 2019 are starting to show their age.
One of the ways I cope with my social anxiety is through the clothes I wear. And one of the ways I mask as an autistic person is by striving to match what I wear to what those in the group I’m trying to signal my belonging to. For me, picking an outfit isn’t about expressing myself, it’s about expressing my relation to others in ways so legible that any social awkwardness I bring to the situation can be dismissed. When I perceive myself failing at this, I can spiral into a meltdown or shutdown really quickly. In fact, I will not attend an event that I don’t know how to dress for. For my own mental well-being, I can’t afford to guess.
Very early in life, I learned to substitute my deeply human need for belonging with shopping. I consumed my way to an ersatz social acceptance. The clothes I wear, of course, can’t actually stand in for feeling accepted. So it always felt like I was teetering on the edge of my social circles. I had to expend more and more energy (and money) on maintaining my self-imposed illusion.
The last few years have given me the chance to step back and figure out what was really going on. And in that time, I wore some holes in my favorite shirts and stretched out the straps of all my sports bras.
This is the final installment in The Economics Of series. I’ll explore needs and wants—both material and immaterial—and the socio-economic forces that shape them. We’ll look at how needs and wants play out in terms of consumption and how needs and wants play out in relationships. Plus, I talked to Mara Glatzel, the author of the new book Needy, about accepting your neediness and getting your needs filled.
In this article:
Read more in The Economics of Series: on decision-making, information, working together, cash flow, attention (and part 2), and ideas.
Plus, hear the whole series on the What Works podcast.
You’ve probably heard the term “trickle-down economics.” It’s a phrase of art used to criticize the Reagan administration’s economic policy, which aimed to cut taxes on the rich and corporations. Then, those at the top of the economic food chain would invest more into the economy, creating jobs, raising wages, and catalyzing growth. Their ballooning wealth would trickle down to the lower classes over time.
Spoiler alert: that didn’t work.
While it seems excess wealth doesn’t actually trickle down, something else does: our consumption habits.
In a 2016 paper titled “Trickle-Down Consumption,” Marianne Bertrand and Adair Morse document how middle-class households tend to spend a greater percentage of their income when they come into contact with households that have a higher income and higher consumption level. It’s another way of saying “keeping up with the Joneses”—but with an emphasis on the higher income and spending habits of the Jones family.
“We know from psychology that status comparisons are local and upward-looking,” explains economist Till Van Treeck. Our tendency is to look around at our friends and neighbors and notice those who have higher status and higher incomes. Then, we compare their homes, families, clothing, etc., to our own. As we’re exposed to households with higher incomes and higher spending on positional goods, we feel pressure to keep up as a way of reinforcing our own status.
This effect is so strong that it can cause us to choose to spend more on positional goods (i.e., those that convey status) and less on non-positional goods. We might choose to spend more on clothes or a house and forego saving for retirement or protecting our leisure time. If all the “cool kids” are wearing a particular brand, I will also wear that brand to signal my coolness. And I’ll purchase that brand even at the expense of non-positional goods which might better meet my needs or result in a more stable economic position.
Rapidly growing wealth inequality has supercharged this effect, too.
“Because the share of income going to the top 1% increased so much in the United States since the early 1980s … the upper middle class began to work longer hours, save less, and go increasingly into debt,” adds Van Treeck.
Bertrand and Morse’s research shows that food away from home, housing, personal care, clothing, and jewelry are the consumption categories that go up the most with exposure to higher incomes. It’s the kind of “conspicuous consumption” that Thorstein Veblen described all the way back in 1899. Veblen noticed that wealthy people consumed certain products and services as a way of signaling their socioeconomic status. These goods were in higher demand among the rich precisely because their prices were high. Goods that signal status are conspicuous by their nature.
There was a time, before the rise of the middle class and the proliferation of consumer credit in the middle of the 20th century, one could assume that having basic economic needs met was a prerequisite for purchasing positional consumer goods. The conspicuous consumer had food on the table, a roof over their head, and a fair amount of financial security. Positional goods, therefore, not only signaled one’s belonging to a particular group or status but economic freedom and autonomy itself.
