Competitive Consumption and the Difficulties of Being a Parent Today

 

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Being a camp counsellor was one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had; I’ve had the pleasure of working at two different summer sports camps for a total of 5 years. As a camp counsellor, you have the opportunity to work with children in an ideal environment designed to engage, entertain, and educate. Like any job dealing with children, it also exposes you to the difficulties of being a parent; specifically, dealing with the stresses faced by children each day with regards to fitting in. Today, one of the most important factors that affects a child’s ability to fit in is their consumption – or more realistically, their parents’ consumption – of various consumer goods available.

We spend more money on consumer goods today than ever before. Economists in the 1950s predicted that with the onset of the age of automation and the increased use of machines in factories, society would see an increase in productivity and a decrease in various cultural limitations on happiness, such as poverty and hours worked. Despite the fact that Canada’s GDP has doubled since the 70’s, we still have relatively similar levels of poverty present in our country, and we’re working more hours than ever before. Between the 1950s and now, something happened that took away all that excess wealth generated by the economy. The answer is quite simple: consumer goods.

There is a ton of overlap in what these devices can accomplish, yet most middle class households possess all three, usually in multiples.

There is a ton of overlap in what these devices can accomplish, yet most middle class households possess all three, usually in multiples.

Sixty years ago, we didn’t have the technology nor the need to possess a laptop, smartphone, and a tablet. Yet today, the occupants of most middle class homes possess two, if not all three of these devices. Some even have an iPod in cases where the music storage on their mobile phone isn’t sufficient. This need was manufactured – rather brilliantly – by companies to coerce consumers into purchasing products they fundamentally don’t “need”, but due to a concept known as competitive consumption, this manufactured need became almost universal. First described by 19th century economist Thorstein Veblen, it is this concept that also makes the premise of fitting in so difficult for children and their parents in today’s world.

The premise of competitive consumption is quite simple. Consumers are divided into two camps: offensive consumers and defensive consumers. If we treat consumerism like a game, those on offense are always first to make a move, and the defence has to react in order to protect their goal, or in this case, their status in society. Think back to when you were younger: picture that kid in your grade who was the “trendsetter” – they were always the first to get the latest toy, clothes, etc. This trendsetter would be on offense; their consumption tactics dictated how the rest of the field would play out. The rest of the class would then react in a defensive manner in order to protect and maintain their status in the group. For example, when I was in grade 10, iPods were the hottest thing going. Before Christmas, only a select few kids at my high school had an iPod, but after Christmas, everyone was walking around the halls with white earbuds. We all acted defensively in order to maintain our status at school and retain our sense of “cool”.

Thorstein Veblen.

Thorstein Veblen.

One afternoon at camp during pick-up time, I struck up a conversation with the father of a boy who was in my group. I had noticed that an alarming number of children had iPhones at our camp, and for the average 10 year old, the practical uses you can get out of a smartphone are limited to music, games, and the odd picture. Essentially, I couldn’t understand why so many parents had purchased an inherently useless (not to mention expensive) product for their child.

I asked the boy’s father how he felt being a parent with regards to the pressures faced with purchasing expensive electronics for his children. He replied that it was frustrating, because as soon as a few kids in the class go ahead and get the latest toy, that puts pressure on your child – and as a result, you as their parent – to keep pace. This conversation highlighted the dilemma of competitive consumption that parents face. Very few of them want to purchase so many products for their kids, but they must react in a defensive manner in the face of an offensive, consumerist outburst from those select few in the group.

Most purchases parents make for their kids are made in a defensive manner.

Most purchases parents make for their kids are made in a defensive manner.

Ironically, competitive consumption is not driven by those with the most money; in fact, competitive consumption is usually initiated by those with the least amount. As Veblen argues, “social status, like everything else, is subject to diminishing marginal utility – the less you have of it, the more you are willing to pay to get some.” Basically, those from a lower socioeconomic standing will spend a higher percentage of their disposable income on consumer goods in order to remain highly competitive against those from a higher class. This factor of diminishing marginal utility is also why massive sales events such as Black Friday and, to a lesser extent, Boxing Day, are so competitive, with the former being famous in recent years for rather violent outcomes amongst consumers.

