October 26, 2009

What Will The Post-Consumer Future Look Like?

A recent thought-provoking comment from a reader provided the opportunity for the following post in which I would like to tap into the wisdom of all those who pass by this humble blog. The comment was in response to my recent post on desires, consumer culture, and advertising. What will happen if many of us decide to not buy anything? What if it becomes a way of life, not just a temporary setback before resuming borrowing and spending? What will a post-consumer culture look like?

During the last two decades, the percentage of the U.S. economy devoted to consumer spending went up and up and up - from 67% of GDP to 72%, a huge increase.

We can't all not buy anything and expect our world to remain the same. But you know the trend has begun when economists like David Rosenberg are talking about a "new frugality" cutting into consumer spending.
Now, with credit tight, wages flat-lining and unemployment steadily ticking higher, consumers are strapped. Personal spending in the second quarter was $195 billion below the figure for the same period last year. That 1.9% drop is significant — over the 20 years that ended in 2006, consumer spending reliably increased at an annual 3.3% rate.
We are cutting back and thinking twice about our discretionary spending. Many of us are deciding not to buy anything, or at least not as much as before. We are re-evaluating our role as consumers. The Jones' have left the neighborhood, and we ain't lookin' over the fence any more.

And now, to the comment:
This has been on my mind for some time now as well. My current financial situation has created a huge obstacle in my old habits of consumerism. My families survival needs are met, and we have found contentment within our purchasing restraints.

I find myself wondering what it is that I would actually want, if I had extra money to go around? At the same time, however, I wonder what would happen to all the billions of people on this planet if even just 5% decided that they no longer desired material objects.

How many jobs would be lost? What would people do to earn an income if they weren't needed in jobs that support consumerism? How would science advance? What would drive our economy so that we could still share resources and knowledge if the motivation of earning an income was extinguished?

I believe that there are major philosophical and political issues/implications that would arise as a result of millions of people changing thier outlook on capitalism. I am personally not a fan, but I wonder if some people would even know what to do with themselves if they didn't want to work to buy stuff, or go to the bar afterwards. And finally, how could this effect you or I in the long term?
Thank you to Pzeffan for his comment. I would like to do a bit of future visioning of my own.

The murky view in my crystal ball reveals that cooperatives will be a larger part of the solution in the future. The cooperative movement began in Europe in the 19th century in response to rapid industrialization. There are thriving housing cooperatives around the world. I lived in one quite contentedly for a decade. There are also retail cooperatives like MEC in Canada, and REI in the U.S. Worker cooperatives in developing nations are realizing great success. In these endeavours all members benefit, not just a small elite at the top. The membership shares in control of the venture, and in the benefits that flow from it.

I see a frugal future where we humbly come together in communities in order to help support one another, and realize the benefits of our cooperative efforts. It is already happening, with about 800 million members globally participating in the cooperative movement.

The current crisis of greed yields an opportunity to try a different model, and a better way of life. My vision sees the dark, polluted fumes of excess and luxury clearing, and a brighter, more cooperative future for all just over the horizon.

What do you see in the post-consumer future? How will we overcome the challenges inherent in the continuing shift toward a less individual, competitive, materialistic culture?

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