Further, before the internet, exposure to wealthy households and their consumption habits was limited. But with the internet generally and social media specifically, we’re exposed to conspicuous consumption on an hourly basis. Moreover, it’s never been easier to perform wealth through our self-presentation and lifestyle curation. And this can lead to a sort of existential angst about our relative position in society.
Consumer habits that were once the exclusive purview of the wealthy become seen as ubiquitous and commonplace. If “everyone” has something and we don’t, that sends a message to our subconscious that our relative class status is in jeopardy. We assume that everyone performing wealth online has their financial ducks in a row and their basic needs met—even when that is far from the truth.
We learn to trade economic security and non-positional goods for the stuff and experiences that will help us maintain the seeming status of our peers—even if that means going without the non-positional goods that might better meet our needs.
So are we all a bunch of status-hungry conspicuous consumers?
No. Not hardly. Increasingly, positional goods are necessary for participating in economic life.
For example, conservative commentators often decry that financially disadvantaged people have smartphones or big-screen TVs. However, a smartphone is hardly a luxury item at this point. It’s actually a pretty frugal way to access the internet, manage caregiving responsibilities, and stay in touch with your boss, who might call you into work at any moment. They’re also devices that many gig workers rely on for their primary source of income.
Even televisions are devices that mediate political, economic, and social life. They’re a key way to keep up with what’s going on in the world and the culture we exist in. And I don’t know if you’ve been to the electronics department at Target lately but all TVs are big-screen TVs in 2023.
Maybe overspending on positional goods is less of a personal failing—a la Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey—and more of a cultural and economic system that turns status into a prerequisite for sufficient participation.
As the valance of positional goods and their promise of performative financial security extends, we’ve learned to accept these products and services as an adequate substitute for real social and economic needs. We’ve accepted that we need to dress for the job we want instead of the job we have. We’re encouraged to start shopping whenever there’s a hiccup in the economy. We’ve internalized the message that buying stuff solves big problems—like climate change, oppression, and community harm.
When shopping becomes a stand-in for the needs of society, it’s no wonder that we’re quick to assume that consuming positional goods will meet our individual needs, too.
We’ve learned to relate to meeting our needs like swiping a credit card—a transaction that needs to be paid back in the future with interest. And many of us have learned how to go without some of our basic needs to invest in the stuff that makes us appear put together and successful on Instagram.
Economic Forces At Work
I think it’s instructive to look at this bait-and-switch between consumer goods and deep psychosocial needs through two extremely influential thinkers: Karl Marx and Milton Friedman.
In some of his earliest writing, the 1844 Manuscripts, Karl Marx collects and distills both the thinking of early political economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo and also those critical of the status quo. In the process, he documents what he believed to be the true purpose of production under capitalism: profit. Marx characterizes human beings—and specifically our labor—as a commodity under capitalism. As such, he thought capital saw labor as a tool for producing more capital rather than as the creative work of differentiated individuals to produce useful goods.
In the capitalist system, it doesn’t matter how many workers a particular company maintains or the working conditions it creates, or even the general usefulness of the products it employs people to make.
What matters to capital is “how much interest it brings in, the sum-total of the annual savings.”
In other words, profit is what matters—and all decisions will be made to support greater profit rather than the welfare of individual workers, consumers, or society at large.
Put a pin in that for now.
Fast forward about 120 years, and hop on an international flight from Paris to Chicago. Now, it’s 1962, and economist Milton Friedman has just published Capitalism and Freedom. The book covers a broad range of topics.
But the central theme of Friedman’s argument is that free markets are the best way to organize and coordinate our many economic activities.