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The premise of scoring a $29 tablet, or a $200 flat-screen TV, or a cheap video game system is much more important for those of low socioeconomic status. It is so important for some individuals that they will act in violent ways in order to ensure that their attempt at buying a higher status is secured. Unfortunately, the constantly evolving market essentially dooms those making big sacrifices to play offense in the game of competitive consumption. The level of absolute minimum required to live a decent life by society’s standards has steadily been tracking upwards along with economic growth, so those who are playing offense, most of whom are from a lower socioeconomic class, are constantly chasing a moving target.

Even those who choose to “abstain” from being overly competitive and simply play a weak form of defense are not immune to this effect. Eventually comes a time when a consumer product becomes so ubitiquous that even those far removed from competitive consumption, a consumer group known as late adopters, decides to indulge. The only way to effectively remove yourself from the competitive consumption game is refuse to let the judgements of others affect your consumption choices.

As a parent, what is difficult about adopting this strategy is that while adults may be more diverse in their interests, purchases, and consciousness involving the two, children are much more narrow-minded and far less disciplined in their desires. This can be illustrated by an example many parents can relate to: watching their young child play soccer. When children are young, they do not understand the fundamental tactics of soccer in terms of the purpose of each position on the field. A soccer game between young children is a chaotic mass of bodies constantly chasing a ball. Affectionately referred to as “beehive soccer”, the hive mentality of these youngsters is simply to chase the ball around in a swarming mob of little bodies, and somehow attempt to kick it into the other team’s goal.

Beehive soccer in action.

Beehive soccer in action.

Occasionally you’ll get the child who is much more individually skilled and dribbles through the other players with ease, but for the most part, watching young children play soccer is, from a tactical standpoint, incredibly frustrating. They simply can’t grasp the concept of individuality and the role of an individual as part of a team because a child’s mind has not developed enough yet for them to  get a sense of identity in the world.

The same can be related to how children view products targeted at them. If you try to tell your child that he or she doesn’t need the latest toy, video game, or clothing item, they will think that you are insane. Children are easily influenced, and all it takes is that one especially popular or eccentric individual in your kid’s class to influence the choices of the rest of the group. A sense of personal identity in children tends to start forming during their preteen years, and continues throughout high school. This is where cliques start to form, and where almost all humans will forge their tastes as consumers; essentially, what sort of culture or “crowd” they will associate themselves with.

Until this time, it can be very challenging as a parent to keep up with the rampant competitive consumption present in their children’s lives. Due to the transparency of parenting practices and constant engagement via various social media or other online sources, even the consumption choices of parents for the benefit of their kids are starting to play a role in competitive consumption.

A new behavioural tactic affectionately referred to as mom-shaming is now ever-present as a wide variety of information on the how-to’s of parenting can coerce the influencers in groups of parents into adopting new trends. A common example is a group of parents shunning other parents who do not feed their children organic food. Despite no scientific evidence that supports the notion that organic food is nutritionally superior or just plain better for their child, parents will guilt and shame other parents who are not keeping up with their patterns of consumption and what they view as the “cool” thing to do.

Competitive consumption is so rampant among parents because, frankly, being a parent is a highly competitive activity. As humans, we take pride in what our children accomplish; they are our ultimate creation and expression of our knowledge and hard work. But, as this article has hopefully illustrated, competitive consumption is not a good thing; yes, it does help propel the economy forward and further the evolution of capitalism, but from a psychological perspective, it really messes us up.

Picture yourself being born in a low-income household. You yearn for wealth, luxury goods, exotic sports, and a huge mansion filled with attractive people at parties you throw. You soon realize that dream is a little too far off, so you correct your idealist vision to something more attainable. Let’s say that instead of a ’95 Ford Taurus, you wish you could afford a 2010 Honda Civic. One day you get there; working hard has paid off, and you’ve saved enough money to buy your dream car and still remain financially stable; you’ve moved up to the middle class. The problem is, once you have achieved this goal, your 2010 Civic blends in with the hundreds of others you see driving around town. All of a sudden you don’t feel so special anymore. Now you start daydreaming of buying a BMW 3 series. If that dream is one day achieved, you would then set your sights on a Porsche 911 Turbo.

