teenagers and materialism, part 1

here’s part 1 (of 4) of an article i wrote for youthwork magazine in the UK (it was published in an issue last year). i posted this a few months back, and the editor asked me to hold off, so i postponed the rest of the series. but he gave me a the green light today. i’ll post the four parts a few days apart.

A Different Spin on the Problem of Materialism

Let’s just get this truth out in the open right from the start: it’s a bit odd to have an American write about the problem of materialism to a UK audience. Fair enough. Maybe you could think of it this way: an American should have even more experience with materialism. So stick with me…

I have a friend who’s on welfare. He’s brilliant and creative and funny. He’s a photographer, and he’s really good. but he doesn’t want to ‘compromise his art’ to do photography as a living — he wants to make it as an art photographer. His wife had a minor injury at work a few years ago and went on disability. Now, if she gets a job, the disability will be cut off. So they have absolutely no money. And they have three teenage kids (all of whom, by the way, are fully capable of getting a job and helping the family, but don’t).

My friend’s teenage kids, who have an X-box gaming system (same as me), feel completely ripped off that they can’t get an X-box 360 (the newer gaming system). They lounge around the house complaining about how much it sucks that their parents can’t get them the new system, while dozens of games for the fully functional gaming system at their feet retire to the land of forgotten toys.

Why does this bug me so much? Well, a few reasons. But the reality is, the whole thing bugs me because it exposes everyone’s materialism – certainly my friend’s teenage kids, but also my friend and his wife, and yes, even mine. See, while I really enjoy this friend, and like hanging out with him, I’ve not yet had him over to my own home. I’m concerned that he will only see me as a source for money or other stuff. I don’t have an X-box 360, but I have a lot of stuff. And the potential that my friend could view me as a potential lava-flow of cash only exposes me! If I weren’t materialistic, and a champion-level collector of new gadgetry, my friend’s potential perspective wouldn’t be an issue.

Let’s face it: we’re all materialistic (at least most of us). Trying to say that this generation of teenagers is so different, so much worse – I’m not sure I buy it (ha, get it? “Buy” it!). Anyone young enough to have completely missed World War II (that would be most of us) has no real sense of limitations on spending. So what is different about today’s teenagers and materialism?

Well, first of all, they are materialistic. They want stuff. They have massive spending power, and Madison Avenue and High Street spend millions of pounds to open the pocketbooks of teenagers. This is overly simplistic, but there are a couple key factors in play here:
– There have always been materialistic stuff-hoarding people. But materialism was never embraced as a cultural norm – as something to be proud of — until the 1980s.
– Connected to that reality, teenagers of the 1990s and 2000s embraced the materialism they saw exhibited in their homes and the world around them. They have lived with a heightened materialism their entire lives.

This is one of the reasons we tend to notice the materialism of teenagers. Especially for those of us who were teenagers prior to the 90s (for me, WAY-prior to the 90s!), there is a new embracing of stuff that wasn’t present to the same degree when we were teenagers.

(next, in part 2: teaching teenagers about materialism)

8 thoughts on “teenagers and materialism, part 1”

  1. My stewardship director left an AP article on my desk yesterday about this subject: UCLA’s annual survey found nearly 75% of teens thought it was “essential or very important” to be “very well-off financially”; Pew Research Center found 80% of 18-25s see getting rich as the top life goal for their generation; 22% thought it was important to be a leader in the community and 30% thought it was important to help the needy. And it mentioned two books: “No: Why kids of all ages need to hear it and ways parents can say it” (David Walsh) and “Generation Me: Why today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled– and more miserable than ever before” (Jean Twenge)

    Personally, I ran into this when one of my students and I had a series of conversations about what we wanted for Christmas, and he could not understand why I wasn’t asking for an iPod or planning to buy myself one.

  2. I actually diagree with your premise, Marko, and it implications for the church & ministry.

    So what is different about today’s teenagers and materialism? Unlike any other era of commerce & media, we now live in a world where billions of dollars are spent to drive the spending of teenagers. They are exposed to thousands of marketing messages a day. Why ? It’s simple – they have per capita more available spending money than any other generation of teenagers ever.

    And what has the church’s response been to this ? We have hidden behind the idea that the church is in exile, that we are different, and that we should sequester ourselves away from the evils of the world, even the “consumerist” evils of business. While we were in hiding, the world changed, and the church is slowly adapting to that change.

    The world is God’s creation and we are called to be stewards of it. This isn’t an environmental or a political call to action, but a call to fulfill our calling as God’s human creation.

  3. bob c — i’m not sure where i see your disagreement. what premise of mine are you disagreeing with? just as a heads-up for where this is going, btw, is that my contention (in the parts to come) is that the issue isn’t really materialism, it’s consumerism, and that the american church (especially evangelicalism) has so bought into consumerism, we have no hope of addressing materialism in teenagers (until we address our consumer-driven models and approaches and assumptions, that is).

  4. I think part of our teenagers being materialistic is the attitude of some parents to give kids what they never had themselves. I agree with you that rampant materialism started in the 80s, previous to when i was a teenager, so by the time i got there it was in full force. and now with technology contstanly getting better, we always want the next new thing.

    I had an interesting discussion with my youth last Sunday. I asked them if they felt they had a responsiblity to help the poor, and they told me no. because it is people’s fault if they are poor, because they are lazy, drunk, whatever. I was surpised by this answer and quickly explained the other side of it, that sometimes the money people make only covers rent, or food, because they just make minimum wage. Then they started to come around. They also then said that if they, from small town North Dakota would move to a bigger city, then they would be considered poor, and they would need help. Interesting

    Can’t wait to read the rest of this series!


  5. my comment got eaten

    my point was that materialism is an addiction that rampant consumerism feeds. my work – the work of most marketers – is stoking materialism

    the church has eithe (a) covered its ears to the din of consumerism overtaking capitalism as the dogma of our time or (b) embraced it whole hog, driving a product-ization of the gospel, with transactions and artifacts of purchase being the currency of faith

    i yearn for a way to re-claim creation – the whole of it – not for commerce or for gluttony, but for what we are made for. certainly that is not buying to create identity or measuring wholeness by what we can acquire

    ah, back to work for me – hi ho hi ho

  6. one last piece about the church

    the art of the western church that is percived to be most alive & thriving – the evangelical thread – seems to strive to be the most efficient marketing organization

    i am struck that globally, it is the pentecostal & catholic threads that look like kudzu in the south. their marketing tactics are…um….really, really bad. they are laughably inefficient

    for me, the difference, and it feed right back to the north intertwined materialsim/consumerism virus – our call at this moment seems more to be the task of narrating our Story before the world, as opposed to marketing to the world. in the north, that comes from a hunger for meaning – in the south (globally) that comes from a hunger for the essentials of life

  7. Marko…

    sorry don’t know where else to post/email this. i’m a chaplain at a high school/jhigh in fullerton. 200 students, fairly closed and apathetic-REALLY hurting. i think the core would be amazing for our teaching staff to attend but am worried that it would be way too youth ministry/game-like/spoken in those words. i’m not worried about myself or the other ‘hip’ teachers ( :-) ), so would this be relevant/powerful for my teaching staff?

    Please email me at [email protected]

    Chris Kamalski

  8. Pingback: ysmarko

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