Sunday, May 11, 2014

Consumerism in Germany and the USA

How much stuff do you need to live?  How much stuff do you need to be happy?  How do you benchmark those needs?

I'm not even going to lie, I like shopping.  Everyone knows I like shopping.  But I only like shopping for fun things, like clothes or toys for my daughter.  I hate buying things like hair dryers, which is why mine is over ten years old and held together by packing tape.  There is no point in buying a new one because I know I will drop it in the first week and it will end up just like the one I have now.  But anyway, back to the point.   Like a typical American I always believed that more and bigger were better.  Success is defined by money and the big house full of stuff you can buy with that money.  Love and attention are shown with gifts and the more you spend, the more you love someone.  Buying things is good because it helps the economy, makes the world turn and so forth.  Stuff shows your character, individuality, and defines you.  You are the car you drive, the dishes you eat from and the house you live in.  That's the driving message behind consumerism.

But it's not just about stuff, it's also about winning.  Societies balance delicately between a need for cooperation and competition within the society.  We need each other to create great things like roads and cars and jobs but we also compete with each other for resources.  When some people gain an advantage they try to hang onto it and pass that advantage to their children.  In societies with great inequality, like the US, the deck is stacked grossly unfair.  If one person wins it means someone else is going to lose.  You reap your success from the disadvantaged. 

I am going to suggest something a little bit radical that not very many people may understand, but I would rather pay more taxes, have less money and live in a society with greater equality.   I am not about to take you on a little ego trip of my own self righteousness.  There are actually logical reasons for this: while acquiring things does make people happy, that happiness only lasts as long as the desired object is new.  To keep that level of happiness they must keep acquiring more stuff, locking a person into a never ending cycle.  That kind of happiness is not sustainable.  Material goods take up time that you could be spending with people. Inequality also trends toward more violent crime and less stability.  Nothing good has ever come from hungry children and homelessness.  What if you choose not to be defined by the things you own, but rather the things you do?  Maybe, I am not my Coach purse and J brand jeans?    Maybe I am a mother and wife and friend and pet owner. 

There is consumerism in Germany but it doesn't feel as all consuming as it does in the US.  A good example of this is the difference in attitudes about engagement rings.  In the US having a large expensive ring is an important sign of social status for many women.   It shows the world that you have the disposable income to conspicuously consume a frivolous piece of jewelry.  A large ring is also equated with partner devotion, since one partner has chosen to spend a considerable amount of money on this piece of jewelry that is then displayed.  In contrast, many Germans don't buy engagement rings at all.  If they buy a ring it will later double as their wedding band.  The rings tend to be simple with a small setting or no setting at all.  The focus of the engagement is not on the ring and it's unlikely that the ring will be displayed in the same way it is in the US.  Seen from the outside American engagements start to seem driven more by consumerism than by the monumental task of choosing a life partner.

I only had a vague idea the pressure to consume was so relentless until I stopped living in the US.  It is a relief to live in a place where strangers are not engaged in a senseless competition with no end and no goal.  Stores are mostly closed at least one day a week.  Holidays are more about spending time with people you like.  If I'm going to be judged on anything, it's probably the car I drive and that is something I can live with.  Sometimes I spend a few spare minutes hating on the curtains was inherited from the last tenants and imagining what it would be like to actually invest time into personalizing my living space.  But I don't have enough desire to invest any resources knowing I'll likely be moving again in a couple years.  This kind of unattached living is working out great with a toddler and a dog.  I really don't care too much if they spill juice on the carpet or if I've washed the sofa covers so many times they have faded unevenly.

I am always going to struggle with guilt for having white middle class privileges.  I grapple with finding a balance between my desire to succeed and my desire to live in a fair society.  I want to win but I don't want there to be homeless kids in the world or hungry people.  Europe does equality better for now.  I hope that American influence doesn't seep too much into German society.  Sometimes we can be a bad influence.


Two articles worth reading if this topic interests you-

Mother's Day surprisingly dark history
Concern for Equality Linked to Logic, Not Emotion


  1. So true. So, so, so, true. The pressure to have more here is so much less than at home, it's not even funny. Some days I think about leaving college and helping my roommate haul 6 garbage bags of clothes to the Goodwill, while I spent two years living out of suitcases in Prague, and I just laugh. Granted, I've acquired some more stuff since then, but it's still pretty under control. This topic comes up fairly often in my classes, and my students have a much more pessimistic view of it than I do. They only see how it's gotten worse in the last years, and I try to tell them how much more extreme it is in the States, but of course they can't see that. I too, really hope that it doesn't get that bad here, but time marches on.

    The point about the wedding rings is particularly interesting to me. It's to the point where if I see a giant ring on a girl here, it sticks out like a sore thumb. I remember reading a letter to 'Dear Prudence' on Slate a few months back that was written by a recently-engaged American living abroad. Her fiance was European, and he bought her a ring that's typical on this end. Her friends and family at home were all in an uproar that it wasn't 'big enough' and that he must not love her that much, or she should hold out for something better, or some other such nonsense. I don't want to believe that people would react that way, but that's the way it is. You're right, it's absolutely more driven by consumerism than finding a life partner. The focus seems to be all on the big and expensive wedding, and not so much on actually being married. But that's a rant for another day. :)

    1. Ah yes, I lived in the US when I got ungaged and I had a coworker flat out tell me my German-style ring was too small and comment that when she got engaged someday her ring was going to be huge :) It's a little out of hand these days, all things considered.

    2. it wasn't me that said that right?!

    3. Haha no! It was one of the blond girls, she was a high school student so I wasn't too offended. And I have nothing against huge engagement rings, they are pretty, I just think marrying someone you like is more important. You got both, so you are super lucky! :)

    4. I am :) But more because of the guy... the ring is a nice touch <3

  2. I completely agree with the idea of paying more taxes, having less, and living in a society where everyone is on equal ground. No need to label it this or that, if people all had the things they needed, we wouldn't have this need to compete so much. When we lived in Switzerland, we lived with so few things. We had basic furniture, a few family photos on the wall, and one IKEA wardrobe for each of us (not even a chest of drawers/dresser). I had no style, and I didn't care. We were so happy. We traveled and ate well and had money left over each month. True, there are people in that country who are extremely wealthy and drive fabulous cars and wear fabulous clothes, and sometimes I was a little jealous that I didn't have nice shoes or a nice coat, but not jealous enough to be unhappy. Now that we have been back in the US for almost 4 years, oh my goodness, I am consumed my consumerism once again. I want more clothes, more makeup and more toys for my child. It's sickening actually, but I am working on being content with what I have. Also, that is so interesting about the engagement ring thing. Did you know that we probably owe the US obsession with diamond engagement rings to a marketing campaign by DeBeers? The whole diamond is forever thing. Yup. Anyway, my husband and I never got engaged, so I wear a wedding band. But I have a friend who has $20,000 engagement ring her husband had to put on a credit card. Go figure.

  3. I agree with this so much, and honestly, I think it's my years abroad that made me this way. I just don't care as much about stuff as I did before. Sure I would love to have a big, fancy car, but I much prefer not having any debt. And I like things for me, as opposed to what people will think of me for having it, like a big ass engagement ring for example. And I'm also completely on board with the tax thing. Great post! :)

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