Shopaholics are out of control and utilitarianism is excruciatingly boring.
In the U.S., consumer spending contributes up to approximately 70% of the total GDP. That amounts to $13.28 Trillion dollars.[i]
The Industrial Revolution served as an impetus that enabled manufacturers to produce more goods than ever before. In the 1920’s, the American markets had reached a point of over production, which meant that they had more products coming out the ying yang than they knew what to do with.
Businesses believed that to create economic growth, the answer was not to slow down production, but to increase consumption.
Sharon Beder, a professor at the University of Wollogong, writes in her article, “Consumerism – an Historical Perspective,” that the first step in increasing consumption was to alter traditional attitudes towards spending which promoted thrift and prudence.[ii]
With the backing of big businesses and politicians, advertisers went to work and began to redefine peoples’ values around spending.
Politicians urged people to increase consumption as this was the patriotic thing to do. Ideals of the American Dream and the self-made man emerged which depicted that people could increase their status in society by upgrading their belongings.
Around the same time, purchasing power in the U.S. between 1910 and 1929 increased by 40%.[iii] The work week reduced from sixty hours to forty hours a week. With a shorter work week, there was more time for leisure; however, leisure time had been redefined from a time to kick back and relax to a time to consume.
To ensure that consumption didn’t stop, producers had to create new products quickly so old ones became obsolete. Many of these new products didn’t have any more utility than their previous versions. New features or frills were added, and commentators of the time have said that there was a severe lack of ingenuity in products.[iv]
You could take a standard toaster, paint it red, add two buttons, and advertise it as a toaster that could provide you with fifty shades of toast. Similarly, you could take an iPhone, keep releasing new versions of software until your storage is non-existent and your battery life is about six hours when left untouched.
The message was clear: consumption was the way to live life to the fullest and those who didn’t spend their money were re-branded as cheapskates, misers, or penny-pinchers.
Once we were fully indoctrinated, advertisers were able to take a moment, lean back, and enjoy their handy work. Bottles in booths, Balenciaga bags and Bentleys began to account for the values that defined status, success, and freedom.
Consumer culture has made its way into modern society and is determined to stay. The advancements in data collection, machine learning, and predictive modelling has created a whole new industry of data scientists running around studying all our spending habits.
Historically, the newspaper, radio, and television were the main sources of advertising. Now, we are walking around with the greatest advertising medium known to man inside our pockets.
The choices we make in our consumption has evolved into a way for us to express our individuality.
The human tendency to want to be a part of a tribe is extremely powerful. It was only natural for consumption to increase as it became more important to keep up with Jones’, or more recently, the Kardashians.
In consumer-based societies, we have been promised that we can solve our problems by fulfilling our wants. The challenge is that wants are unlimited.
We have shifted from a society that strives to solve our own problems to being one that relies on consumption to solve it for us. That’s why it hurts so much, and we suffer when the promise isn’t lived up to.
If we do ever stop to ask ourselves how much is enough, we have been coached to answer… “It’s never enough.”
This poses a severe threat to individuals in modern society.
A recent survey conducted by first year analysts at Goldman Sachs revealed an environment where they were not eating, showering, or doing anything else aside from working. Their bodies physically hurt all the time and they found themselves mentally in a dark place. Yet, they found it increasingly difficult to leave their jobs.
The Golden Handcuffs people often refer to is not money, but status. How many of us stretch ourselves too thin to maintain or increase our position in society?
Here are three solutions to living in a consumerist culture:
1. Spend on experiences:
Experiences allow us to build memories, gain perspective and meet new people. They enrich our lives and we walk away with something that doesn’t become obsolete and can’t be taken away from us.
2. Spend money on your loved ones:
When we spend money on those we love, we communicate to them that they are important to us. A gift that we give them becomes a symbol of more than a material possession as it communicates gratitude, love, and appreciation.
3. Invest in yourself:
Take a course, pick up a new skill, or a hobby. We can invest in our bodies and minds with massages and physiotherapy while working with a therapist or a coach to improve our mental wellbeing.
Consumerism breeds a culture of comparison and dissatisfaction. It also promotes values of wastefulness, over-indulgence, and hedonism.
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself how much is enough? What are you willing to give up and what is a line that you are not willing to cross?
We must make sure that we draw these lines for ourselves because if we don’t, someone will draw them for us.
[i]Amadeo, K. (2020, June 26). Four Critical Components of America’s Economic Growth. The Balance. https://www.thebalance.com/components-of-gdp-explanation-formula-and-chart-3306015.
[ii] Beder, S. (2004). Consumerism and work – a history. https://documents.uow.edu.au/~sharonb/consumerism.html.
[iii] Beder, S. (2004). Consumerism and work – a history. https://documents.uow.edu.au/~sharonb/consumerism.html.
[iv] Packard, V. (2011). In The waste makers (pp. 28–29). essay, Ig Pub.