According to the latest findings of modern science–or at least that portion of modern science employed by the California-based consulting firm SRI Research–I’m an Achiever. Frankly, I’m flattered, if a little bewildered, by the assessment. According to SRI’s Values and Lifestyles Survey (or VALS), I’m a proud member of a group of “successful career and work-oriented people who like to, and generally do, feel in control of their lives.”
Ironically enough, I stumbled upon the VALS one evening while I was roaming about the Internet in a decidedly non-work-oriented mood. I’d never heard of the survey, though apparently most advertisers have. As I learned from reading some of the on-line promotional literature, the VALS program, first started in the late 1970s, is “one of the original consumer segmentation systems based on psychographics,” which is a fancy way of saying that the VALS folks stick some questions about “values” and “lifestyles” alongside traditional market-research questions about income and age. The survey sorts Americans into eight loosely defined categories, ranging from Actualizers at the top of the heap to Strugglers at the bottom.
Apparently, good psychographologists don’t come cheap: the version of the survey I filled out was “the result of a two-year, $1.5 million research effort that combined contributions of experts in the fields of consumer behavior, psychology, marketing, psychometrics, and personality theory.” I didn’t even know there was such a thing as personality theory. But this is the big time–companies pay big bucks to use VALS data to help them in their marketing (“A beverage company used VALS to select its target market and to create an image and positioning strategy to communicate best with its target”), and SRI International takes in some $300 million a year.
The on-line survey, filled with vague questions even the VALS people acknowledge in their literature might seem “overly simplistic,” took me only a few minutes to fill out. I submitted my answers to the SRI computer and promptly found out I was an Achiever. In the world of market research, that’s a pretty good type to be. The VALS assured me that I’m stable and sensible, that “work provides [me] with a sense of duty, material rewards, and prestige.” I am, the VALS computer speculated, most likely a political conservative who’s fond of “authority and the status quo” and leading a “conventional” life “structured around family, career and church.”
If I’m a typical Achiever, the researchers concluded, I live on a diet of rice cakes, frozen yogurt, low-fat cheese, and liquid nutritional supplements. I’m likely to while away the hours reading Parenting magazine and the Wall Street Journal. I’m likely to own a snowblower, have a self-cleaning oven, and belong to the PTA. Approximately 16 percent of the adult population is just like me.
Wrong on all counts, but I suppose every system has its bugs. Certainly I don’t feel like an Achiever. As consumers go, I’m a miserable failure. If my particular consumer “demographic” were extended much beyond myself, contemporary consumer society would collapse in a heap, leaving advertising executives wandering the streets, desperately trying to interest someone in the useless baubles they once made fortunes hawking.
I am, to borrow a line from Nora Ephron, a wallflower at the consumer orgy. I’ve never, to my knowledge, bought an appliance or, for that matter, a piece of new furniture. Hell, I don’t even buy used furniture. Most of what fills my apartment are discards–some from family, some from friends, some from complete strangers, snatched from the alley before the garbagemen or other thrifty neighbors got their hands on it.
I get clothes at the thrift store. And I’m not talking about trendy “vintage” clothing stores filled with artfully arranged Lava lamps and psychedelic posters where all the clerks look like Betty Page and have tattoos and nose rings. I’m talking about real thrift stores–the ones, to put it bluntly, that smell of urine, the ones where entire families of new immigrants can buy clothing for a year for less than the cost of dinner for two at the Hard Rock Cafe. I’ve found a pretty good thrift store–I won’t say where–so most of my clothes are only a few years out of date. I haven’t caught any diseases yet–from the clothes or from the shopping experience–though I do tend to wash the clothes several times before putting them on. (Sometimes I’m tempted to boil them.) But, hey, cheap is cheap, and I’m a cheapskate. Not that I have much choice, given my income.
Yet I’m not some kind of ascetic, crouched on the floor of my apartment eating brown rice and oatmeal, proud of my poverty. I like buying things, and those things I can’t buy I’m willing, for now, to merely covet. I do buy some things, and some of those in abundance. Burritos. Bacon Double Cheeseburgers. Used books. Blank tapes. The occasional tape deck. Cheap plastic “gag gifts” (called that, I’ve concluded, because they often make their recipients gag). I subscribe to countless magazines, though I can’t imagine the publishing industry is altogether pleased, what with all the dunning letters they have to send and all the lawyers they have to mobilize to extract any money from me. I’m not exactly a prestige account.
The most achieverlike thing I’ve ever done is buy a decent computer–on credit, of course. Computer companies fill my mailbox with alluring offers–lovely glossy, almost pornographic photos of computers promising more POWER! more MEMORY! more SPEED!–but I don’t have the money to buy any of this merchandise right now, thank you very much. Not that I’m entirely out of the computer loop. I’m planning to buy paper for my printer sometime in the near future. And I’m seriously considering a box of disks.
Sometimes when my horoscope doesn’t suit me on a particular day I go cruising among the other signs for one that does. In the same way, I’ve gone cruising among the eight VALS types. Like the signs of the zodiac, the VALS types are supposed to encompass all, so I’m confident that I’m somewhere among them.
Apparently aware that the type you’re assigned may not be an altogether perfect fit, the VALS people provide you with an alternative type, a kind of demographic first runner-up. The VALS tells me that my secondary type is the Actualizer, which just happens to be the most desirable type of all. I feel like I’ve won the lottery. The lifestyle of an Actualizer seems to have sprung fully formed from the pages of the New Yorker (not coincidentally, favorite reading material of the Actualizer). Actualizers, the researchers have concluded, are “successful, sophisticated, active, ‘take-charge’ people with high self-esteem and abundant resources.” They tend to live in the 90210 zip code. But since I’m a thwarted, crude, passive person, with no resources to speak of and low self-esteem to boot, I know that I’m an Actualizer only by accident, undeserving of all this psychodemographic splendor. Besides, the survey explains, Actualizers have a fondness for herb teas, egg substitutes, and cinnamon toothpaste. Cinnamon toothpaste? I skip to the next type.
