Work hard > Get paid > Buy stuff > Feel good > Repeat
The consumer society is broken. It’s time to embrace post-consumerism.
Here is a simple model of the promise that a consumer society makes to its inhabitants: Work hard > Get paid > Buy stuff > Feel good > Repeat.
That chain models the way life inside a consumer society is supposed to work. Get a job, work hard, earn money, and spend. Individually, you can expect to climb the career ladder, get paid more, and be able to access objects and experiences that make you happy. Collectively, we’ll forge a more prosperous society that benefits everyone today and promises an even better tomorrow for our children.
It’s a compelling and practical vision of the Good Life, and for decades across the 20th century consumer societies around the world delivered on it.
But now we’re amid something new. Today we can all sense that traditional consumerism just isn’t working the way it used to. I want to argue that the relationships embodied in this chain are at the heart of that shift. Because at the start of 2018 every link in the chain Work hard > Get paid > Buy stuff > Feel good > Repeat is broken, or at least significantly weakened. The promise that a consumer society makes to its citizens is falling apart.
That’s a massive shift with longterm implications.
It’s surely fuelled the spectacular populist upsets we’ve seen across the last two years, including Trump and Brexit. And it’s also fuelling a deep sense of unease when it comes to our shared future. That’s because the chain doesn’t just embody a set of transactional relationships. It also embodies the way consumer-citizens are supposed to construct meaning in their lives. Good consumers see meaning in a quest to build a career, prosper, and then access a prescribed set of status-enhancing objects and enriching experiences: think iPads and foreign travel. Now, as the links in the chain start to break, meaning is draining out of the system. And that’s a huge problem.
So in this article I want to do two things. First, to show that the breaking down of the chain means something momentous: the end of the golden age of traditional consumerism. Second, that this is the biggest opportunity of our lifetimes: for politics, business, all of us.
So why do I believe that the consumer society is broken? Let’s unpack the set of relationships at the heart of the traditional consumer Good Life.
Work hard > Get paid. In 2018, work just doesn’t pay the way it used to.
According to the Brookings Institute, the median wage in the US has stagnated for five decades. Yes, half a century. The picture is similar across western Europe: too often, work doesn’t pay. In the UK, some 60% of households who live in relative poverty contain at least one person who already has a job.
Sure, collectively we’ve got richer. But since the 1980s almost all of that extra wealth has gone to the top few percent.
Indeed, for rising numbers the capital that they have — or more likely their parents have — is becoming more significant than their labour. Just ask anyone lucky enough to own, or set to inherit, a property in any major city. Affluence is becoming much less about hard work, much more about luck. These trends are nurturing a tiny and hereditary economic elite, and a massive underclass workforce who have zero chance of joining them.
Meanwhile, millions of young people can’t even get a foothold in the labour market. Some analysts even think they’re losing interest in work as a source of meaning and drifting away to other, virtual realities. Who can blame them?
These changes are huge, because they pose a fundamental challenge to the contract that is supposed to hold between a consumer society and its citizens. Part of that contract says Work hard > Get paid. In other words: sell your labour, and you too can achieve material security or even join the ranks of the affluent. For millions, this promise is no longer holding true.
Get paid > Buy stuff. It’s no surprise that when workers don’t earn as much, they don’t buy as much. That’s what is happening now.
Lack of demand has been the foundational problem facing many affluent economies since the Great Recession. Low wages combined with the productivity gains made possible by new technologies mean that the productive capacity of our economies is outstripping the ability of consumers to buy. Lack of demand is why the recovery has been so sluggish, and why we seem stuck in a low growth deadzone.
But the real shock is still ahead. That is, AI and robot-fuelled job automation. When we can have a fantastically productive economy that involves far less human labour — and so far higher unemployment — than today, who buys all the stuff? There’s only so many smartphones, sneakers and fruit smoothies a tiny economic elite can consume.
A recent study by McKinsey estimated that automation will vaporise 800 million jobs around the world by 2030.
The promise that is Get paid > Buy stuff is already on shaky ground. That ground is about to be torn apart by an automation and AI earthquake.
