A quiet revolutionary struggle is brewing in the minds of the US "millennial" generation, those 80 million Americans between ages 16 and 34. They are wrestling with the fundamental edict of capitalism: Buy and you shall be happy. The millennials have not rejected consumerism, but they have also not embraced it fully. They experience its very real downsides - that also afflict millions of older Americans and go to the heart of capitalist sustainability and morality.
Recent polls by marketing firms and the respected Pew Research Center show strong environmental concerns among millennials, but hint at a broader issue: whether consumerism itself makes for a good life and society. Americans, especially the young, love their computers and sleep with their iPhones next to their pillows, but still worry about the negative sides of consumerism.
Technology itself may be contributing to what commentators have called the "death of ownership" culture, since the issue is not owning a book or television set, but having access through the web. Technology is changing the very idea of ownership. But broader factors - including the very availability of so much "stuff" - are contributing to making consumerism less new, exciting and "cool."
In a recent informal study of Boston-area college students, I asked them how they felt about American consumerism. Almost all said they would prefer to be in a society that was less consumer-oriented, because consumer culture gives them these headaches:
* It creates fierce competitive pressure to have more and newer "stuff."
* It complicates their lives, always worrying about how to maintain, pay for and use all the things they buy.
* It distracts from a quality life with their family and friends.
* It creates a "dirty" lifestyle that makes them and the planet sick.
* It leads to more inequality, with people seeking more at the expense of others.
* It distracts from political engagement - President Bush told them to go shopping as he was gearing up for war with Iraq after 9/11.
* It imprisons them in a life full of products and empty of meaning.
These negative feelings are reflected in changing purchasing patterns, with recent polls indicating that a growing percentage do not want to buy a house or car. About 25 percent of Millennials do not want a car, compared with 10 percent of their parents at their age. In 1978, sixty-seven percent of 17-year-old Americans had drivers’ licenses, compared with just 45 percent in 2010. Of course, these differences may reflect reduced income, credit or safety issues as well as changes in consumer attitudes.
These attitudes may seem like the self-indulgent whims of affluent, high-consuming young Americans. Or they may seem a reaction to the Great Recession, as they can no longer afford to buy so much. They could also reflect a phase of life since young idealists too often turn to traditional consumerism as they assume the responsibilities of adult life. They certainly do not suggest that young Americans are decisively rejecting consumerism.
But a quick history of American consumerism suggests something very important: that the growing awareness of its real and serious downsides can largely be explained by problems of sustainability and freedom at the core of US capitalism.
Up until the 1920s, most Americans made their own clothes, grew their own food and bought very little. They were producers and not consumers. This changed in the 1920s, when the growth of capitalism had created large corporations that could no longer prosper simply from World War I production. They needed Americans to become consumers.
The corporations hired public relations experts and launched the modern advertising industry. Retailers such as the giant Sears Roebuck sent out millions of catalogs with alluring pictures of clothes, furniture and other commodities. This was the beginning of "coerced consumption." In the 1950s and 1960s, the new advertising culture mushroomed and became massive and irresistible, with corporations redefining American freedom as the freedom to buy.
Since profits require ever-expanding consumer markets, capitalism has always coerced consumption, typically by seductive advertising but also by harsher means. In the 1920s, Los Angeles had a huge electric trolley system that allowed people to move around the city without cars. General Motors responded by buying the trolley system and tearing up the tracks. By the 1950s, the automakers succeeded in getting the US government to underwrite highways and cars. People began to buy cars because other transportation choices had been ripped away from them, a perfect example of coerced consumption and a form of "un-freedom."
What is the solution for Americans unhappy with consumerism? Many are beginning to make changes in their personal lives. Students are starting to grow food in gardens at their universities. Many Americans are living closer to work, so they can walk or bike to the job. Some are looking for companies offering the choice of shorter work hours, which liberates them from the work-and-spend treadmill. Some are joining the "share economy," where they share things - Zip cars and bikes - with others. Many are "downshifting" to a simpler life.
But constraining consumerism requires far larger changes in US capitalism: severely limiting corporate power and rewriting corporate charters and international trade agreements to emphasize worker rights and environmental health. Quality must replace quantity as the measure of economic and cultural success. Government tax and regulatory policy must end extreme inequality and reduce production and consumption of dirty energy, unhealthy food and luxury goods. Large investment in public transit, community-owned enterprises, national parks and other public goods must substantially reduce private consumption.
Such system-wide changes are politically difficult - and they may not limit consumerism fast enough to avert climate catastrophe or reverse dangerous inequality. But in the most optimistic scenario, they could put society on a new path toward a more sustainable, cooperative way of life.
These changes will be on the agenda of people around the world in the 21st century. Europe is already a far less consumerist society than the United States. China, India and Brazil are struggling with environmental justice and inequality that inevitably highlight the issue of global consumerism. It will take a new social economy that rejects American-style consumerism to solve these problems and help save the world.
A Chinese translation of this article was originally published in the People’s Daily News, Beijing, China, on April 25, 2013.