How Consumerism Trains Us to Devalue the Past

Losing Respect for the Past

Consumerism can be defined as an overattachment to material goods and possessions, such that one’s meaning or worth is determined by them. This definition is reasonably helpful but misses one key aspect of the phenomenon: it is not just the attachment to material things but also the need for constant acquisition of the same. Life is enriched not simply by possessing goods but by the process of acquiring them; consumerism is as much a function of boredom as it is of crass materialism.

What has this to do with rejection of the past? Simply this: consumerism is predicated on the idea that life can be fulfilling through acquiring something in the future that one does not have in the present. This manifests itself in the whole strategic nature of marketing. For example, every time you switch on your television set, you are bombarded with advertisements that may be for a variety of different goods and services but that all preach basically the same message: what you have now is not enough for happiness; you need something else, something new, in order to find true fulfillment. I believe this reinforces fundamentally negative attitudes toward the past.

Crisis of Confidence

Carl R. Trueman

Carl Trueman explains the importance of creeds and confessions today, including how they help churches navigate the modern culture of expressive individualism.

Think for a moment: How many readers of this are wearing clothes they bought ten years ago? How many are using computers they bought five years ago? Or driving automobiles more than fifteen years old? With the exception of vintage car collectors, the economically poor, and those with absolutely no fashion sense, most readers will probably respond in the negative to at least one, if not all three, of these questions. Yet when we ask why this is the case, there is no sensible answer. We can put a man on the moon, so we could probably make an automobile that lasts for fifty years; most of us do little on computers that could not have been done on the machines we owned five years ago; and we all get rid of clothes that still fit us and are quite presentable. So why the need for the new?

A number of factors influence this kind of behavior. First, there is the role of built-in obsolescence: it is not in the manufacturer’s best interest to make a washing machine that will last for a hundred years. If that were done, then the manufacturer would likely be out of business within a decade as the market became saturated. Such is a possible but unlikely scenario. Developments in technology mean that longevity will not be the only factor driving the market. Efficiency, for example, or enhanced and multiplied functions might well create a continuing need for more goods. Aesthetics also play a role; the ability to market goods based on aesthetics and image has proved powerful. Remember the cool, sleek look that Apple computers developed at one point? That gave them a clear edge over their rivals.

Consumerism is predicated on the idea that life can be fulfilling through acquiring something in the future that one does not have in the present.

Second, and related to the first point, we see in the consumer economy a coalescence of aesthetics and a bias to the young in the creation of the so-called youth market, and the closely related marketing of youth to older types like myself. If no eighteen-year-old male believes himself to be mortal, so no middle-aged male wants to appear to be any older than he was twenty years ago. Indeed, with the exception of those odd types (of the kind who read The Daily Telegraph in the UK and the National Review in the US) who were probably born with comb-overs, receding hairlines, and bottle glasses, it would seem that the market for youth clothing (albeit with slightly expanded waistline sizes) is alive and well long into territory previously reserved for the superannuated and beyond.

In today’s topsy-turvy world, youth has status. That is why so many old-timers spend large amounts of money and time trying to hold on to, or even win back, some of its accoutrements, whether by purchasing a pair of jeans from the trendiest fashion retailer, buying a male grooming kit, or even undergoing drastic plastic surgery. As harmless as these phenomena are at one level, at another they are part of the larger cultural impulse toward disdain for the past and for old age. We see this not just in fashion, of course, but also in the “wisdom” now invested in young people who are considered competent to opine on complex matters, not despite the fact of their relative youth and inexperience but precisely because of it. Pop music, a function of youth culture if ever there was one, is perhaps responsible for this. In the last few decades, we have had the pleasure of hearing all manner of people, from Hall & Oates in the eighties to Lady Gaga in the present, telling the world what to do about everything from apartheid to third world debt to gay marriage. Apparently, the lack of “baggage” (to use the standard pejorative) is an advantage to being able to speak with authority on complex subjects. In other professions, of course—from plumbing to brain surgery and beyond—“baggage” is generally referred to as “appropriate training,” but such is the power of a youthful smile, a full head of hair, and a trim waistline that such a perspective does not apply to matters of morality, economics, or the meaning of life in general.

As a postscript, the impact of consumerism is one reason why church sessions and elder boards often spend more time than is decent on discussions about worship and programs. Someone will make the point that certain young people have left because the worship is not to their liking and thus the church needs to rethink how it does things. Laying aside the fact that, for most of us, no church gives us everything we want in worship but we are nonetheless happy to attend because the word is truly preached, it is interesting to note the session member’s response: we need to do something, to think again about worship. In other words, we need to respond to the needs of the consumer. An alternative approach might be that we need to do a better job of explaining why we do what we do, and what the obligations entailed in solemn vows of membership are; yet this is often not the instinctive reaction to such concerns. The consumer-is-king mentality renders all established and time-tested practices unstable and utterly negotiable.

This article is adapted from Crisis of Confidence: Reclaiming the Historic Faith in a Culture Consumed with Individualism and Identity by Carl R. Trueman.

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