"Office Girls" Boosting Economy With Extravagant ShoppingS

Do you belong to the "nothing at the end of the month club," where you spend everything you earn? A new Financial Times piece focuses on China's "office girls" and how their extravagant shopping is fueling the Chinese economy.

"Women have become a major driving force behind China's economic growth. Consumers under 32 have an effective savings rate of zero," says Shaun Rein of China Market Research Group in Shanghai, who expects Chinese retail sales to grow by 16-18 per cent this year, driven largely by Chinese women, and by consumers in third- and fourth-tier Chinese cities.

The article goes on to explain that many of the office girls live at home, and engage in heavy discretionary spending on items like cosmetics and dining out, believing that by splurging on luxury items, they're making an investment into their future by dressing the part. However, the spendthrift ways of a generation take a familiar tone. One woman comments:

Beili, 28, who works at a public relations agency, waxes poetic on the subject of money. She says she runs out of it every month, without accounting for it, because "it just runs off like the floating water".

It's fascinating how often this dynamic repeats itself when it comes to women and money. The Times draws a comparison to China's office girls and Japan's office ladies - but it's a dark comparison to make. In the 1980s, Japan's "office lady" culture was at its zenith, where more and more young women were called to represent the new Japan. The influence of office ladies (shortened to OLs) is still in play in workplaces to this day. In 1998, Jean Forrest wrote an essay on the "Office Lady" from the perspective of a white woman in Japan. While Forrest's analysis of Office Ladies is in many ways problematic (see the intro of Yuko Ogasawara's Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender, and Work in Japanese Companies for an explanation of why Forrest's assumptions ignore the agency of her subjects), she does make an very interesting point about the role of OLs as boosters to the Japanese economy:

The role of the OL is to support her co-workers and to be a part of the group or system. She does not have to do a fantastic job; in fact, she does not have to do much of anything, and this is acceptable as long as she does not offend anyone. The interesting side of this is that the OL's are paid quite well, and if you live at home and have no expenses, you end up having a lot of disposable income. Meet the largest consumers in Japan. The OL of Japan makes the wheels of the consumer industry spin. The higher the ticket price or more exotic the item, the more they like it. Buying things allows them a venue to express their own personality and status. It is an escape from the real world at work and at home. They travel, eat in fine restaurants, and buy high ticket luxury items. In many ways they keep the economy turning. The role of the OL is not just confined to the workplace, she has a very important role as a consumer in Japanese society.

This dynamic is also at play in the US, just to a lesser extent. Though women have made large advances in the workplace, there's also a renewed pressure that they to always "dress the part," to spend larger and larger sums of money on representations of success (like status bags and the right type of clothes) while smart financial moves like saving are referred to only in abstract terms.

While experts caution women to think of their financial futures, the general message repeated in most sectors of society is to "invest" money in luxury items to present a successful exterior while neglecting financial stability. Isn't this in part what got this country into financial turmoil in the first place?

Office girls lead charge to boost spending [Financial Times]
The Office Lady in Japan [Intertext]
Office ladies and salaried men: power, gender, and work in Japanese companies [Google Books]