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 a recent issue):

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 fantastic writer, and has dreams of getting published. As employment, he’s waiting for that dream to come true. 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.

11 thoughts on “teenagers and materialism, part 1”

  1. Interested to read the rest of the article. My small group of freshman girls discussed materialism last night. Despite their obvious materialistic lives, all of them denied being “that way”. It’s so ingrained in them and their culture, they can’t even see it.

  2. I find your article on materialism very interesting.

    Being a sixteen-year-old teenage girl from Paris, France, I think I can identify to your description of a materialistic teenager; I own a lot of objects and gadgets, including an MP3 player, a portable computer, a wardrobe overflowing with clothes (most of whom have never been worn), at least a gazillion CDs, a guitar, more beauty products than the number of days in a month, a piano, and other useless stuff.

    However, there was one thing that bugged me about your article; you didn’t mention people that live in deprived countries such as, let’s say Somalia, or people that suffer from the oppression of war such as in Iraq. I don’t think these children, some of them orphans, and these adults can possibly have a real notion of materialism.

    When you said, “Anyone young enough to have completely missed World War II (that would be most of us) has no real sense of limitations on spending”, I don’t believe you’d taken into account half of the world’s population that lives on less than a dollar a day – and that’s three billion of us – and that cannot possibly live without extremely acute limitations on spending.

    The devastating effects of poverty, hunger, spreading diseases such as AIDS and violence, strongly present in Brazil because of the lack of control on the arms trade, prevent these people from having any sense of ownership or expenditure.

  3. snub nosed princess: thanks for commenting. the reason i didn\’t mention all those teenagers in so many parts of the world who have no connection with materialism is because it\’s not the context i was writing about. the article is to british youth workers in churches. and i speak as an american youth worker, who works with american (mostly suburban) teenagers. it\’s THAT context that i\’m addressing.

  4. Yes, I realised that afterwards! It’s just that you didn’t set your article in a specific country or society so I was a bit confused, that’s all. :p I was doing research on levels of materialism for a school project and found the issues raised in your article interesting!

  5. Great article.


    Yeah there had to be one.

    I would disagree with your assessment that materialism doesn’t become the societal norm till the ’80’s. “Keeping up with the Joneses” has been around a long time. Our culture really begins the materialistic devotion following WWII. With the economic boom of the postwar years the America I grew up in (yes I’m older than you are) was very much into having the “right” stuff, and the “latest”. The worldwide economy is now better prepared to offer even more “stuff” but it grew from a longer standing materialistic tendency.

    It is the rise of the middle class (and our buying power) that has changed. Materialism is at the core of the culture of the wealthy from time immemorial (Best example? Versailles in France)With the rise of middle class disposable income we all get our chance to do what the wealthy have always done.


  6. “Dream job” Please.
    A dream job is the job you dream about while you are at the job that is paying the bills right now.
    I am a middle school shop teacher. I love my job, but it is not my “Dream” Job. Close but not quite “Dream” job. I am sort of a student minister undercover as a middle school shop teacher. My dream job would be to wear my sandles, jeans, and hoddie while drinking a starbucks coffee and writing messages and speaking to students camps, D-nows’, retreats, etc.
    Your friend should get a job that pays the bills.
    BTW his kids should get a part time job too. I had one eventhough my parents could pay for everything I wanted. I wanted to work for MY money. I know I was the weird kid in the group but………

    Marko, thanks for the good reading as always.


  7. Having taken a group of 30 students to Honduras on a mission trip this past summer I have one observation.

    One night while playing cards the lights in our compound went out and we ALL freaked out because our game was being interrupted. However the Hondurans that lived on the compound with us; without all the amenities in their “huts” just went on with their business.
    I asked the missionary we were working with if “Americanizing” the Hondurans would be a good thing. His response was profound…”Yeah if you could leave out the materialism, the feeling of entitlement, the laziness, and selfishness.” and then he said “many times groups come down here from the states and they assume that what they have is far better. In some regards it is…however having lived here for 8 years I’ve come to realize the things I had in the states allowed me to be comfortable beyond seeing my need for God and here I’ve totally had to rely on God for even the simplest things”

    At was at that moment that I realized the story about Jesus and the Rich Man was more about me than I had ever realized before.

  8. Today’s materialism is why our youth come to church with a sense of entitlement as well. Like we owe them trips, long weekend retreats, stops at McDonalds or whatever restaurant they want anytime they want, and an entertainment driven worship service. It’s all stuff that they can “buy” that will give them the purchasing high while telling them they feel close to God at the same time, because it’s a “church thing”.

  9. (Sorry for the misspellings…have a fractured pinky on my right hand..kinda akward to type…)
    Ok OK OK… So you have seen and stated the obvious, big freaking deal. Now how ’bout you come around and state the oblivious, the stuff that we cannot see without taking a deeper look.

    For instance, those kids in your article are not just “materialistic”, and it is not the society as a whole. They were raised that way, and yes, the majority is materialistic, yet not all. Also, the reason people even purchase things is to make them feel worth anything, for them to feel as if they have money, when in reality by them speinding the money, they have less money, threfore indicating that they really don’t ahve moiney.

    On top of that, with inflation occuring practically every year, and the dumbars congressmen always giving tax breaks, instead of raising taxes when we are in a surplus, the value of the dollar is always decreasing. This makes people want to buy more while they still can, so in a way they are not really materialistic, but instead spending their money wisely becasue the same item will cost more later, instead of less (as long as it was not just introduced into the market).

    As someone on NPR (National Public Radio) said just last week, “People who save money actually lose money, adn peopel who owe money actually save money, with the affects of inflation”

    (Again I would like to apologize for the misspellings in this comment)


  10. ok, “Scr1ptK1dd13” (or should i say “anonymous”, since you chose to rant a bit, but didn’t have the guts to leave a real email address): just hold on. as i said, this was part 1 of a 4-part article; and i subsequently said that i have to wait a few months (per the magazine editor’s request) before posting the rest, where i say much of what you’d ranted about. so cool your jets, skippy.

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