Consumed by Consumerism

Consumed by Consumerism December 10, 2012

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.

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