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)