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This pattern will keep repeating itself because as you move up the ladder in terms of income and class standing, what was previously your dream becomes reality, and that reality soon becomes dull. Our dream status becomes the standard platform for our lives, and when we realize that there are many others on the same platform, competitive consumption takes over. An example would be if all accountants in a peer group drove Honda Civics, but then one day a few accountants in the group decided to up the ante and purchase a BMW 3 series. The rest of the accountants would follow suit sooner or later, and eventually the BMW 3 series becomes the new Honda Civic. All of the accountants are once again at the same relative level of status despite owning a more expensive car; you’re no better off than you were with a Honda Civic, despite spending more money. In essence, competitive consumption is a zero sum game.

This constant state of status leveraging is very stressful for all those involved, and unlike adults who can choose to simply pull out of the rat race and go their own way, children don’t possess the same resolve. Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the book that sung the ballad of Christopher McCandless, can be seen as a reflection of modern society’s rejection of competitive consumption and capitalism as a whole. McCandless was fed up with the depressing state of society and his own life, so he sought meaning through a personal journey and discovery. He either buried or burnt his possessions, and set out on his now famous journey through the United States, ending in Alaska where he eventually passed away due to a combination of poisoning and starvation. Despite McCandless’ tragic passing and his overplayed martyrdom, his actions did send a message: the only way out of a life of competitive consumption is through a complete rejection and ignorance of the judgements that influence our consumption patterns. Such a choice is one of isolation and of great personal sacrifice.

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Obviously, very few of us are ready to simply drop everything and move out to a cabin in the woods, despite what we may affectionately post on social media, so the harsh reality is, the vast majority of us will have to learn to cope with the society we are in. What is important is to recognize that competitive consumption is ultimately a game with no winner, only losers. To avoid losing, you participate. Just because you can’t win, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the game. In fact, the constant pursuit of the illusion of winning is what many of our primary motivations in life stem from. As part of our pursuit of various goods in the forging of our identity, we must take solace in our lifestyle, not in the products that define it.

What this means is that we need to let experiences associated with products we purchase give reason for our existence, but not the products themselves. Don’t think about what car you want; dream of all the adventures it will take you on. Don’t concern yourself with how big your house is; look forward to hosting an incredible party in it. Don’t be sweat it with regards to owning the latest pair of running shoes; look forward to training for and completing that half-marathon. Thanks to the ease with which we can share information and ideas today, competitive consumption is more rampant than ever. As a result, being a parent on the defensive is especially challenging, because receiving judgement from other parents can have profoundly negative effects on one’s well-being.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Society’s Infatuation with the Ugly Christmas Sweater

The ugly christmas sweater has been around for decades, but not until recently have these gaudily knitted garments become popular and almost “cool”. Even those of the Jewish faith have decided to join in on the party, with ugly Hanukkah sweaters sporting knitted menorahs in place of Christmas trees. Why has this ironic fashion trend caught on so strongly? It’s not just the hipsters doing it anymore; popular retailers like Kohl’s have started cashing in on the trend, too. Let’s first explore why a nostalgic item of bad taste like the Christmas sweater has blossomed into the popular item of adults aged 18-50 in the past few seasons.

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Vintage items are desirable items of the middle and upper class. Antique furniture, vintage wines, watches, or cars; the purchase and consumption of such products is almost purely that of the middle to upper class. In his work Retromania, Simon Reynolds describes these classes’ obsession with vintage as the result of a desire to distance themselves from those of lower status by way of alternative consumption. People with more money view themselves as having better “taste” in various aspects of consumption, and buying antiques and other vintage items is a way to make a material statement about that.

