How Did We Get Here?

"Thrift Shopping" by philbonnell @ FlickrIn my continuing exploration of thrift I oftentimes find myself wondering how we’ve gotten to where we are today.  As a nation, we used to place an emphasis on the virtues of hard work, thrift and frugality.  We took pride in our possessions.  Today we consume twice as much as we used to 50 years ago however our Gross National Happiness has continued to decline during that time period. 

It all begins at the end of World War II when a push towards television advertising changed the way advertisers campaigned for business.  By 1955 there were 30 million household with television sets.  Advertisers now had a captive audience which it could work to sell a generalized perception of consumption.  It worked to sell a higher standard of living.

What does all of this mean?  According to Victor Lebow’s 1955 article in the Journal of Retailing titled “Price Competition in 1955”:

The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats…”

 We’ve been sold this idea of success through years of intentional marketing.  For decades businesses have been working to create social pressure in order to get us to conform to the standards which they have defined in order to sell us their products.  We’ve been taught that in order to be accepted by society we must consume.  Each day we are the targets of 3,000 advertisements telling us to eat here, drive this car, wear these clothes.   

Marilyn Manson discusses how the media creates fear which in turn causes us to consume:

…You’re watching television, you’re watching the news; you’re being pumped full of fear…There’s floods, there’s AIDS, there’s murder…Cut to commercial;  buy the Acura, buy the Colgate.  If you have bad breath, they’re not gonna talk to you.  If you got pimples, the girl’s not gonna fuck you.  It’s a campaign of fear and consumption.  And that’s what I think it’s all based on; [this] whole idea [of]: ‘Keep everyone afraid, and they’ll consume.'”

For more than half a century we have been sold this story of conformity through consumption.  It is no surprise how our society today values material possessions far more than we did even 50 years ago.  Ironically, if there were to be a widespread conversion back to thrift and frugality, our economy would suffer.  This is called the Paradox of Thrift.  Our economy is set up on the basis that we will consume at a certain level, and if there is a shift towards frugality on a widespread scale, the economy will retract.  Sound familiar?  Its what is happening today.

The problem is that our spending rate is not sustainable and we must return to a more frugal way of life.  Of course, no one is going to tell you that you need to save your money.  As a matter of fact, most people will tell you to spend in order to boost the economy.  These people are not concerned with the long-term viability of our economy.  They are more concerned with boosting the numbers of the market today.

Now is a great time for us to return to the values of our grandparents; things like thrift, frugality and being thankful for what we have instead of concerning ourselves with what we don’t.

4 thoughts on “How Did We Get Here?

  1. Well done… we do need to step back into our future in terms of how we view money and consumption.

    I like the personalization of this article with the Marilyn Manson reference as well.


  2. I was considering whether or not to leave Marilyn Manson out of this, but I thought it was an interesting contrast to the quote from a 1950’s economist. Essentially it is as opposite the spectrum as we can possibly reach, but both have a very similar viewpoint, albeit spoken in a different language.

  3. Nice post. I’d like to add that in the 50’s, the collective psychology of Americans was shifting from a positive, production based state to the negatively focused consumption mindset we all share now. Fifty years ago, we consumed what we made. Now, we don’t make what we consume, but have the irrational belief that we can continue to consume at continually higher rates. Theoretically, that would work, except that it ends up being a one sided transaction, and now we have found ourselves out of money. To solve this problem, business and banks started to use ever more clever methods, like the insidious marketing you mention above and so eloquently illustrated with your Marilyn Manson quote (which is really pretty ironic, if you think about it), to essentially brainwash us into believing that the “buy stuff without selling stuff” formula was sustainable.

    In addition to cutting back on consumption, which makes one feel picked-on because of the marketing machine you presented above, we must produce more things that people need and want, things that have meaning and value, things that are not disposable but more permanent.

    I wrote a blog post you might find interesting about the brainwashing which mass-marketing has foisted on us at:

    • Not only is it a one sided transaction where our money is continually drained away, but it also operates on the idea that our planet is not finite. We have limited resources which we can use to produce products and limited methods of disposal of these same products. The more we consume and dispose the greater the harm we cause to our environment. This is not the perspective of a tree hugger with a liberal agenda, but simply the truth as I see it from my limited education of the environment. It is hard to say when things will reach a pinnacle, but I have no doubt it will happen. Whether it is in my lifetime is unclear at this point, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our part to try and create a better world for future generations. Restricting our consumption to what we actually need is a good way of beginning the transition. I don’t think it is going to reach the level of consciousness needed by the masses until it is too late and making that change is vital to the survival of our species.

      It sounds sort of science-fiction but that is how I see things going.

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