And really, all activities are economic activities of one kind or another. He proposes doing away with public education and replacing it with a voucher system. He argues that, in capitalism, discrimination is expensive—so there’s a market incentive not to discriminate. Therefore, regulation to create fair employment practices is entirely unnecessary. He also believed that requiring doctors to register with the government upset the free market for healthcare.
If all that sounds a little familiar, it’s because Friedman’s ideas about the supremacy of the free market defined conservative and centrist economics in the US from the 1970s on. Allowing free markets to do their thing is one of the components of what we call “neoliberalism” today. As critic Stuart Jeffries put it, “Neoliberalism sought to revive capitalism with a seductive, populist, market-based culture of differentiated consumerism and individual libertarianism.”
In neoliberal consumer capitalism, everything is for sale, and the value of anything is determined by what price it can fetch on the open market.
Capital is constantly at work finding new products and services to offer in the market to maintain or increase itself. And this changes the incentives both for consumers and for producers.
A company is most likely to put its capital to use creating a product that is in demand and priced for profit rather than a social good that’s needed but inefficient or less profitable. What’s available for sale ends up being what’s financially expedient, even if those commodities are low quality, unsatisfying, or even harmful.
But thanks to marketing, even those commodities can be equivocated to deep human needs.
A need for belonging becomes a desire to associate with a particular brand. A need for quiet time becomes a desire for a meditation app. A need for human connection becomes a social platform to spend time on. And as the social value of these commodities rises ever higher, we become further alienated from our own needs and from others.
Consider the psychological need for autonomy—for control or power over your own life. How many goods today are sold as tools for confidence or personal liberation? How many are sold in the name of more convenient self-determination? Target tells us we can walk in for workout clothes and leave feeling empowered. Dove sells self-esteem in the form of soap. And, hitting a little closer to home, how many coaches and courses sell some form of living your truth or being your authentic self?
Buying workout clothes, soap, or even an online course is not equivalent to having your need for autonomy met. That’s not to say that consumer goods can’t be used as tools to that end—but they are not the end in themselves, no matter how hard the marketing pushes us to believe they are.
Marx saw industry and capital as indifferent to the real needs of human beings. And Friedman believed something similar—but that markets, left to their own devices, would ultimately satisfy the needs that the self-interested agents of capital figured out how to profit from.
While Marx saw the focus on profit over meeting needs as a social, economic, and political problem, Friedman believed that was the best way to maintain a free society.
I won’t try to hide my disdain for Friedman’s theories and the way they’ve been weaponized against us by politicians and conservative media. But you don’t have to be a Marxist philosopher or socialist to notice that Friedman’s theories seem to come up short when it comes to the overall benefit of the free market. And, I know, I know: Friedman would say we still don’t have a truly free market. But sixty years after Friedman published Capitalism and Freedom, with the after-effects of deregulation looming large, we struggle to meet basic needs like security, belonging, and autonomy.
Our economic conditions don’t seem to make us freer. And our society is not more stable.
We can’t substitute our need for belonging with a computer or jacket with the right label.
Yet with each new “it” product, it gets harder to recognize that. For each new commodity that signals belonging to a certain group or holding a particular identity, we become desensitized to needs that defy market mechanisms. We learn to discount the value of anything that can’t be expressed in terms of a price tag and attribute special powers to those that can.
Our whole lives, we’ve been trained to be audience members attuned to marketing messages trying to sell us stuff. We’ve learned to recognize needs that can be filled with products and ignore those that can’t. We’ve normalized shopping as an antidote to social problems, all while many of our most basic needs go unmet.
We cultivate evermore liquid relationships with others, ourselves, and our communities in a bid to mold ourselves into a vessel fit for the market.
Meeting Needs Shouldn’t Be A Zero-Sum Game
Marx introduces the idea of “alienation” as central to understanding labor under capitalism. You can think of “alienation” as detachment or otherness in relation to something that would be better understood as part of who you are or part of what makes us human. Marx argues that workers were alienated from the product of their labor, alienated from themselves, and alienated from the human drive to create.
