A while back, Google put an interesting article in front of my eyes. A number of people have observed a correlation between my generation and anti-consumerism tendencies. This article in particular, however, makes the argument that Millennials are not cultural rebels – rather, the American Dream has been kept out of our reach and unattainable.
Before I wade in too deep here, I want to throw a splash of cold water on this debate. I don’t think it can be denied that anti-consumerism is on the rise. Nor can it be denied that this phenomenon has flourished among young people in a way it hadn’t in older generations.
That said, let’s not pretend like anti-consumerism is widespread and popular. Most young people I know still buy into the American Dream. Most of my peers still obsess with owning a home, buying gadgets, and keeping up with the Jones. Anti-consumerism may be on the rise, but it has a long way to go before it becomes mainstream.
I’m reminded of an article I saw published in the Washington Times. It claimed that LGBT people were up in arms because there were no LGBT characters in Black Panther. The article cited two people – an actress whose scene was cut and an employee of an LGBT magazine. It used those two sources as proof that the entire LGBT community was upset. This is a common feature of news reporting today. The voices of a small number of people are amplified to make issues out of non-issues.
So when we say that Millennials are rebelling against consumerism, let’s just pause for a moment and remember that we’re still talking about a relatively small population. It’s a growing population, but still a small one.
Is Our Problem That the American Dream Is Unattainable?
Whether Laura Marsh (the article’s author) intended to or not, she makes a pretty insulting implication. Millennials would be “good little consumers” if only we got a taste of real success. That we just haven’t attained enough wealth or stuff to trigger that raging capitalist erection fundamental to all Americans.
Millennials didn’t kill the napkin industry because we’re trying to pinch pennies. Millennials killed the napkin industry because we realized that we don’t need to buy four different types of disposable paper – one to wipe our hands, one to wipe kitchen counters, one to wipe our noses, and one to wipe or asses!!
That is a ridiculous assertion. It ignores the countless Millennials who – like myself – worked hard, achieved the American Dream, and deliberately chose to throw it away. I didn’t retire from my 11 year career because I wasn’t making enough money. And I didn’t sell my home because it wasn’t fancy enough.
So, Why Are We Abandoning Our Stuff?
It surely cannot be denied that economic conditions have, indeed, kept the American Dream out of reach for many young people. But for those of us who achieved it and then abandoned it, there is a profound reason behind our decision.
Not only have we discovered that the stuff we own isn’t making us happy, but in fact, the stuff we own is contributing to our misery.
We are aware that the stuff we own comes with costs. Not just the cost to purchase a thing, but the cost to store the thing, to power the thing, to license the thing, to secure the thing, to insure the thing, to clean the thing, to maintain the thing, to repair the thing, to upgrade the thing, and to replace the thing. Most material possessions cost much more than their purchase price.
Material possessions also physically bog us down. My generation values mobility in a way that we haven’t since advent of modern agriculture.
It’s true, many Millennials still pursue the American Dream. And for many of them, the American Dream is out of reach. Pretending that anti-consumerism is a symptom of economic failure ignores those of us who attained success and abandoned it. Anti-consumerism is indeed a counter-cultural statement and movement.
I don’t like over-simplifying things. And when we’re talking about cultural movements like this, it is impossible to discuss causation without over-simplification. If I really wanted to dig into this topic (and had endless time to do so), I could demonstrate how politics, religion, news media, and probably a dozen other things have contributed to the anti-consumerism movement. But none of us have that kind of time. So I’m going to outline two major factors.
1 – Millennials Challenge Assumptions. My generation tends to think more critically than previous generations have. Again – that’s not to say that we’re amazing critical thinkers – just that we’re slightly better at it than our forefathers were. My generation grew up realizing that our parents and other adults lied to us. They lied about the dangers of drugs – especially marijuana. They lied to us about the virtues of trickle-down economics – most of us have wised up to this particular scam. We’ve wised up to advertisers, who pushed their luck too far by brazingly inventing bullshit problems that we need to cure by buying their products (the feminine hygiene and cosmetic industry really blew it here). We are skeptical, and we’re less willing to go along with things because they’re tradition. We demand explanations, and if the ones adults offered us do not satisfy, we’re willing to revolt against the status quo.
2 – Social Media Exposed Us to Old Ideas. Let’s face it. Minimalism is nothing new. It’s been around for a long time. Monks and nuns have historically been well-known for their minimalist habits (pun intended). But no mechanism has existed to effectively disseminate such philosophies into the mainstream.
Social media has provided a gateway for previously fringe ideas to gain mainstream acceptance. We’re able to interact directly with people who hold these philosophies. Our education is more personalized and immersive. Through social media, minimalists can share the why’s and the how’s of their lifestyle directly with new, receptive audiences.
Unfortunately, the same mechanism permits other fringe ideas, like racism, to make their comeback. Not that I’m equating anti-consumerism with white nationalism. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of allowing fringe ideas into the mainstream. Some of those ideas will be good, and others will be bad.
Why Does Any of This Matter?
Not all Millennials are anti-consumerists, and no one is advocating that we all need to become anti-consumerists. Minimalism is an individual lifestyle choice. So what does it matter what causes it?
I believe anti-consumerism is an idea that has not yet had its day in the sun. It may be a growing movement, but it is – today – still a fringe minority movement. But that won’t always be the case.
I believe that the economic and cultural forces that have given rise to anti-consumerism will continue to make the movement grow. Over time, I expect more and more people to begin to buck capitalism and consumerism. We will continue to resist efforts to force us into the fold.
As well it should.
Humanity’s destiny does not lie with the latest iPhone gadgets or the hottest cars. Our destiny lies in ideas and experiences and exploration. It may take decades or centuries or millennia. But eventually, the acquisition of material wealth is going to become an outdated form of achievement. It is inevitable.
Capitalism may not be going anywhere anytime soon. But with a growing number of people resisting traditional consumerism, capitalism has some very real and very imminent threats. Economies are dependent on the circulation of wealth. If more people begin to participate in the economy less, recessions, depressions, and economic collapses become likely.
You’re won’t convince people to participate in the economy for the greater good when capitalism is – by nature – competitive and self-serving. The threat of a recession, depression, or economic collapse is not going to end (or even curtail) anti-consumerism. If anything, these threats will only serve to propel these movements.
The Need for Change
Presently, anti-consumerists are pariahs. We’re labeled as unpatriotic. Our values are disrespected. Laws are designed against our success. And there is tremendous societal and economic pressure for us to conform. And yet, we are a growing population. The very forces that attempt to conform us are the same forces compelling us to rebel even harder. The day will come when the majority interests are no longer served by clinging on to this outdated materialist model.
Until then, the resistance of the minority will adversely affect those who remain part of the consumerist system. It is in everyone’s interest that our society and economy begin to evolve to accommodate a wider variety of lifestyles. Rather than forcing everyone to participate in the economy to pursue the same materialistic goals, we ought to create a space and a system for those seeking different lives to succeed and contribute to society in other, non-monetary ways.