It’s a modern consumer gadget phenomenon. A company such as Apple will announce an updated version of last year’s product, and people rush out to buy the new model — while their perfectly functioning old product is still just fine. Why?
I’ve thought about this before, but it’s on my mind today because of a discussion related to Wednesday’s story about iPads in schools. A commenter brought up the question of why people today seem to feel the need for the latest of everything. Why is it that a 10-year-old car is unacceptable to some people, even if it still runs perfectly and has no other problems? Why is furniture that’s perfectly functional tossed out for something new? And why was that iPhone 4 from last year replaced in October with an iPhone 4S?
I suppose you can explain a lot of this by calling it an appeal to fashion — in consumer societies that are fabulously wealthy by any standard the world has known before. By historical standards, we have excess wealth in our pockets, excess time on our hands and excess choices to spend them on. I haven’t studied consumer psychology on this, but I have a theory about what causes people to replace things so quickly. Let me run it by you and you tell me what you think.
I suspect that many people in our world have learned to get their joy from the things they own. At the same time, the things that have brought great meaning to people in the past are frequently considered passé. Much of society looks down on religious faith, for instance. Educational experiences have been considerably dumbed down from half a century ago. And the increasing pace of modern life means that many people make other things a priority over investing time in emotional relationships. As the important things and values of the past have faded, shiny new toys have come to prominence — fed by the consumer economy and a government that believes in giving people incentives to spend.
I don’t mean to imply that I think all spending is bad, even spending on new gadgets. I have an iPhone, but it’s last year’s model. I have an iPad, but it’ll be two years old in a few more months. And my iMac — which is my primary work tool — is about four years old now. (That’s a dinosaur in computer terms, isn’t it?) The car I drive is 13 years old. I don’t have any furniture newer than about 15 years old — and that’s the “new” stuff. By other people’s standards, my things aren’t exactly cutting edge, but I do have some nice things. It’s just that I have a mix of newer things in areas in which there’s a pragmatic reason and older things in areas in which it just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t always mix and match beautifully to show off for company, but it works for me.
So I’m left with three questions:
- 1. Would the current consumer obsession with buying the “latest and greatest” have existed without a free market to create the conditions that make excess wealth possible?
- 2. Is the drive to gain more things — bigger things, better things, more expensive things — driving Americans to work harder? And is that in turn damaging the personal relationships that make life worth living? And is the weakening of those close personal relationships — husband-wife, parent-child, friend-friend, etc. — part of what drives us to want more “stuff”? In other words, is this a self-reinforcing cycle?
- 3. Would many Americans today be better off lowering their standard of living at least somewhat? For instance, if a husband and wife are both running themselves ragged earning money to maintain a certain lifestyle — enough so that they can’t maintain a quality relationship with each other or with kids — are they losing more than the lifestyle is worth? Would it be better to reduce income — by 10 percent, 20 percent or even 50 percent — in order to change their lifestyle and actually experience life?
I’d like to know how you would answer those questions, but I’m going to give you my answers, too. I think the first is obvious. Yes, it’s the market that allows us to have wealth, but what we choose to do with the excess wealth (and whether we choose to pursue materialism) is our decision, not the market’s fault if we choose poorly. Second, yes, I think the cycle of materialism is self-reinforcing. As long as you’re a part of it, trying to get ahead and achieve great financial “stability” and “security” — concepts that I don’t think ultimately are especially useful in a world you can’t control — you’re going to end up with lousy relationships, despite the best intentions. And, yes, I think reducing lifestyle — and reducing your work output — is the way for many people to have a better life. It has the additional benefit of strengthening your relationships and giving you additional time to make the world a better place in other ways — if you make wise decisions otherwise.
So those are my answers to the questions. What are yours? And what’s your balance between driving for excess and living in deprivation? Everyone has to find a balance he’s comfortable with. If you have the modern American upper-middle class lifestyle — which requires that you work all the time — you’re going to pay a price. It’s a tradeoff. Is it worth it to you? It’s not to me.