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Why the envy frenzy?

17 May 2018

John Walsh believes that jealousy is souring us, both as individuals and as a nation. Why is it so widespread – and is there anything we can do about it?

A comic book style illustration of an envious banker
We're experiencing a culture of jealousy, a watershed of greed

Envy is everywhere.

I envy my friend Rafferty because he published a bestselling novel, whereas my attempts at fiction have tanked. Rafferty envies his brother-in-law Clive’s hair while he himself is stuck with a bald spot the size of a soup plate. Clive’s wife, Margie, envies her neighbour Barbara’s bone-china teacups, while Barbara looks with envy on her friend Tamara’s voluptuous bosom. 

Jealousy has a long track record; it was around at the dawn of mankind. Why did Cain kill Abel? Because (we’re told) God favoured Abel’s sacrifices over Cain’s, who killed his brother in a fit of pique. 

Look around the modern world, however, and you notice things have changed about this Deadly Sin over the past 20 years or so. There’s a more intense variant of the old green- eyed monster abroad. It’s not just about envying china teacups or cleavage. These days, envy is about envying everything.

How to handle envy

When the credit crunch of 2008 caused the worst global financial crisis in 80 years, many politicians and City observers blamed it partly on the ‘bonus culture’, which saw investment banks pay multimillion sums to senior staff. Culpability was laid particularly at the door of Goldman Sachs which, in December 2006, had announced the ‘bonus pool’ that they were dishing out to traders was £8.3bn. 

Thereafter, every investment bank was filled with envious little Gordon Gekkos. One London banker told The Times: ‘Suddenly I’ve got a row of 25-year-olds outside my door telling me that if they get £200,000, it’s not enough. They know it’s far more than their parents earned over a period of years, but there’s still this culture of jealousy.’ It was a watershed of greed: in five years, bonus payments in the UK financial sector rocketed from £5bn in 2003 to £16bn in 2008. That’s where envy gets you. 

And from the revelation of bankers’ salaries in 2008 can be dated a wider culture of envy that’s with us today – the public suspicion that all financial dealers in the City, no matter how diligent or financially shrewd, are paid too much and should be brought low.  

It wasn’t only in banks that colossal sums of money seemed to be washing around. Top-flight footballers were rolling in it. In 1995, sports fans were stunned to learn that Arsenal forward Dennis Bergkamp was earning £25,000 a week; in 2016, former Manchester United star Carlos Tevez joined Shanghai Shenhua on £634,000 a week. 

Players further down the European leagues, eyeing each other’s pay packets, could suddenly demand crazy sums. Fans looked on in amazement, thinking: ‘Lots of us can kick a ball around. Why can’t we access loot like that?’ Their envy was misplaced – of the millions who play football, only a tiny number of players are paid huge sums, and their careers are short – but heartfelt nonetheless.

The profile of modern business changed. Bosses who command immense salaries are no longer grim-faced sexagenarians who’ve worked for decades to reap their reward; now they’re 30 to 40-ish, spring-heeled, T-shirted smart-Alecs called Mark (Facebook) and Kevin (Instagram). They invented some techie fad, saw multitudes embrace it, and now bestride the world. We envy their youthful power over young minds, while knowing we could never be like them.

What is Instagram and is it worth having?

It sounds whiny for the middle-aged to say, ‘It’s not fair’. But it’s what the Millennial generation (those coming of age in the post-2000 world) say about their parents. They envy the ease with which we, when young, could secure mortgages without begging parents for handouts. Ask any 20-something what they feel most envious about: it’s housing. 

The possession of property is, of course, the mainstay of what some newspapers call ‘the politics of envy’. Remember the Labour Party’s 2016 pre-election pledge that anyone owning a house worth more than £2m should pay a ‘mansion tax’ every year just for owning it? It seemed to many owners, whose homes were not ‘mansions’, that this was throwing a bone to malcontents who envied their luck at possessing a valuable asset, and gloated at how much they’d have to pay for the privilege. 

Envy for other people’s lifestyles is everywhere. Once celebrities were far-off beings, ‘stars’ in magazines or on TV. Today, thanks to reality TV and Simon Cowell, they’re ‘ordinary people’ elevated to stardom, fame and riches. A generation has grown up envying a life where, instead of working, you achieve fame and glory for just ‘being yourself’. A virus of entitlement (‘Why shouldn’t that be me?’) now takes up the space once filled by ambition.

A new platform for envy appeared in 2010 with the Instagram photo-sharing service, in which users post images of their holidays, friends, pets, homes and (thanks to digital filters) their own physical beauty for lesser mortals to look at and despair. By September 2017, 800m Instagrammers were showing off their ideal lives as if begging to be envied; some of the most narcissistic became known as ‘hater baiters’. 

A kind of televised Instagram TV show had existed since 2007, with Keeping Up with the Kardashians, in which a rich Armenian-American family were followed everywhere by cameras and microphones. They had no jobs and no conversations worth hearing. They merely had enviability: for their money, their homes and pampered lives. Last August, The Hollywood Reporter ran a survey asking, not ‘Which Kardashian sister is most popular?’, but ‘Which sister makes America most jealous?’. Jealousy, envy – that was the show’s point.  

How to handle a narcissist

Is envy hurting us as a nation, as a global village, or as individuals? All three. Today’s envy was created by upsurges of greed and narcissism that can be traced mostly to the United States – Wall Street bonuses, Silicon Valley, Donald Trump – and to the internet, with its scope for self-preening display. 

We now share American obsessions. From merely envying our neighbours, we British envy people worldwide: their homes, children’s parties, corpulent pension pots, their 90,000 Twitter followers. And we hear everywhere that awful noise of trolling, in which envy of another’s luck curdles into a desire that they should lose everything, suffer and die. 

It’s not healthy. But what can we do? We can heed the advice of Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness, that we stop comparing ourselves with others.

‘With the wise man, what he has does not cease to be enjoyable because someone else has something else,’ he says, before adding: ‘After all, what is more enjoyable than happiness? And if I can cure myself of envy, I can acquire happiness and become enviable’.

Or we can just grow older until, at 70, we envy nothing about the rest of the human race more than Not Being Ill. 

John Walsh is a writer, novelist and broadcaster. His recent series of Radio 3 essays on the history of flamboyance, Walking the Lobster, is on BBC iPlayer Radio

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