If you were to walk through the homes of many wealthy individuals, you would not find the latest, most modern furniture; you would likely find furniture with “character”, an effect that cannot be replicated in a department store, only by time. This is a symbol of status and taste that cannot be purchased by the masses; it needs to be sought out at antique auctions. Buying vintage helps the middle and upper class remain “cool”.

It should come to no one as a shock then that most hipsters are from upper-middle class backgrounds. They purchased vintage clothing not because it was cheaper, but because of the rarity and question of taste their purchase indicated. Under a guise of irony, the hipster movement started making thrift shopping “cool” again, and not just something that was previously done out of necessity due to the low price point.

Part of this culture of thrift shopping was the purchase of “ugly” sweaters. Clearly, these sweaters are worn by those with bad taste, but if sported with a sense of irony, the wearer is exempt from all judgement due to the statement being made due to the self-consciousness of their bad taste.

Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu argues that “aesthetic judgement is always a matter of distinction – those who have good taste express it so that they can distinguish themselves from those who do not. According to Bourdieu, aesthetic judgement is concentrated almost exclusively among the high-status members in society.  In cases where members of middle to high status consume aesthetically inferior goods, like an ugly Christmas sweater, they must do so ironically in order to communicate to everyone that the consumer knows their purchase was in bad taste.

In other words, the reason hipsters wear ugly clothes and drink shitty beer is because they know it is, but they use it as a tool to mark themselves as distinctively better than those who come by these consumer tastes honestly. In this way, the reason why hipsters started buying up ugly Christmas sweaters from local thrift stores, or, even more cooly, had their Grandmother knit them one (out of locally-sourced, 100% organic sheep’s wool of course).

As much as we all love to hate hipsters, they are the latest form of counterculture to fall victim to an adaptation of their cultural tastes by the masses. Beards, man buns, plaid shirts; it’s all there in the H&M and American Eagle ads now (they left out the PBR because kids still shop there).

Whether we like it or not, mainstream culture is slowly adopting the tastes of the hipster movement centred in SoHo, Portland, and Queen West. In student dwellings & bars, as well as suburban homes all over North America, ugly Christmas sweaters have become a form of social currency during the annual holiday party. No longer is your status determined by how sharply tailored your jacket is or how exquisite your green velvet dress is; it’s how funny or ugly your christmas sweater is.

If you take a stroll through most of the “hip” or “cool” neighbourhoods in major cities, you’ll see that the ugly Christmas sweater trend has been dropped. No longer is it cool to wrap yourself in knitted irony; those sweaters are lame now in their eyes. Once a trend followed by the cool, trendsetting few has been adopted by the masses, those who strive to distance themselves from mainstream culture will dig a little deeper in order to retain their coolness. This has been a recurring pattern for many years.

The Burberry Nova Check scarf.

The Burberry Nova Check scarf.

At the turn of the 21st century, Burberry scarves were must-have items on the wish list of virtually every stylish person on the planet. Today, they are seen as a fashion faux pas now because the iconic Nova check pattern was copied by so many companies and made the status of wearing a scarf obsolete due to the ubiquity of the pattern.  Alexander McQueen’s signature skull scarf pattern was recently copied by retailer Forever 21 and plastered all over scarves and shirts, and now the designer’s iconic pattern is barely found amongst the fashion elite.

The Alexander McQueen Skull Scarf adorning the necks of numerous celebrities. The pattern has since appeared worldwide on garments produced by fast fashion chain Forever 21.

The Alexander McQueen Skull Scarf adorning the necks of numerous celebrities. The pattern has since appeared worldwide on garments produced by fast fashion chain Forever 21.

It’s only a matter of time before the next “cool” thing to wear at Christmas that is already being adopted by the status seekers and purveyors of all things cool of the world trickles down to the masses, and when that happens, the ugly Christmas sweater will go forgotten for a while. As is the case with many trends, they often make resurgences many years later with a whole different generation adopting it as their own. This is exemplified by the adage that all fashions come back into style one way or another; however, this pattern is not limited to just our clothing.

