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Consumerism: an Historical Perspective - part 2 PDF Print E-mail
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by Sharon Beder   
22 February 2009
- continued from webpage #1 -

Jimmy Carter, as President of the US noted: "Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns."55 Consumption has become a more important source of self-identity and status than work for many people. Compton Advertising undertook a survey of public attitudes to the economic system in 1974 and found two thirds of those surveyed identified their role in the economic system as that of "consumers and spenders of money" rather than workers or producers. This included one half of those in the labour force. 56

More recent opinion surveys show that in countries like the US and Japan, "people increasingly measure success by the amount they consume."57 In a society where people don't know each other very well, appearances are important and social status, though more securely attained through occupation, can be attained with strangers through consumption. When people are uprooted and move to the cities they are strangers to each other. Previously everyone knew one another's business and the status that should be accorded to each person. In an anonymous city a person can adopt a certain lifestyle, clothes, car that is higher up the status ladder than their occupation would indicate, particularly if they are willing to go into debt to do it. Consumption then becomes an indicator of achievement.58

The desire to consume is often portrayed as a natural human characteristic that cannot be changed. However it is clear populations have been manipulated into being avaricious consumers. What people really want, more than the multitude of goods on offer, is status. History has shown the determinants of status can change. If we want to live in an ecologically sustainable society, then we need to award status to those who are happy with a basic level of comfort rather than those who accumulate possessions. If, as a community, we admired wisdom above wealth and compassion and cooperation above competition, we would be well on the way to undermining the motivation to consume.

This article was first adapted for publication in Pacific Ecologist from chapter 12 of the book Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR, by Sharon Beder, Publisher Scribe, Melbourne 2000. Professor Sharon Beder is head of the Science, Technology and Society Programme at the University of Wollongong, NSW, Australia. She writes a regular column for Engineers Australia and has written several books including Power Play Toxic Fish and Sewer Surfing; The Nature of Sustainable Development. Professor Beder was awarded the 2001 World Technology Award in Ethics.


[1] Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making way for modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p, 158.

[2] Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture( New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976), pp. 70, 108.

[3] David J. Cherrington, The Work Ethic: Working Values and Values that Work (New York: AMACON, 1980), p. 37.

[4] Gary Cross, Time and Money (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 38; Rodney Clapp, 'Why the Devil Takes Visa', Christianity Today, Vol. 40, No. 11 (1996).

[5] Cross, note 7, pp. 7-8, 28.

[6] Ibid., pp. 7,9,39; Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), pp. 42, 67.

[7] Ibid., pp. 62-3.

[8] Paul Bernstein, American Work Values: Their Origin and Development (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997), p. 157.

[9] Cross, note 7, p. 16.

[10] Juliet B. Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline in Leisure (USA: BasicBooks, 1991), p. 74.

[11] Quoted in Hunnicutt, note 9, p. 41.

[12] Hunnicutt, note 9, p.; 42.

[13] Quoted in Cross, note 7, p. 41.

[14] Quoted in Ibid., p. 38.

[15] Clapp, note 7.

[16] Ewen, note 5, p. 19.

[17] Ibid., p. 29.

[18] Cross, note 7, p. 7.

[19] Hunnicutt, note 9, p. 43.

[20] Ibid., p. 45.

[21] Ibid., pp. 46-7.

[22] Robert Eisenberger, Blue Monday: The Loss of the Work Ethic in America (New York: Paragon House, 1989), p. 11.

[23] Hunnicutt, note 9, p. 79.

[24] Cross, note 7, p. 85.

[25] Schor, note 15, p. 78; Daniel Yankelovich and John Immerwahr, 'Putting the Work Ethic to Work', Society, Vol. 21, No. 2 (1984), p. 59.

[26] Cross, note 7, p. 155.

[27] Ibid., p. 153.

[28] Schor, note 15, p. 2.

[29] Cross, note 7, pp. 5, 9.

[30] Ewen, note 5, pp. 43-5.

[31] Ibid., pp. 54, 109.

[32] Robert E. Lane, Political Ideology: Why the American Common Man Believes What he Does (New York: The Free Press, 1962), p. 80.

[33] Ewen, note 5, pp. 77-8, 85-6.

[34] Ibid., p. 54.

[35] L. Macdonald and A. Myers, 'Malign Design', New Internationalist (November 1998), p. 21.

[36] Marchand, note 4, pp. 162, 222.

[37] Ibid., pp. 209-10.

[38] Ibid., p. 218.

[39] Ibid., pp. 220, 222.

[40] Quoted in Ewen, note 5, p. 92.

[41] Ibid., pp. 89, 91.

[42] Daniel Bell, 'Work and Its Discontents (1956)', in A. R. Gini and T. J. Sullivan (eds), It Comes with the Territory: An Inquiry Concerning Work and the Person (New York: Random House, 1989), pp. 122-123.

[43] Vance Packard, The Status Seekers: An Exploration of Class Behaviour in America (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1961), pp. 269-70.

[44] Andrew Hornery, 'Family Pack aims for the children', Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September 1998, p. 45.

[45] Packard, note 84, p. 271.

[46] Ibid., pp. 273-4.

[47] Ibid., p. 274.

[48] Ely Chinoy, Automobile Workers and the American Dream, 2nd ed (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinios Press, 1992), p. 126.

[49] Stewart Lansley, After the Gold Rush: The Trouble with Affluence: 'Consumer Capitalism' and the Way Forward (London: Century Business Books, 1994), p. 85.

[50] Greg Whitwell, Making the Market: The Rise of Consumer Society (Melbourne: McPhee Gribble Publishers, 1989), p. 7.

[51] Ferdynand Zweig, The New Acquisitive Society (Chichester: Barry Rose, 1976), pp. 15, 21-2, 26-7.

[52] Cited in Lansley, note 90, p. 136.

[53] Alan Thein Durning, How Much is Enough: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth, ed. Linda Starke, Worldwatch Environmental Alert Series (London: Earthscan, 1992), p. 34.

[54] Dan Zevin and Carolyn Edy, 'Boom Time for Gen X', US News and World Report (20 October 1997)

[55] Quoted in Thomas H. Naylor, William H. Willimon and Rolf Osterberg, The Search for Meaning in the Workplace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 69.

[56] Compton Advertising, 'National Survey on the American Economic System', (New York: The Advertising Council, 1974), p. 17

[57] Durning, note 94, p. 22.

[58] Bell, note 71, p. 68.

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