Economics

The Outdoor Dreams of the Things We Own

weverton

Weverton Cliffs on the Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail

I looked at the jacket, with its special pocket in the back designed for carrying a map, almost in awe. The desire was instant. Imagine that: a map pocket! If only I had this jacket, I mused, just think of the maps I would put in there. Sections of the Appalachian Trail, rural patches of Iceland, the endlessly rising and falling pathways over the mountains of South Korea. The oiled fabric of the coat would shed the rain that fell on these places, shelter my bones from the chilling gusts. It all seemed so possible, so in front of me, as I literally held the image of this jacket on the phone in the palm of my hand.

It’s not the only article of clothing, or bag, or other piece of gear I have felt this way about. A good number of these items I subsequently purchased. If I have one vice, it is outerwear. (Spicy food and craft beer may also fall into this category.) That, as I see it, is not so much the problem. It is the unfulfilled uses of these articles that makes me uneasy, that causes me to question whether their accumulation makes me simply – to borrow the words of an old professor I know – a “rank materialist.” Even contemplating this is uncomfortable. I’d like to think that those adventures still await, and that there really is a reason for me to buy those new hiking boots.

The reality is that in today’s Internet, researching, finding and purchasing these things – funds permitting – is the easy part. Having the imagination, the time, and the commitment to pursue an adventure is less so.

I suspect I am not the only thirty-something, goosedown-and-Capilene bedecked Subaru driver wrestling with this problem. Patagonia (the brand) inspires in its customers a calling to remote places. Its sustainability drive prods us to envision life in a hillside cabin where we end the day drying and darning our socks by the fire. When I flip through a catalog from the easy comfort of our concrete-laden Northern Virginia suburb, a part of me feels like a fraud.

And indeed, I am not alone: the Outdoor Industry Association, in a 2014 report, identified a whole segment of “outdoor consumers” that I probably fall into – “The Aspirational Core.” Making up roughly 14 percent of spending on outdoor goods, these folks “stick close to home for most of their day-to-day activities but aspire to get further from home.” The bulk of outdoor spending (OIA says “outdoor consumers” spend $465 on average annually on apparel, footwear, equipment, and electronics for their activities) is not shelled out by people who spend every other day hanging off a rock face, but rather by “Urban Athletes,” “Athleisurists,” and would-be boyscouts like myself.

Some businesses have latched onto the interrelationship between outdoor daydreams and commerce in novel ways. When REI started its #OptOutside campaign, on some level it must have calculated that inspiring its customers to venture into the wilderness in late November would offset the negatives of shuttering its stores on Black Friday. Pulled out of their Thanksgiving torpor by the brisk air, some surely decided on the trail that day that they really needed a new Jetboil for making hot drinks away from home.

I have made forays into fulfilling the usefulness of my stuff. Last fall, a friend of mine (who actually was an Eagle Scout) hiked a short portion of the Appalachian Trail that runs through Maryland and camped overnight at a site not far from the trailhead. During the trip, my sleek new pocketknife got a break from its usual task – breaking down Amazon Prime boxes – and actually got to carve some wood shavings for our fire.

But I could be doing a lot more. Either that, or I should be having a garage sale. In the end, I bought the coat with the map pocket. I even have a few maps of the A.T. that I could put in there. All I need to do now is figure out how to use my compass.

Gap Years

Seoul Rush-Hour Subway / Credit: Marcelo Druck

Seoul Rush-Hour Subway / Credit: Marcelo Druck

To many Americans in my generation, “regular employment” seems an alien concept. More would likely bristle at the notion of “permanent employment,” a term — in the U.S. — evoking golden handcuffs at best and endless drudgery at worst. We like to fancy ourselves free to rocket after opportunities as we see fit. Stability, if it factors into our equation at all, often registers after fulfillment.

And so it might be tempting look at the lost generation in Japan or the employment struggles of youth in France and consider them foreign phenomena. The idea that you get one chance, and only one, to lock in a life-long career is understandably frightening. In a couple Financial Times articles, the reporters document the perpetual economic limbo of Japanese males who could not become salarymen, and the tribulations of smart (and perhaps overqualified) French who bounce between temporary contracts.

In South Korea, the divide between a “regular” worker and a “non-regular” one is stark, as explained well by Nathan Park in this WSJ blog. The result is a decidedly stratified labor market. People who might otherwise be fired aren’t, and older folks hold the lion’s share of the secure jobs. Young graduates, meanwhile, are marginalized. They can’t get steady jobs, have little to no benefits, and end up delaying marriage and living with their parents well past 30.

Now that doesn’t seem so alien at all.

There are peculiarities about Korea’s work environment. The social hierarchies and a seniority-based system for advancement are the norm (although at least the latter is changing). There are surely other differences in France and Japan. But for well-educated young people post-2008 crisis, I would argue the work situations are converging. It seems just as true in the U.S. that, if you cannot secure that first foothold right after college and begin demonstrating a clear career trajectory, you may “boomerang” and have your own personal lost decade.

The Korean government’s solution to this is labor reform through what’s called a “salary peak system.” Its Ministry of Employment & Labor explains there are several ways this can work: maintain retirement age while reducing salary; retire and then rehire at a reduced salary; or reduced work hours (for, of course, reduced pay). The idea seems to be to free up capital for companies to hire new workers rather than pay for those on their way out. The system is being implemented across state-run institutions already. Hyundai Motor has said it will introduce such a system next year.

It’s easy to see why some see this as just shoving the old folks aside, punishing those who have worked all their lives, or as assigning blame to unions who have built up “regular” worker protections. No Kwang-pyo, director of the Korea Labor & Society Institute, takes a critical view of the move and assigns blame to Korea’s chaebol conglomerates for exploiting and locking in the stratified labor market. Any labor reform, he writes in an editorial, must be accompanied by a broader “economic democratization” that condemns the “greed” of the country’s industrial giants.

So what is the real source of the problem, and what’s the fix? The IMF last year recommended a much more mixed approach, by first dismantling the “relatively high degree” of protections for regular workers (thereby cutting the incentive to use non-regular ones); it posited that policies aimed at reducing exceedingly long working hours could sweeten this bitter medicine. After that, raising mandatory retirement age limits while “remodulating” the seniority-based wage system should be the next steps, it said. The IMF thinks improving protections for non-regular workers and broadening access to training wouldn’t be bad ideas either.

Conceptually at least, I think I might agree with these remedies. But I question the feasibility of all of this, and how it might really turn out. It’s hard not to ponder the drifting millenial Americans. The ability to compare between Korea and the States may be limited, but if thinning worker protections and benefits were really the way toward a more egalitarian economy, you might not have so much continued soul-searching in the U.S. right now.