He also argues that, through the capitalist system, we become alienated from each other. We see ourselves as part of a group pitted against another group, for instance, workers pitted against owners. Or the 99% pitted against the 1%. But we also see ourselves pitted against others in our same group.
“[Alienation] means that I see other people who him, in theory, I could develop solidarity because we’re both oppressed by the economic system as competitors,” explains philosopher David Pena-Guzman, “because we’re competing for those scraps that are handed to us by the owners of the means of production.” Since our ability to navigate life relatively unscathed requires us to win our “fair” share, we can find it difficult to identify how to work together to ensure everyone has enough. “Unfortunately, instead of joining hands with other workers,” Pena-Guzman continues, “what happens is that I simply enter into competition with others. I only see them as people who, in theory, could get my job if I don’t get it first.”
For his part, Milton Friedman believed that economic freedom meant allowing each individual to act in their own self-interest. Along with other members of the Chicago School of economics, Friedman was instrumental in furthering “a broad social theory.” He viewed society—and with it, the economy—as “made up of autonomous, self-interested individuals,” according to intellectual historian Glory M. Liu. And he believed that society only worked when people could pursue their own self-interests freely (i.e., compete).
Both Marx and Friedman highlighted the role of competition in capitalism.
While Marx saw interpersonal competition as a negative byproduct of the capitalist system, Friedman argued for competition as a stabilizing force in society and the economy.
Again, I find Marx’s theories of personal and social alienation a better match for my own experience navigating the 21st-century economy. Friedman’s construction feels naive and self-serving—especially since Friedman received funding for his work from the National Association of Manufacturers and other business interests. But I do think both viewpoints are helpful for understanding how, in a society of so much stuff, we can still feel like our basic human needs go unmet.
Whether you favor Marx’s view or Friedman’s, both men demonstrate how competition is central to how we relate to each other today. We’re so used to playing a zero-sum game in the marketplace that its logic transfers to our most intimate relationships. We are people at odds with each other; I can only win at your expense.
If I’m to have my needs met, then your needs must go unmet.
And in the zero-sum game of life, it pays to make our relationships loose and temporary. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman dubbed our contemporary era the “liquid modern.” Bauman describes liquid modern people as feeling “easily disposable” and hopelessly reliant on only themselves, longing for “the security of togetherness and for a helping hand to count on in a moment of trouble.” And yet, we’re wary of developing durable relationships. He argues that we fear “such a state may bring burdens and cause strains [neither of us] feel able nor are willing to bear.”
Bauman asserts that our culture of consumption and market deference leads to the loss of social skills. We “treat other humans as objects of consumption” and judge them as we do the commodities we buy–by their capacity to offer pleasure or financial gain. Bauman writes, “Human solidarity is the first casualty of the triumphs of the consumer market.”
Forgive the pun, but: I’m sold.
Neediness Is An Economic Condition At Odds With The Market
“But, what is neediness apart from a bid for connection? Neediness is the presence of a desire to matter, a deep yearning to be prioritized and handled with care.”– Mara Glatzel, Needy
Nobody wants to be seen as needy, according to Mara Glatzel, author of Needy. “I don’t want to burden other people with my needs. I don’t want my needs to come at the cost of my belonging or at the cost of my safety,” explains Mara. Being the “needy” one in a friend group or workplace is a really vulnerable position to be in. It puts us at risk of left out socially and professionally.
Allowing ourselves to be needy bumps up against what we’ve learned from the consumer marketplace. It agitates our worries about being less valuable or less competitive than the next person. Neediness makes us question just how reliant we might have allowed ourselves to become on someone else.
So we learned to see our needs as the problem.
But “actually, your needs aren’t the problem,” declares Mara. Recognizing that fact is a step we often skip over because it’s uncomfortable and requires time and space we might not have. “We don’t give ourselves the time and space to be in relationship with ourselves so that we can even have a working understanding of what we need to begin with.”
