Consumption as a way of life for the American middle class.
Unless you’re a master un-subscriber, there’s nothing like Cyber Monday to remind you of everywhere you’ve bought something in the last five years.
If you’re like me, most of these emails are ‘deleted upon arrival’ in my inbox, but inevitably, a handful of businesses get to me. Those candles I buy repeatedly and favorite pjs that never go on sale are certainly enticing at 30% off.
I was going to buy them anyway… wasn’t I?
Is there anything more American than our endless appetite for buying whatever we want?
Meanwhile, 58% of Americans have less than $1,000 in their bank account. Politicians and think tanks tell us that middle class is shrinking and yet, we seem to be consuming as much as ever.
“Forty years ago, the term “middle class” referred to Americans who had successfully obtained a version of the American dream: a steady income from one or two earners, a home, and security for the future. It meant the ability to save and acquire assets. Now, it mostly means the ability to put your bills on autopay and service debt. The stability that once characterized the middle class, that made it such a coveted and aspirational echelon of American existence, has been hollowed out.”
- America’s Hollow Middle Class, Anne Helen Petersen for Vox.
About a month ago, I found myself thinking about all of the things we now associate with middle class living, and how a lot of these items didn’t even exist not so long ago.
Being a participating member of modern American society comes with a list of expectations; a smart phone (that costs as much as a computer), homes with multiple televisions, a slew of subscriptions, food delivered on-demand, boutique fitness experiences, clothes and cosmetics that help us ‘express ourselves’.
Could it be that our dwindling middle class isn’t only a function of stagnant wages over the last fifty years, but also that the menu of material expectations associated with middle class living has gotten much longer? There’s so much to want and often, very little left over to save.
We continue to design and develop products and services as though large swaths of Americans can afford them, but when less than forty percent of U.S. citizens would be able to cover an unexpected $1,000 expense: Can we actually afford to consume the way we do? Of course, it’s difficult to tell if someone is part of the ‘hollow middle class’ because they’re still performing all of the external markers of middle-classness.
On a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher candidly recalled that when he was a kid, his family never ate out, that dining out was ‘something rich people did’.
It’s true that frequently going out to eat and/or ordering take-out has become commonplace for a lot of Americans who could likely ‘find’ a meaningful amount of extra cash by doing so less often. That said, cutting back on consumption across the board likely isn’t so simple. Some of these modern ‘luxuries’ aren’t easy to opt out of: namely, smart phones.
Today, more than a third of American workers are gig workers, which means the phone is less a luxury than a requirement for generating income. Of course, with the smart phone comes not only a cellular plan, but also app subscriptions and a world where the worker is tethered to their screen, continually exposed to ads and influencers telling them what to else buy.
Despite a majority of Americans not having any sort of financial safety net, despite knowing what we know about the connection between material consumption and the climate crisis, we continue to consume at astonishing levels. Is this what addiction looks like at a national (or global) scale?
Perhaps part of the issue is that in our evermore connected world, we’re all too aware of what we have and what we don’t, of how our lives stack up not only against the Jones’ next door, but literally against the rest of the world. No matter how much we tell ourselves that ‘Instagram isn’t reality’, it sure can be good at imitating it; at tricking us into thinking that a better version of ourselves is just a stored credit card and a few clicks away.
We’ve created a culture of making ourselves feel wealthy rather than one that facilitates the actual accumulation of wealth. It would seem that the American middle class has become less of an economic classification and more of a mode: a mentality.
So attached are we to our consumer choices that the places we choose to shop (because there are so many choices), the brands we ‘support’, have become a part of our identity. We talk about how our favorite brands signal something about us. In a way that past generations might have connected over favorite authors or bands, we connect over what and where we choose to spend our money.
And somehow, all of this consumption leaves a lot of Americans with very little.
What to do?
A big-picture, catch-all-solution is more than overwhelming.
But - in my own life as a consumer, I’ve started to notice when my spending habits bring me more disappointment than satisfaction: opening Netflix and realizing that most of what’s featured is hot garbage, unremarkable $4 cups of drip coffee, mediocre clothing purchases from ‘disrupter’ brands, Apple harassing me regarding the fact that I’ve run out of Cloud storage, and that if I want ‘more cloud’, it’s going to cost me.
My response to Tim Cook:
I’m not anti-consumption - I am an American after all - but I’m tired of blind consumption, of paying for things I didn’t really want in the first place.
What’s absurd is that ‘not consuming’ now requires an almost karate-kid level of intention and alertness that the average American likely has little bandwidth to allocate.
Much like filters distort posted photos, our runaway-train-style consumption makes it easy for us to believe that the American middle class is still in tact, when the unfiltered truth is another reality.