In the late 1970s, skateboard culture was booming in California and spread across North America as the new cool thing to do. Once enough lame or square people adopted it, the trend’s popularity dipped and went underground for many years, sustained by those dedicated few.

In the 1990s, skateboarding, and extreme sports in general, made a huge comeback. Pop-punk music grew in popularity, clothing companies were launched, video games were released, and the whole skateboarding subculture experienced a massive resurgence. Skateboarding became too popular for the purists and those who desired to be “cooler” than the rest, so longboards became popular, and once too many posers bought those, cruiser skateboards (the short colourful ones) became popular, but boarding as a whole has been declining for years.

To those of you out there who just recently purchased an ugly Christmas sweater: enjoy the fun while it lasts, and hang on to it! History has shown that the trend will reappear somewhere down the line. The heyday of the ugly Christmas sweater is upon us, but don’t expect it to stick around for too many more holiday seasons.

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It’s Not What You Know; It’s What You Produce

Anyone who knows me will know that I enjoy stand-up comedy. I constantly quote my favourite comedians’ routines or adopt the techniques and patterns found in stand-up into my own way of speaking. I even advocate for its study in order to make you better at networking and interacting with people overall. One of the first stand-up specials I stumbled across was Eddie Murphy’s Raw. Murphy may have been best known by those in my generation as the Donkey in Shrek, but he was a superstar in the 1980s thanks to the success of his stand-up. One of the main focuses of Raw is the new way men and women interacted during the 1980s, largely due to the rise of feminism and materialism. In the following clip from Raw, Murphy repeats the phrase (from the 1986 Janet Jackson song of the same name) “What have you done for me lately?”

This ideology may seem quite entitled, but let’s replace the man and woman in this scenario with a university student and the economy.  The largest problem facing millions of university graduates is the issue of finding employment and repaying student debt. One of the terms floated by the media is “underemployment”, or the notion that given their university degree, a recent graduate is overqualified to be working at Starbucks or serving at a restaurant. The problem with this scenario is our definition of “qualified”. A university graduate may certainly be more intelligent in certain areas than a non-graduate, but does that necessarily equal more qualified?

The economy is not (at least directly) a function of intelligence, it is a function of worker output and efficiency. The intrinsic value of many university degrees relative to the job market is simply not that high. Simply put, the knowledge gained in many university degrees nowadays has no value in an economic sense because that knowledge cannot create economically valuable products. Education, in a holistic sense, is certainly valued on other levels aside from the economical, but what was the point in investing in a university education in the first place then? You don’t need a university to teach you how to read and write; the most revered writers of our time did all of that thinking on their own accord and were inspired by the experiences of their own lives, not the lessons learned in lecture. This is not to say that attending university is a waste of time -we are not yet at a point in society where we can ignore university en masse- but the approach towards the university education and what happens afterwards still needs to change.

Let’s return to the analogy of the recent graduate and the economy. “What have you done for me lately?” is the question constantly being asked of the recent graduate by the economy. She is quite the nagging bitch, but the fact remains: if you want to be seen as valuable and desired by the economy, you need to produce things for her. Knowledge can be a commodity, but it is of no use to the world if it remains stuck in your head. That knowledge needs to be applied to create products or services of value for the economy to reward you with her attention and satisfaction.

Education as a Lego Set

The fact is, most university graduates are simply consumers of the commodity of knowledge purchased from their university. A typical university graduate crying the pains of underemployment is like buying a set of Lego, building the thing that the instructions told you what to build, and then expecting to win a Lego building contest.

You paid for the education, you were given the same set of pieces as everyone else, but what you create from that set of pieces and how you do it is up to you. The problem is that most people are expecting to be rewarded for doing the bare minimum requirement of “success”, i.e. following instructions. You won’t look like a failure, but you also won’t stand out that well, either. This isn’t to say that in order to succeed you simply need to deviate from the instructions; it is one way of succeeding in winning the Lego contest. You may get first prize with your effort, but the judges also may not particularly like your Lego creation, and you may finish last.