What Mara describes here is wrestling with our own self-alienation. Self-alienation is the opposite of having an attentive, intentional relationship with ourselves. And when we skip coming to terms with our own self-alienation, “any conversation that we’re having with anybody else [about our needs] is going to become confusing and emotional.” When we can develop a relationship with ourselves, then “we are much better equipped to figure out what we need, what needs we can meet ourselves, and what needs we want to see if somebody else is willing to meet with us,” explains Mara.
Having a strong relationship with ourselves also makes it easier to address nascent resentment in a relationship or navigate conflict when it arises. “We have greater maneuverability within the landscape of that relationship with ourselves,” says Mara.
Unfortunately, developing a relationship with yourself and embracing your neediness is incongruous with prevailing economic forces. “We are taking our humanity and shoving it to the side because it’s inconvenient or it’s a problem for our productivity,” Mara observes. To me, the inconvenience and inefficiency of having a relationship with ourselves—knowing our own needs—points to a huge problem with our systems of work and community. But even still, Mara says, slowing down to check in doesn’t have to take a lot of time. She suggests “pausing over the course of the day just to be curious about how you feel in your body and what you might be experiencing emotionally.”
One reason we might not check in as often as we should is that we fear recognizing a need that we don’t have the capacity to meet.
“None of us have the capacity to meet all of our needs at any given moment,” Mara admits, “but understanding what they are means that down the road, you can make better decisions on your own behalf because you know what you’re working with.”
Consider this: neediness is an economic condition that puts us at odds with the market. Neediness resists efficiency, urgency, and commodification. Needy workers are more likely to speak up for themselves. Needy partners are likelier to say “no” to rushing through life together. Needy friends aren’t merely tag-alongs a la Bauman; needy friends ask for genuine connection and mutual exchange.
Where do you start if you’re already stretched too thin?
When Mara was in grad school, she was burnt out—deeply so. She was overcommitted and lacked the resources she would have liked to recover. She told me that she bargained with herself: “Okay, I have about two minutes to throw at this problem per day and that’s got to be good enough.”
Those two minutes became her morning ablutions: brushing her teeth and washing her face. Even taking the time to do that was a commitment, but she also decided to ritualize the process and “make it a nice experience.” She also decided that she would not use that time to multi-task. “I wouldn’t be talking through the door with my partner about the grocery list or bringing my phone in and checking email while I’m brushing my teeth,” she recalls.
Mara made a commitment to presence.
As a result, those two minutes each morning started to ripple out into the rest of her day. She told me that, in the beginning, she had to be pretty strict with herself. Her multi-tasking habit was a deep rut. But the literal structure of her morning routine made it possible to stick with this new way of being. She’d shut the bathroom door, leaving her phone outside. And, she only needed to maintain her focused presence through her two tasks, brushing her teeth and washing her face. “It is phenomenal how uncomfortable those two minutes would be,” Mara remembers. She felt constantly tugged back into urgency culture.
In my book, I talk about this kind of daily choice as a practice—a key way to inch toward commitments to personal growth. Mara uses that same language. Taking two minutes to be present with yourself while you’re brushing your teeth might not sound like much—but you’re exercising your “presence” muscles. You learn to extend that two minutes in different ways throughout the day. And that’s exactly the kind of pattern disruption we need to resist falling into competitive, consumerist habits.
Desires are needs, too.
Mara doesn’t make much of a distinction between needs and desires. Instead, she focuses on how the process of meeting a need can be a pleasurable or satisfying experience when we choose to meet a need in a way that taps into our desires. For instance, we all need to eat. But do we meet that need in a way that feels good? Or is it just one more task to check off the list? Mara tries to hook creating an “overarching fulfilling experience” with “satisfying the biological need.”
