Consumed by Consumerism

When it comes to consumerism, are emerging adults (18-23) mapping a new way? Are they, fed up with consumerism, revealing patterns of another kind of life, a “good life” not rooted in consumerism? These are the questions answered in Christian Smith, with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Paticia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (OUP).

They asked questions about consumption, about the good life, etc..

61% of emerging adults are perfectly happy in the consumerism life style in the USA. They are either “true believers or complacent conformists” (72). 30% express “some concerns about mass consumerism but thinking they can do nothing about it” (78-79). Their summary for this group: “inconsequential concerns.” That’s 91% of emerging adults — 91% are more or less happy with our current levels of consumerism. Only 9% register serious concerns about consumer choice.

What’s at work here? Smith’s team sees in “liberal individualism” (86). That is, individuals are autonomous units who act and choose independently of each other, and what drives this as an ideology is “meritocracy” which “ensures that people earn what they deserve” — and that while someone may think someone else’s choices are not good, they have no right to express that view. “Almost inconceivable are notions like a common good, human interdependence, systemic reform, or voluntarily embraced cultural alternatives of visions of the good life and society” (86).

More to the point, then, is that emerging adults have a vision of the good life that is essentially the classic American dream: “a financially unconstrained, materially comfortable lifestyle spent by them and their families consuming a variety of rewarding goods, services and experiences” (92). The good life then is about material comfort, security, family and happiness. This “good life theory” contrasts markedly from the classic visions of the good life, which were about transcendence and a journey.

Their conclusions:

1. There is a lack of serious thinking about the good life and about consumerism — personal and environmental impacts.
2. The vast majority of emerging adults have imbibed and are carrying on a consumerist life.
3. A substantial minority sees problems but isn’t sure what they can do about it.
4. Few are seriously critical of consumerism.
5. The future for a change about consumerism is not, then, coming from emerging adults. It may, but it is not yet.
6. They are individualists and consumerists.
7. They are mirroring back to their culture and their parents and their educators what they got from them: this study, then, indicts American culture as both consumerist and vacuous at leading others away from a consumerist life.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Luke Allison

    This is somewhat overwhelming. Not surprising, but overwhelming.

  • AHH

    They are mirroring back to their culture and their parents and their educators what they got from them
    I would add that those in the cohort who are Christians are probably also getting it from their churches. Both directly as most churches exalt (or at least fail to critique) the “American Dream”, and also indirectly because the style of many chuches tends to reinforce the consumer mentality by placing those who attend in the mode of consumers of the product dispensed by the religious professionals. And most evangelical churches nurture individualists by making it about “me and Jesus” and give short shrift to community.
    It would be interesting to see if the statistics break down any differently for those in this age range who are Christians (did Smith do that?); my guess is that it would not be very different.

    But I bet this important topic of how the next generation is being formed will get lost today because there is a post about Hell …

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    “What’s at work here? Smith’s team sees in “liberal individualism” (86). That is, individuals are autonomous units who act and choose independently of each other, and what drives this as an ideology is “meritocracy” which “ensures that people earn what they deserve” — and that while someone may think someone else’s choices are not good, they have no right to express that view. “Almost inconceivable are notions like a common good, human interdependence, systemic reform, or voluntarily embraced cultural alternatives of visions of the good life and society” (86).”

    Yet, this generation votes 60%+ for President Obama and Democrats, who routinely express collectivist ideals, talking about the common good. Romney, probably one of the most individualist candidates to run in awhile, and his alleged Randian VP, are rejected. Do the authors reconcile these generational traits with their voting behavior? I have some thoughts but I wonder what they think.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Michael (#3)
    You ask a significant question, one which dovetails with something I notice in this. This story that young people are absorbing is profoundly disempowering, but it is coming at the same time as all of this wonderful electronic technology. I think that in these voting patterns we are seeing the technology used in waya that feel empowering, wheather it really is empowering is another question, to people who are doing the only thing that see left to do, that is vote and organize voters.

    That is, that 91% of people are losing the concepts of living simply, or living in any way that opposes, protests or turns against the consumer society. In fact, even many of those who are not part of the 91% are using the technology as consumers even as they seek alternatives, and the tech folks are selling it on those terms and laughing all the way to the bank and digital domination.

    The most interesting article that I have read in decades is “These Guys Can Make Your Cell Phone Last Forever” in Mother Jones Magazine.
    http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/ifixit-kyle-wiens-apple-iphone-5-teardown
    Luke Soules and Kyle Wiens founded Ifixit while they were students at Cal Poly. They claim “We’ve figured out how to hijack the news cycle to change the dialogue to be more about long-term thinking and repair,” explains Kyle Wiens, who founded IFIXIT with Soules while both were students at California Polytechnic State University. Their goal is to take things apart and learn how to fix them and then share that knowledge, so others can fix — rather than replace — things.

    These guys have used their tech knowledge to address an issue that I first encountered in 1988 while reading “Love in the Ruins: A Story of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World,” (1970) by Catholic novelist Walker Percy. A recurring observation in the story was that no one fixed anything any more.

