Socio Economic Status. The Shame Indonesian Way.

Last week I was interviewed by fellow strategic planner from Japan. He came with a big confusion on how to link the Indonesian socio economic status (SES) to their life style.

I can completely understand why my Japanese colleague surprised with the fact that our high socio economic class can be so ignorance (He did softening the word though. He put it as less modern mind). I do. This is what I told him:

Socio economic status or social class is basically used to describe divisions of society in terms of people’s relative social economic resource. In marketing this indicator is important because it tells of what people do with the money while defining the role in the society.

In a way, this indicator is multi dimensional, because it should demonstrates prestige/ social honor, power and wealth/property. That is why the common practice dictates income, occupation and education as a proxy to social class or socio economic status.

However, the Indonesian marketing society mainly uses household monthly routine expenditure as an indicator of SES for a family or person. There is also additional list of household appliance ownership but it may add to more confusion.

Why we use such different indicator? Can it serve its’ purpose?

I don’t know when it was started, but somehow our society lost the old structure while the new one is yet to be established. There was a time when occupation really defined the social standing. At that time the occupation came with definite income, power and hence social honor. If we met a judge or teacher we knew how much they made per year. We knew the power they had in society and we respected them for that. We naturally put judges in upper position compared to the teachers because judges are higher in all three.

Merchants might have higher incomes but less power or influence in society. In most cases, even though they were richer than the judges, the social honor was lower.

But at that time, the difference between rich merchants and not so rich judges was not much so we could easily ignore. That was a time when money was not everything. That was a time while people put social honor ahead of income and power.

Suddenly (yes, I know this is dramatization), it was all about money. Social honor did not mean anything anymore without money. And money was earned in a most opportunistic ways. Thus, people in same profession can have very big differences. For example, teachers in prestigious elementary school in Jakarta can get as high as Rp 10 mio per months while those who teach in low quality elementary school are lucky if they get Rp 1 mio per month. Such gap in the same profession. This is unavoidable because those two groups are different in terms of social economic resource.

In terms of government employee, people talk about “wet” and “dry” positions. Wet means more opportunity to get extra money either from bare corruption or “tip” in public services. Thus, people with the same education and rank in government offices can be so different in terms of take home income.

It happens in all professions. The income gap increases while the respect or honor is deteriorating across all profession.

So, money it is.
However, as we know, people in Indonesia live with both “formal” and “informal” money. It becomes too difficult to trace them. The easier approach is using household monthly routine expenditures. Because for the housewives this amount is usually constant and easier to recall.
What marketing society do actually is pragmatic approach on the sentiment. Socio Economic Status is all about money.

The bad thing about money, let alone new money, it does not come with taste, ideas and values. The last three are the influential elements for life style on top money. They mainly come with living place, education, and similar interest.

Let’s take a look at living place. Although, in Jakarta for example, we have several elite residence areas, but in general high-class households live side by side with the poor. They are happy to be in that environment. Maybe because it gives them social honor. But clearly, their living place cannot give them good idea about high taste and value.

In terms of education, it is clear that these people comes from various level and quality education. We have those with abroad graduate degree in one-hand and high school dropouts in other hand. No wonder on the different life style for the same level of economic power.

And don’t get me started with similar interest.

Therefore, our current way to measure socio economic status is indeed cannot describe the life style.

In retrospect, I was embarrassed to admit how shallow we are as society. Money to define society?

One question linger in my mind: When are we going to put a stop in it?

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