Those in the next category down on the list, the Fulfilleds, “tend to be mature, satisfied, comfortable, reflective people who value order, knowledge, and responsibility.” They’re likely to own spreadsheet software and to listen to “beautiful music.” My mind wanders. I think of Thoreau’s comment about “lives of quiet desperation.” I recall Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. I shudder at the thought of polluting my computer with Lotus 1-2-3. I can’t even begin to comprehend the horrors of beautiful music. I move on.
Next come the Experiencers. These are the kind of people, apparently, who populate most of the ads for beer and cola. Experiencers, the VALS summary explains, can’t sit still. They “tend to be young, vital, enthusiastic, impulsive and rebellious. They seek variety and excitement, savoring the new, the offbeat, and the risky….Their energy finds an outlet in exercise, sports, outdoor recreation and social activities.” They play pool. They own dogs weighing less than 12 pounds. Just reading about them makes me tired.
The types described so far on the list have been what advertisers like to think of as the more desirable market segments–generally people earning more money than I do. But now we come to the less desirable segments, and the language of the survey becomes a little more euphemistic.
Believers, the survey explains, “are predominantly conservative, conventional people with concrete beliefs based on traditional, established codes: family, church, community, and the nation.” In other words, the fundies. They buy pie fillings and reclining chairs. They own dogs weighing more than 75 pounds. They’re the kind of people who used to tithe 10 percent of their income to Jim and Tammy. Lots of them probably have peeling Pat Buchanan for President stickers on the bumpers of their big American cars. Next.
Finally I seem to have stumbled upon a group I might want to be a part of: the Strivers. I can’t say I much like the name, being a lazy sort and all, but the description seems to fit. “Strivers,” the VALS summary explains, “have an unusually strong drive for material rewards, but they often feel constrained in their ability to realize their ambitions.” So far so good, if by “unusually strong desire for material rewards” you mean enough to pay the rent, not enough to buy a Mercedes. “Consequently, Strivers have a relatively strong antipathy toward ‘the system.'” Where do I sign up?
But I quickly realize I can’t sign up. My skin’s the wrong color. “Striver,” it turns out, is SRI’s polite way of saying “black.” It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to figure this out: the musical preferences of Strivers range from Contemporary Black to Gospel; favorite magazines range from Ebony to Jet. It also doesn’t take much reading between the lines to realize that SRI does not have a tremendous faith in the taste or intelligence of the average, er, Striver. According to the VALS summary, Strivers “tend to be impulsive, style conscious, and quick to emulate those of greater material wealth.” Not a prestige market, in other words, but reliable purchasers of cheap, flashy crap. I begin to wonder if Charles Murray served as a consultant on this project.
The next group down the list has the least attractive description so far. “Makers,” the summary explains, “are practical people who have constructive skills and value self-sufficiency. They live within a traditional context of family, practical work, and physical recreation and often have little interest in what lies outside that context.” In other words, Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson, the dumb prole. Showing the same kind of contempt they did for the Strivers, the VALS experts note patronizingly, “Makers experience the world by working on it–building a house, raising children, fixing a car, or canning vegetables.” They like tools, cars, and guns. Lots of guns. Their favorite magazines range from Hunting to Guns & Ammo, from Hot Rod to Car & Driver. They own pickups and go target shooting, and when they come back from their hunting trips they track mud over their stain-resistant carpeting. A lot of them probably worry about U.N. troops and black helicopters.
The only group to which I feel any real connection is the last one on the list, the lowest of the low, the people the VALS researchers call “the Strugglers.” The name alone brings a nod of recognition from me. “Struggler lives are constricted.” I nod. Strugglers have “limited material and educational assets.” They lack “strong social bonds” and are overly “concerned about their health. Strugglers are often resigned and passive…limited by the need to meet the urgent needs of the present moment.” If you disregard the part about education–I’ve got it coming out the wazoo–that’s me!
For a moment I think I’ve found a home. But as I read on I begin, once again, to have my doubts. Strugglers–bully for them–had the temerity to not share their musical preferences with the interviewers (“Data does not indicate preferences for types of music”). But not much about their buying habits or lifestyles reminds me of my own. Strugglers are big on canned milk, True Story, and instant potatoes. They have cordless electric glue guns and watch golf on television. A lot of them seem to live in Alabama.
So where is a bitter, overeducated, underpaid thirtynothing like me to turn? Unlike some ascetic young hipsters–many of whom seem to have come from Winnetka–I don’t want to turn my back on consumer society. There’s no glory in poverty for me. When I was earning only a smidgen over the poverty wage a couple of years ago I wasn’t somehow magically freed from our society’s preoccupation with money. Indeed, I thought of almost nothing else. I lay awake nearly every night fretting about this bill or that, wondering how soon the checks were going to start bouncing. The more money I’ve made–we’re talking relatively here–the less I have to think about it. And that suits me fine.
In the ideal world I wouldn’t have to think about money at all. I could wander the world as some celebrities do, without cash, picking up complimentary meals at the local bistro and free tickets to the movies. Hell, I wouldn’t ask for too much. After all, how much can you eat? How many movies can you go to? All I really want now is a tape deck that works, a zero balance on my credit cards, and no more student loans to pay back.
I’ve sent a note to the VALS people asking to withdraw my membership in the Achiever club. And I’ve suggested a new category, one that takes into account my love of fast food and cheap men’s clothing. If they don’t like it I’ll simply declare myself the first member. The not-so-few, the not-so-proud: the Debtors.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Jim Flynn.