    Peace,
    Randy Gabrielse

    traveled 17 hours from San Luis Obispo, California, to Melbourne, Australia, so that he could be the first person in the world—literally—to purchase one. Then, wielding a heat gun, some high-powered suction cups, eight guitar picks, a Phillips screwdriver, and a flat-headed tool called a spudger, he proceeded to gut the thing part by part, tweeting out photos as he did.

    t with Soules while both were students at California Polytechnic State University.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Michael (#3)
    You ask a significant question, one which dovetails with something I notice in this. This story that young people are absorbing is profoundly disempowering, but it is coming at the same time as all of this wonderful electronic technology. I think that in these voting patterns we are seeing the technology used in waya that feel empowering, wheather it really is empowering is another question, to people who are doing the only thing that see left to do, that is vote and organize voters.

    That is, that 91% of people are losing the concepts of living simply, or living in any way that opposes, protests or turns against the consumer society. In fact, even many of those who are not part of the 91% are using the technology as consumers even as they seek alternatives, and the tech folks are selling it on those terms and laughing all the way to the bank and digital domination.

    The most interesting article that I have read in decades is “These Guys Can Make Your Cell Phone Last Forever” in Mother Jones Magazine.
    http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/ifixit-kyle-wiens-apple-iphone-5-teardown
    Luke Soules and Kyle Wiens founded Ifixit while they were students at Cal Poly. They claim “We’ve figured out how to hijack the news cycle to change the dialogue to be more about long-term thinking and repair,” explains Kyle Wiens, who founded IFIXIT with Soules while both were students at California Polytechnic State University. Their goal is to take things apart and learn how to fix them and then share that knowledge, so others can fix — rather than replace — things.

    These guys have used their tech knowledge to address an issue that I first encountered in 1988 while reading “Love in the Ruins: A Story of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World,” (1970) by Catholic novelist Walker Percy. A recurring observation in the story was that no one fixed anything any more.

    Peace,
    Randy Gabrielse

  • Phil

    @Michael #3: I’m not sure what’s a work here. Speaking entirely anecdotally, of my friends, many of whom are 25-35yrs both married and single, who voted for Pres Obama’s re-election their primary stated reasons were individualistic. Even among those who normally espouse more conservative ideology, or who are registered Repubs, they voted for the Pres. because they believed he was more likely to increase the various federal benefits and subsidies they receive and far less likely to decrease them. They also espoused a firm belief that people in their stage and status of life had a hard enough time getting ahead and didn’t need further burdens from the government (they believed Romney would’ve raised taxes on the middle class) and strongly believed that the wealthy pay less taxes than working people and needed to pay their fair share to ensure the benefits they and people like them currently receive.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Sounds like preaching material to me….

  • Matt Edwards

    AHH #2,

    We have to be careful blaming churches for the culture of consumerism. There are all kinds of churches in this country, many of whom strongly critique consumerism. The problem is not that there are no good churches, but that the good ones don’t have a strong voice.

    If it seems like the dominant church culture in America supports consumerism (and I think it seems that way), it is not because church leaders are conspiring together to preach this message, but rather because the churches that do preach this message succeed and grow large, whereas churches that critique it typically stay small. In other words, the American church is consumeristic because that’s what American Christians want. We flock to things that are big and shiny and cutting edge.

    If we want to change the church culture in our country, we need to stop supporting churches that promote consumerism.

  • Craig

    I attribute some of this to Jesus’s inadequate moral code, as expressed in Mt. 22:40. Simply put, there’s more to morality than that which can be easily captured by the demands of religious piety (loving God) and interpersonal morality (loving one’s neighbor).

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    Here are a couple of thoughts on the issues I raised in #3

    A few months ago I read that the at the onset of the Great Depression we had a libertarian government and a conservative citizenry. Today we have an oligarchic government and a libertine citizenry. I think the further down the age spectrum you the more libertine the values are. “Liberal individualism” is a close synonym for libertine?

    Here is how I think the voting dynamic works. Young adults believe self-expression is what leads to self-actualization. Being “tolerant” of all types of behavior ensures I won’t be called to account for my behavior. Intolerance is the ultimate sin, partly because of the injustice to the subject of intolerance but also not in small part because intolerance might limit my self-expression. Republicans promote conservative social values and these violate the tolerance taboo.

    The authors talk about “merit” but I sense an element of “entitlement.” There are unrealistic expectations about rewards that go with behaviors, and therefore a sense of injustice when reward expectations are not met. Consequently, the system must be re-rigged to ensure I get the goods I’m entitled to because of my meritorious behavior. I think related to this is that if I am being authentically me, I should not suffer economic consequences for my actions. I’m entitled to support.

    One of the most curious things about this election with the Democrats, was the near disappearance of rhetoric about the poor and the rise of talk about middle class entitlements. There was the promotion of student loans, health care, and free birth control. There was the video that shows over the lifetime of a women how the government aids her along the way. All this plays into the “I deserve support as I self-actualize” mentality. Republicans talked about fiscal restraint and self-reliance.

  • scotmcknight

    Michael, when I read this chp I said “But these same emerging adults voted in Obama” and so I agree; there’s tension. This last comment of yours may go too hard at it but it’s in the ball park (or at least Wrigley). That is, voting Obama/Democrat means sustaining entitlements, which turns out to be me-ism and not we-ism.


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