“I just feel like if I moved out of the city, I wouldn’t want so much. I don’t like being surrounded by people who have more than I will ever have,” one of my friends said over a coffee in, unsurprisingly, an area of town neither of us will have ever be able to afford. For millennials living in cities, we spend a huge portion of our lives working and socializing in areas that we will never be able to afford to live in. We enjoy them, we play in them, we work in them and then we get on our subway, our tube line, our bus, maybe, if you’re particularly lucky, maybe even our Uber back to our, distinctly less nice, corner of the world.
And she’s right— at some points, living in a big city can feel a constant exercise in being reminded of what you can’t afford. If I walk down a major shopping street on my way to a workout class, I’m far more likely to starting lusting after a nice sofa or coat or decorative bowl that would never have occurred to me otherwise. But could moving out of a big city remove that lust and that envy completely?
It’s true that proximity breeds envy. Keeping up with the Joneses doesn’t matter so much if the Joneses live three towns away. It’s the closeness that breeds the competition. And so, at one point in time, moving away from cities, which can often just feel like hubs of the unaffordable, would allow you to live a simpler life. And many of us still fetishize the idea of moving out to the country where we wouldn’t care about anything besides putting food on the table, watching the sunset, and a day of honest hard work.
But that’s just not realistic anymore. In the internet age of more and more present (and smarter) advertising, you’re always close to things that you can’t have. They’re advertised on your TV, on your high street, on your phone. They’re targeted specifically to you on your Facebook pages and where you read the news. As advertising reaches a place near omniscience, we can’t hope for the same escape. I grew up in a rural area. As in, so rural you can’t see your neighbors and are far more likely to drive through a field of cows than see a shopping mall. And still, the envy has arrived. Maybe not envy on the same scale— people may not be yearning for the $200 dinners and $1,000 dresses of London, New York, or Dubai. But for something more than what they have, for something more than what they can get. Because they’re taunted just like everyone else— through more sophisticated advertising that circles closer and closer to home. The sits in the palm of your hand.
We have a dangerous level of envy and materialism, but we can’t think that moving out of major cities would be enough to stop it. Instead, we need to learn to manage our expectations and control our reaction to advertising, no matter how up close and personal it gets.