Buy stuff > Feel good. In 2018, rising numbers of consumers are trapped in a toxic guilt spiral when it comes to the negative impacts of their consumption.
Why? Put simply, in a connected world it’s ever-harder to escape news of the negative impacts that our consumption has on the planet, society, and our own health. That new smartphone: do the minerals come from a war zone? That new tee-shirt: was it made by a child in a dangerous factory? This new health drink: is it packed full of dangerous amounts of sugar?
A connected world is one in which consumers are more informed, and businesses are more transparent. The result is that the days of naively enthusiastic consumption are gone. In a recent survey by Havas 66% of leading-edge consumers said they actively avoid brands that have a negative environmental or social impact.
Of course, change is hard. Coca-Cola produced 110 billion plastic bottles in 2017 — and we consumers bought them. Old, legacy consumerism is not going to die any time soon. But the guilt is not going away either. It’s only set to grow.
Yes, a new generation of startups have sprung up to offer consumers a shiny, ethical consumerism that the can feel good about. One, indeed, that has become a status currency: look at me and my ethical, considered consumerism.
But what’s the logical end point of that shift? What does it mean for consumerism when the most status-worthy move is not consuming at all? Sure, people are still going to need drinks, sneakers and everything else. But increasingly they won’t see their consumerism as a source of status or meaning.
Buy stuff > Feel good? In 2018, millions are more likely to truly feel good about a decision not to consume.
The Beginning of the End
Work hard > Get paid > Buy stuff > Feel good > Repeat. A simple chain that models how the good life in a consumer society is supposed to work. We’ve seen how in 2018, every link in that chain is breaking down.
Work no longer pays the way it used to. Consumers can’t spend fast enough to support the growth we used to enjoy. And consumerism increasingly makes us feel not good, but guilty. Put it all together and the conclusion is hard to escape: the golden age of the traditional consumer society is over.
The truth is that we’re already living inside something new. Or, more accurately, we’re living in a weird, disorienting netherworld that is somewhere between traditional consumersim and whatever comes next.
So that’s the key question, then. What comes next?
Fully Automated Luxury Consumerism
There’s a danger that the argument above sounds pretty negative. And sure, it’s scary to think that the system that has prevailed across the last century or more is on its way out.
But remember, the tech-fuelled, capitalist, consumer society has done something amazing. It’s brought us to a place where many once scarce resources — from food, to data, to renewable energy — are on the way to being superabundant. It’s brought us within reaching distance of a hyper-productive economy that requires little human labour.
Those are incredible achievements. They also mean the old rules governing our economies are losing their relevance. Here’s the key thing: we need to see that as an opportunity.
What does a post-consumer society look like?
First, if we can embrace automation and distribute the economic gains widely, we can liberate millions from the shackles of work. Some worry that once people are freed from work, they’ll become aimless and despairing, devoid of any reason to get out of bed. But the 21st-century will be full of things for post-consumerist citizens to do; not least look after their ageing parents and grandparents. Stuck in a 20th-century model of employment, an ageing population spells a care crisis. In a post-work society, that crisis can be solved. And liberated from a social model that sees them find meaning in career progression and growing affluence, citizens can instead find meaning in a ways that pre-date consumerism, such as being around the people you love and making sure they are okay. The real, meaningful, and highly necessary work of the 21st-century will be care work.
Second, if we support the demand side of the economy we can enjoy the benefits of a new superabundance alongside the incredible choice that has been made possible by consumerism. On the left it’s become fashionable to talk about a Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a society that allows riches for all via communally owned robots and AIs. But perhaps we should be thinking less in terms of seizing the means of production, and more about seizing the means of consumption. By paying a government-funded and generous universal basic income, we can jack up demand and allow consumers to access the best of everything the new, super-productive economy can create.
That starts to look like a Fully Automated Luxury Consumerism. Which has got to be an idea worth exploring. I’ll be doing just that in future articles.
David Mattin is Global Head of Trends & Insights at TrendWatching.