Perhaps the most effective tool for motivating people to work has been consumerism. Once people were persuaded that they needed the many goods that were being produced they had a reason to want to earn money beyond what was necessary to provide a comfortable standard of living. People who hated their work, who had little chance of being promoted up the corporate hierarchy, now had their own reason to work long hours. Where the work ethic failed to motivate workers, the consumer ethic stepped in.
Consumerism has also played a major role in legitimating a social system which rewards businessmen and top corporate executives with incomes many times those of ordinary workers. The consumer society gives ordinary workers some access to the good life. Surrounded by the bounty of their work—the television set, stereo, car, computer, white goods—they are less likely to question the conditions of their work, the way it dominates their life, and the lack of power that they have as workers. Advertisers constantly tell them that these are the fruits of success, that this is what life is all about. To question a system which delivers such plenty would seem perverse. Those without access to this world of goods because they are unemployed or have such low paying jobs, as we have seen in previous chapters, blame themselves just as others blame them.
It was the “social decision to direct industrial innovation toward producing unlimited quantities of goods rather than leisure” that created the foundation for our modern consumer culture, “a culture of work and spend”. The movement for more free time for workers and leisure time free of market forces, was defeated by business interests by the middle of the century when mass consumer culture took off. The consumer culture, rather than eroding the work ethic, tied people even more closely to working long hours in order to earn the money for their consumer desires.
For higher paid employees, the ‘golden handcuffs’ are a way of ensuring company loyalty. By paying their executives well they become accustomed to a continually rising lifestyle that is dependent not only on keeping their jobs but getting promotions and raises.