The Wedding Industrial Complex

In his podcast, Akimbo, Seth Godin teaches us how to adopt a posture of possibility, change the culture, and choose to make a difference. Here are my takeaways from the episode.

According to recent data, the average wedding in the New York area can cost close to eighty thousand dollars for the typical middle-class family. Young people getting married often have college debt, credit card debt, not to mention mortgage debt. When we add it all up, we are talking about people who are already in debt and spending more than a year’s income to get married now.

The trend does not seem to hurt anybody, so why even bother to understand it? It is worth understanding it because it will help us understand how our cultural ratchet works and how the runaway military-industrial complex can happen as well.

From the beginning, the wedding has often signified the creation of a new family bond. The family bond has created all sorts of value for families and society. This idea of a wedding ceremony is about two families coming together and, it is about inclusion.

The process of getting married is also about a negotiation between two families. Two cultures that did not use to be connected are now on the side of inclusion. The act of including others and of seeing others for who they are, can all be facilitated with the wedding.

How did we get here? It is complicated, and it mostly has to do with culture. A wedding is much more than a day-long party, it often communicates a message of status. The wedding industrial complex (the magazines, the videos, the industry) has worked to make it so that brides can measure each other more easily than ever before. The act of measuring and competitiveness also make the cultural ratchet turn ever faster.

The key element of status certainly plays a role in the case of the wedding industrial complex. Most people would not hope for anything extravagant but something slightly above average because, after all, we feel we are slightly above average. To do that, we need to know what the average is, and the average is always going to go up because most people want what they are doing to be slightly above average.

When economic researchers studied three thousand weddings, they found, unsurprisingly, an interesting relationship between the amount of money spent on a wedding ring and a ceremony and the duration of the marriage. As it turned out, the relationship is, the more people spend, the shorter the marriage lasts.

In addition to the idea of status, wedding and marriage are also about the idea of affiliation. Not only do we want the wedding to be slightly better than average, but we wanted to be like everybody else’s. People like us do things like this. We think of a wedding as something that is associated with something important in our life, like the idea of logos and brands. We associate wedding with happiness, the wonder, and the care that we feel about the other, about our friends, about our relatives. But the expensive parts of that not only do not contribute to our happiness, but they often saddle the bride and groom with crippling debt, not to mention the anxiety and stress that goes along with being slightly better than average.

The solution for the wedding industrial comes down to design thinking. We need to ask the questions of who is it for and what is it for. If we are trying to please the mother-in-law, let us be very clear with ourselves and not saddled this decision with all sorts of other irrelevant elements. Are we making these choices simply because of status, affiliation, or something else?