After the terrorist attacks on September 11, several leaders across the United States (and the world for that matter) told people the best response for people would be to go shopping.
That's what President George W. Bush told Americans on Sept. 27, 2001. "Get on board," he said. "Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed."
As Bush told it, the patriotic duty of every American was to spend money. It was a recognition of how much our economy depends upon consumption — the buying of things and services. Consumer spending is about 70 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In China, consumption is only 34 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank. In the United Kingdom, consumption is 64 percent of GDP and it is 45 percent of the Netherlands' GDP.
"That statistic would probably surprise most people," said sociologist George Ritzer. "We tend to think of society as still being dominated by production; as being dominated by industry."
Consumer culture, however, is everywhere and influences everything from economic policy to whether individuals will save money for the future or buy for the present.
Shifting into hyper consumption
Ritzer, who is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland and an expert on consumer culture, said that 50 years ago the organization that symbolized the dominant economy was General Motors. Today it is Wal-Mart. "That speaks reams about the changes that have taken place in our society," he said.
General Motors was the symbol of American economic domination and production — creating cars and shipping them around the world. Wal-Mart, however, is the epitome of consumption — bringing products from around the world to where Americans can consume.
Now, even China is beginning to shift from production to a more consumption-based economy. "But they have a long way to go to get to our 70 percent," Ritzer said.
Although buying things and services is not itself a problem, Ritzer is concerned about what he likes to call hyper consumption. "We've become a society obsessed with consumption," he said. "Can you really derive the gratification that you think you can from consumption? ... When it becomes our central life interest it becomes a problem."
Ritzer also sees the economy's emphasis on consumption as a paradox. "Can you consume your way into wealth?" he asks. "Can we sustain our society on the back of consumption? It just seems to me, in the long term, not to be possible."
The historical model is that people produce wealth and then go and spend some of it. But when consumption becomes paramount, people borrow to consume instead of saving money.
That money goes to other countries such as China, Ritzer said, — countries that are becoming wealthier because of our consumption. "It is like a global redistribution of wealth," he said.
In a relative way, other countries are becoming wealthier, creating a more equal global distribution of wealth.
While U.S. consumption may be helping other countries do well (at the U.S.'s expense), at an individual level there may be some dangers.
James A. Roberts said materialism, the desire for worldly possessions, isn't a bad thing in and of itself. "But when that desire crowds out more important values is when it can be a negative influence," said Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University and author of "Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy." "And not just in our personal lives, but in our relationships and society as a whole."
When the goal becomes to find happiness through things, it leads to comparing to other people, Roberts said. "(Materialism) undermines how we feel about ourselves," he said. "It interferes with relationships with others. It also makes it less likely or reduces our motivation to give back to society. It destroys everything that we know can bring lasting happiness."
A 2012 study headed by Northwestern University psychologist Galen V. Bodenhausen showed that thinking of people as consumers has negative consequences.
“We found that irrespective of personality, in situations that activate a consumer mindset, people show the same sorts of problematic patterns in wellbeing, including negative affect and social disengagement,” Bodenhausen said in a press release about the study.
The study found that when people just think of others as being consumers, or are put into that mindset, they are less trusting of others and less personally responsible. “It’s become commonplace to use consumer as a generic term for people,” Bodenhausen said. He recommended, in the press release, to use terms such as "Americans" or "citizens" in place of "consumer."
The difference in language may seem subtle, he said, but it “activates different psychological concerns.”
Roberts said, "We need to reduce our reliance on consumer spending as an indication of well-being."Comment on this story
Ritzer has done well enough for himself on the materialistic scale, but for him, the most important things are not things. He enjoys producing scholarly papers and has many books and textbooks.
"The great pleasures in my life don't come from going to the mall or buying a new sweater — although my wife will force a new one on me now and then," he said. "The great pleasures in my life come from my wife and my kids and my grandkids."