I was recently asked why I choose to focus on the idea of “satisfaction” in my work, rather than something with more overtly positive connotations. Satisfaction is an antidote to self-alienation. It defies the imposed imperative to compete for more. Satisfaction resists commodification. While happiness, pleasure, and other feel-good words are easily turned into marketing copy, satisfaction stands on its own. Satisfaction is less arousing and, therefore, less effective in a marketing campaign. You might be “satisfied” with a product you purchased—but that is probably not how it was marketed to you.
In fact, most marketing is designed to reveal just how unsatisfied we are.
We buy stuff to achieve satisfaction. We buy stuff to avoid the potential burdens and strains, as Bauman put it, that come with accepting the depth of our own neediness.
Marketers, of course, know this. Executives know this. Media companies know this. Stuart Jeffries describes this nasty cycle as “the existential human tragedy of desire followed by disappointment followed by desire followed by disappointment” and adds that the quest for satisfaction is being exploited as never before.
Here’s the thing: neediness prefigures satisfaction.
We can’t realize satisfaction by any means until we recognize our true needs. That’s a tall order, though, when every shred of time and energy is directed toward juggling an overflowing list of responsibilities. Perhaps counterintuitively, accepting our neediness is hard to do when we’re already at or beyond our capacity.
Mara told me that constantly making do with no margin becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Instead of recognizing that we need a break or have taken on too much, we anticipate and try to “outpace the inevitable fallout.” On some level, we notice that maybe we’re moving a little slower, that our brains aren’t working quite as quickly, that our emotions are prickly, and our fuse is short. And once we notice, we counteract those symptoms by “revving up.” We make ourselves “seem hyper-competent to cover for the that that the presence of the symptoms of burnout are making [us] feel as though” the problem is us rather than the conditions we’re operating in.
“When we’re experiencing those symptoms of burnout,” Mara explains, “that’s what they are: symptoms of burnout. They’re not moral failings.” We have a finite capacity. There are limits on our time, energy, and intention. If we operate at a level that demands every ounce of those resources, we’ll eventually run out.
And when we do run out, we put our relationships and work in jeopardy. “If I’m not in good working order, then inherently, I’m creating an unstable situation where the bottom will fall out,” observes Mara. To “bring more stability to the whole system,” we might need to reduce our commitments or borrow time and energy from other pursuits. That can feel like a loss at first, but it adds to sustainability and longevity.
This is a tough choice for many of us. “If you are somebody who has been working at or above capacity for the majority of your life, your ego is attached to that pattern of behavior,” Mara explains. Even our sense of safety gets tied to over-functioning. Changing that habit “will feel deeply uncomfortable, if not impossible … because it upsets the order of things.”
We all have different circumstances, different reasons for over-functioning or denying our own needs—some of which might be real limitations on our choices. But all of us can take at least small steps towards recognizing our needs and acting to meet them.
There were several times as I was putting together this series, and even this installment specifically, when I asked myself: “Is this really economics, or is this social theory?” And the answer, of course, was yes.
As I mentioned in the first episode of the series, economics is a social science. Sure, we can do quantitative analyses and develop formulas to describe economic behavior. But at the end of the day, economics is always about how resources flow through social organizations. Whether it’s the economics of a marriage, the economics of education, or the economics of a particular free trade treaty, economics is a way of looking at relationships as much as it is a way to see money or natural resources.
And that’s why I wanted to conclude the series with this conversation with Mara. Mara might not realize this, but she wrote a book on economics. Not macroeconomics, maybe not even microeconomics—but perhaps nanoeconomics. The economics of the relationships we have with ourselves. How do we understand the flow of resources through us as individuals and as nodes in larger social organizations? How do we learn what inputs we need to sustainably produce needed outputs? How do we learn to see ourselves beyond the role of worker, caregiver, consumer, or user?
I hope this series has given you some things to think about when it comes to the decisions you make, the things you pay attention to, the working relationships you have, and the ideas you dream up. Economics isn’t a field to be afraid of—it’s a field we move through every day and think about constantly, even if we don’t know we’re doing it.
Above all, I hope you have some new language for your own needs and a few ideas for finding lasting satisfaction.