Sunday, January 6, 2013

Is the Consumerist Society Fading?

John Quiggin:
More importantly, the culture of conspicuous consumption, which reached unparalleled heights of excess in the 1990s and early 2000s, is on the wane. The most striking emblem of this change is the end of the American love affair with the motor car. Throughout the 20th century the car stood in American culture as a symbol of personal freedom attainable through consumption expenditure. Year after year, pausing only briefly for recessions and slowdowns, more and more cars were driven further and further, burning more and more petrol. But this endless growth has now, apparently, come to an end. The use of petrol in the US peaked in 2005, before the advent of the economic crisis. The distance driven has also peaked and Americans are buying fewer and smaller cars. Economic factors, including higher fuel prices, have a role to play. But anecdotal evidence suggests that there is more to it than this. Increasingly, driving is seen as an unpleasant chore rather than an exercise of freedom. Young people in particular have been less eager than their parents to start driving and acquire cars.

Such shifts bring bigger changes in their wake. Without cars and commuting, large houses in the suburbs are much less attractive. After decades of steady growth, the size of new houses seems to be declining. Smaller houses mean fewer possessions to fill them, and less appeal for a privatised life based on private consumption.
These are very interesting statistics, but do they really portend a trend toward consuming less? In the past, every prediction that people might be satisfied with the current standard of living and not want more has been wrong. Right now in America there is certainly a trend away from big houses and long commutes in fancy cars toward smaller houses, urban living, and quality rather than quantity. But I have my doubts that it will last.

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