Becoming Good (Post-)Consumers

The conversation has nagged at me for a week now.  I was speaking with a mother who was also a high school English teacher and we chatted about teens and teaching.  As we spoke, she looked at me and commented that where we were failing was in preparing the kids for the practical aspects of life, such as keeping a checkbook and managing personal finance; she’s entirely correct in her assessment.  But she followed with another comment, that we aren’t preparing them to be good consumers.  It was shortly afterwards that the conversation fell victim to the press of dealing with our elementary school boys, but that particular comment has come back to me repeatedly since then. 

We aren’t preparing them to be good consumers?  On the contrary, we’ve raised them to be great consumers.  We’re doing a lousy job of being good post-consumers. 

I understand the point that she was making in the context of the talk about personal finance.  Our kids generally have a poor understanding of money and how to handle it, a function of society’s and parental inattention, as well as a purposeful effort to encourage consumerism.  How well do we live within our budget, save, keep track of our expenditures?  How do we maximize our money so that we’re being the most efficient and effective with the funds that we have available?  But the choice of the word consumer, while not meaning that that’s all that we are, is telling.  We should teach our children how to be consumers…

Shopping has become the manner of soothing our angst and alleviating our fears.  George W. Bush completely lost me in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when he stated that we shouldn’t let ourselves be held hostage to terror, but that we should go out and shop despite the fear.  Seriously?  When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping?  Some will say that it was just a poor choice of language, that shopping was a simple word denoting a wider spectrum of popular activities.  But I recall no language about overt public sacrifice, about what we needed as a nation to give up to pull together in common cause for what occurred and that is telling.  Where is the language about our collective values?

My sense is that we’ve fully given over to the material consumer programming pushed by the corporations, media and government to the exclusion of the non-material for life satisfaction.  To consider this, let’s look at QVC and religious affiliation as proxies for material and non-material satisfaction respectively.   QVC began as a fledgling entrepreneurial effort in 1986, two years after the start of HSN; in the earlier years, before and after it overtook the older HSN, it enjoyed growth of over 12%.  By the first decade of this century, growth had dropped to the single digits and in 2011, corporate revenues rose about 6.4% from 2010.  When you look at the QVC on-line age demographics, the largest segment is the boomer generation cohort of 55 – 64 years of age.  It’s followed by the 65 and over group and then by the second boomer cohort of 45 -54 year-olds.  The first and third age cohorts are the boomer generation in almost entirety, a generation nursed on the earliest precepts of consumerism, delivered via television and a truly flush economy.  The 65 and overs are perhaps the last wealthy generation that we’re going to be seeing, a group that does recall the lean years of the Great Depression and Second World War.  Don’t forget that the retirement assets of the boomers aren’t where they should be, particularly for the younger boomers.

On the other side of the ledger, take a look at religious affiliation, as recently viewed by Pew Research.  Remember that this is a proxy for non-material values and not necessarily a cry that you had better get thee hence to a church.  What’s notable in the survey is that the percentage of Americans who have no affiliation to any particular religion or denomination rose to fully 20% of the population; the group taking the biggest hit was the staid mainline denominations (Lutheran, Methodist and the like) cohort.  But the telling story is again within the age groupings.  About 37% of the respondents within the 30 – 49 year-old cohort had no religious affiliation; 35% of the respondents in the  18 – 29 year-old cluster had no affiliation either.  In comparing the two proxies, it would appear that the parents – the two largest QVC cohorts – were buying into the push for a consumer mentality and letting it overtake the other values historically handed down within the family.  It hasn’t been put to the statistical test, but it does make a certain sense.

The difficulty for our children however, is that the American consumer model is now dying.  Family incomes are dropping – by approximately $3000 since the start of the Obama Administration – and there’s a record number of Americans now receiving food stamps.  You can argue that the "improvement" since the financial crisis of 2008 is purely a result of repeated episodes of Quantitiative Easing with the Federal Reserve tossing cash into the system like confetti at Mardi Gras.  Many living wage jobs have been shipped overseas and will only come home with lower labor costs, meaning less money for our families, who are still working on the consumption model.  We’re simply now at the point at which we have to learn – and teach our children – that the easy personal financial choices of the past six decades are an end.  We’ve now officially entered the Post-Consumer era of American History, when the choices are harder and the opportunities fewer.  If you have any question about the validity of that statement, consider QVC once again.  In March of 2012, QVC inked an agreement with China’s national radio broadcasting group to begin a joint venture into tapping into China’s burgeoning middle class as occurred here.  The sights are likewise set on Brazil and India, two more members of the so-called BRIC group of nations, as QVC joins the rest of the corporate flock moving on to greener pastures after eating the local fields to the financial roots. 

There’s an awareness that our kids don’t have a handle on personal financial management, and that’s true.  But looking at that technical side – the use of credit and balancing a checkbook – is missing the greater point.  It’s akin to saying that we need to teach the youngsters better ways to manufacture buggy whips when every Tom, Dick and Harry is setting up an automobile manufacturing company.  It’s time to recognize where we are and move on accordingly.

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