This paper is based on the topic of consumerism. It explores the topic by looking at the problems of new consumerism and how they may be addressed. It is argued that new consumerism is exacerbated by the conventional view that the consumer knows it all.
The paper is based on the works of Juliet Schor titled ‘do Americans shop too much?’. The recommendations provided by Juliet are adequate in addressing the problems of new consumerism. They also provide a good foundation for further research on the topic of consumerism in the American society.
As outlined by Juliet, consumerism has undergone radical changes which have culminated into a new form of consumerism which is characterized by irrational desires to spend instead of meeting basic needs. She argues that the average Americans today are more extravagant than Americans of 1950s and 60s.
During those days, consumerism was characterized by peer influence at the neighborhood level, that is, people used to compare themselves with their peers at their immediate neighborhoods and as a result, consumption was largely based on basic needs not on luxuries. During those days also, it was hard to find people living beyond their means because they only desired those social statuses which were in line with their income (Schor 66).
However, the emergence of the new media, globalization, cultural diversity, and the modern workplace has brought a new dimension of consumerism. As Juliet points out, the media has played a big role in fueling the new consumerism which is characterized by the desire by Americans to spend beyond their income. The reason is that many media advertisements tent to promote the culture of spending without providing alternatives to luxurious lifestyles.
In most cases, the new media promotes affluent lifestyles which are affordable to the middle class but beyond the reach of low income earners. Americans have also detached themselves from their immediate neighborhoods and chosen the media as their agent of socialization and as a result, both middle class and low income earners live beyond their means for the fear of being isolated by their peers (Schor 69).
Many Americans have also shifted their relationships from the neighborhoods to the workplace where they tend to compare themselves with their workmates. This shift has contributed to the desire to overspend because many people at the workplace have multiple sources of income and some of them are able to afford affluent lifestyles.
It means that those who depend on one source of income are not able to cater for luxurious lifestyles and as a result, they strain to match their peers at the workplace who have many sources of income (Schor 76).
According to Juliet, new consumerism has lead to many problems to individuals, countries, and the international community. To start with, research has shown that there has been a remarkable decline in savings by employed and self-employed Americans. During the 1950s, more Americans were able to save than today. The decline in savings by Americans is largely attributed to the competitive consumption associated with new consumerism (Schor 78).
The other problem with new consumerism is that there has been an increasing aspirational gap which has been responsible for compromising the quality of life for many Americans especially those of the middle class.
Majority of them are constantly worried about their future due to the ever increasing gap between incomes and consumption desires. Many middle class Americans today aspire to take their children to private instead of public schools and live in prestigious residents to simply match their reference groups in the global society (Schor 80).
The need to match the reference groups in the global society has also brought other cost related problems such as the need to own more than one car, inflated budgets for domestic chores such as dry cleaning, career wardrobe, and unending holidays. These have lead to a huge disparity between income and consumption.
For the low income earners, these problems are magnified by the fact that the low income earners are an easy target of credit card vendors who take the advantage of the media to trap the low income earners in getting credit to meet their irrational consumption desires. The low income earners are also hard hit by the inability to meet their desires due to job instability, poor wages, and increased inflation of goods and services. As a result, the stress levels of the low income earners are higher than those of the middle class earners.
The new consumerism is also characterized by the up-scaling of spending norms and a relatively constant or declining income. As Juliet points out, there has been an upsurge in private consumption of income at the expense of public and private consumption (Schor 80).
There are also very few Americans who engage in leisure activities due to inadequate incomes. The implication is that many Americans are becoming individualistic than before. The up-scaling of spending norms has forced many Americans to work for many hours so as to get the income to cater for private consumption. There has also been a remarkable decrease in savings especially among the low income earners due to huge financial burdens.
These problems have been exacerbated by the conventional view that the consumer knows it all. This view is based on the fact that the consumer is a sovereign entity with the ability to manipulate the production and supply of products and services. The conventional view makes it hard for the government to control the forces of demand and supply because the products which are not preferred by consumers are not produced at all. Companies which ignore the consumer desires are also forced to exit the market due to competition (Schor 82).
The conventional view also makes it hard to legislate on how people should spend their income. Even though it is illogical for a person to own two cars when they are not able to maintain them, it is not possible to put policies which prevent them from owning the two cars. The inability to control irrational spending further magnifies the problems of new consumerism discussed above.
Juliet provides some recommendations to these problems. First of all, she argues that there is need for the government to partner with agencies which educate people on the need to focus on the quality of life not on the quantity of ‘stuff’. If people are made to understand that the quality of life is not measured by the quantity of items they own, then majority of them would be able to live within their means and resist the temptation to match their reference groups for them to be happy in life (Schor 82).
Another recommendation offered to address the problems is for the government to reinforce ecologically sustainable consumption through enactment of policies which protect the environment from pollution and global warming. The government may do so by increasing the taxes for the high-end version products and making the low-end version products tax free (Schor 83).
Another strategy to deal with the problems is for the government to regulate the employment industry by banning all companies which allow employees to work overtime. The government may also ensure that no employees are denied their right to go for leave or holidays. Juliet also recommends that the government should come up with policies which regulate access to credit by ensuring that people get credit to cater for their basic needs not for luxuries (Schor 84).
Further to that, she recommends a reduction of private services and an increase of public services in the education, health, and transport sectors to curb the increasing demand for such services in the private sector which encourages irrational spending. The government can increase the demand of public services by improving the quality of services in the education, health, and transport sectors (Schor 85).
There are no objections to these recommendations by Juliet. However, some authors have made other recommendations which reinforce her views. For instance, Martha Stewart argues that the problems of new consumerism are entrenched in the structures of social inequality in the society and therefore, there is need to fight social inequality so as to eliminate the problems of new consumerism.
Just like Juliet, David Gordon argues that the government should put in place policies to ensure sustainable consumption. He also argues that the government should come up with ways of increasing the levels of income and educating people about the dangers of irrational consumption.
The main characteristic of new consumerism is the ever increasing gap between income levels and the irrational desires to consume what people do not need. Juliet is one of the few scholars who have put the concept of new consumerism into perspective. I agree with her arguments that the desire to match the reference groups is a major driving force of new consumerism. I also concur that there is need to focus on how to change the culture of people for them to differentiate between quality of life and quantity of items which they own.
Schor, Juliet. Do Americans Shop too much?, New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. Print.