“But the contest is rigged!” you exclaim. At first glance, perhaps. There are others that were born as more creative Lego builders or whose parents are friends with one of the Lego contest judges. There may be those whose set was actually missing a few pieces by accident, or others may have stolen few extra pieces when an unfortunate contestant wasn’t looking. But there are also factors that are totally within your control. Maybe before the contest you read up on the latest Lego building techniques in case you feared your creativity wouldn’t be strong enough. Maybe you volunteered at a school teaching children there how to build basic Lego structures and the parents of one of those children is a Lego contest judge. Perhaps you tutored fellow students who were struggling with their Lego building abilities and that in turn helped give you new perspectives on Lego building.

You may point to the fact that not every school was given the same set of Lego, and that all those kids from Harvard got the deluxe expansion set with 45 new pieces in it. Simply having more pieces is not the whole answer; it is how well you construct them and demonstrate your abilities to the judges that will assist you. Sure, more of the judges might have went to Harvard – after all, that is where many great Lego builders of the past have graduated from – but being great at Lego building is something they take great pride in, so they can still respect someone whose hard work both outside and inside the Lego contest demonstrates their desire to succeed. To ignore or discount this situation is equally as arrogant, though, because the Lego building institution you got accepted into still does speak volumes about the character of your Lego building abilities and potential.

When the contest is over and the results are in, you should not get angry at anybody if you don’t win, including yourself. Do not blame the system as being biased, do not blame yourself for building a worthless structure instead of playing it safe and sticking to the instructions; focus on attending different contests with different contestants and judges. No two judges are the same: although they look for similar elements in contestants’ Lego structures, what you built today that got you last place may get you first place tomorrow. No two contests have the same makeup of contestants: new contestants are entering all the time, and over time you will gain more Lego building experience and learn new Lego building techniques. It is not always the most qualified Lego builder that wins the contest: sometimes you just have to build the right structure for the right panel of judges.

Consider that maybe you’re competing against Lego builders who are truly more talented than you and who simply want to win more. It may be time to swallow your pride and switch to an easier contest if you are starting to get discouraged. On the flip side, if you always finish second or third in each contest simply by following the instructions but are happy doing so, who cares? It might not be as glamorous or lucrative as deviating from the norm, but the risk of losing far outweighs that chance of winning. At the end of the day, you bought your Lego set because you enjoyed playing with Lego, or at least enjoyed the thought of winning something by playing with it.

However, if you find yourself consistently failing whether you have followed the instructions or not, then strongly consider adapting your approach to Lego building or trade in your set altogether. Sometimes the pieces in the set just aren’t the right fit for you, and other pieces may resonate more strongly with you. Don’t blame the system for stacking the odds against you, because you can only build a creation as strong as the pieces in the set combined with how much work you’ve done inside and outside the contest to assist in your good fortune.

While it may be true that the average level of Lego building skill has increased over the years, as has the cost of purchasing a Lego set, that does not make you better than those who are not as good at building Lego as you are, or who cannot afford to buy a set. Being able to purchase a Lego set also does not entitle you to winning a Lego building contest. The judges are expecting you to follow the instructions, but are hoping that you do not. It is here where you will truly learn the most. Following instructions does not allow for self-learning and a gain of knowledge or real experience; deviating from them does. What good would handing out all of the tips and tricks of the Lego building trade do for the nature of the Lego contest? True merit and happiness is gained by working to discover those secrets for yourself.

As a student, it is paramount that you recognize that knowledge is a common commodity nowadays; this is the reason why a university degree is not as valuable as it was in our parents’ generation. Our society’s ability to access infinite amounts of knowledge with the click of a button or the tap of a screen is almost universal, and much of what we learned in school can be read using a search engine. The value of going to university is the skills you learn along the way: critical thinking, reading, writing, group collaboration, and presenting are all valuable skills learned throughout a typical undergraduate degree, but most students fail to apply them in ways to produce anything meaningful. The strength of a university graduate is found in how they apply the knowledge they have gained in conjunction with the skills they have learned as part of their university degree.