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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.