When circumstances shift dramatically in one direction, a correction will usually follow.
The generation that experienced the Great Depression and the Second World War understood conservation. Having gone without, they learned to treat food and possessions with reverence, knowing acutely what it meant to have little, or nothing. Ownership was security.
The time immediately following this must have been a dream for advertisers. Most didn’t have many things, meanwhile, fears were easy to identify and cater to. (Today’s advertiser, on the other hand, needs to invent or amplify a problem, in order to establish a compelling means of selling to consumers.) Just look to those post-war ads (from the “Golden Age of Advertising”) and you’ll find the same message repeated: There’s a product to solve any problem.
This led to a tidal wave of “want” that ran smack dab into another, and another, and another, and another. It fused with American Dream, encountered Generation Me, was given a seal of approval by Reganism, and was later propelled by the rocket-fuel of off-shore labor. Our situation matches that of a starving kid left to run amok at Baskin-Robbins (only to be forgotten there for the next 60 years).
Extend the metaphor and we find my generation representing the grand-children of the Baskin-Robbins shut-in. We haven’t gone without. Instead, most of us have lived believing there’s always more to be had. We’ve learned that it’s easier to buy new than fix anything. Disposable is our default setting, and we’re unwilling to shoulder a moment’s inconvenience to do the right thing. Even as we witness the brutal human cost that comes with our obsession with shiny things, we turn a blind eye.
In lock-step with this is advertising that tells us it’s not just acceptable to continue our bad behavior, but rather, our responsibility and birthright. Keep consuming, kid… The economy needs it, and you deserve it!
All of this might be a little more understandable if we found ourselves happy. This doesn’t seem to be the case, though. In fact, a recent study suggests that the French and Americans have the highest depression rates in the world. Yes, you read that correctly: It isn’t those living in abject poverty who are in need of billions of dollars of antidepressants—nope, it’s our sad, pampered asses.
Where does this leave us? With full closets, empty bank accounts, few job prospects, and the new American Dream: of simply being debt-free.
We need to reexamine how we look at our lives and our stuff and redefine our way of interfacing with the world. More than anything else, we have to unlearn our belief that buying more will lead us to happiness.
Otherwise, this addiction will—very literally—kill us.