The face of our consumer society has gone through countless changes over the past century - most dramatically in the past 25 years.
Technology and changing values have altered the world we live in. In the face of globalization, people are trying to express their individuality in a world that is increasingly the same from locale to locale.
Americans have been trained to express their freedom and adventurous spirits through the consumption of items and lifestyle symbols that reflect our individuality and personality.
The cult of American individualism can be seen in how we view the workplace, how information spreads, how we perceive ourselves, and most of all, what we buy.
Shopping and buying are often not about needs, but about striving to create an image of who we want to be.
Americans operate under an umbrella of fantasies that drives what we do and how we do it, and where the merry-go-round will stop, nobody knows.
The globe is shrinking in ways we never thought possible. Instant television coverage, the Internet, and advanced communication systems have linked human beings across vast expanses of space. We have global brands so that a teenager in China wearing a Gap T-shirt can lunch on a McDonalds hamburger and a Coke, just like a teenager in Kansas. We can choose from hundreds of TV channels on cable, a long list of magazines that gets longer by the day, and dozens of brands of toothpaste to make us feel fresh, as the ads say. The amount of information and options can feel overwhelming.
As much as Americans value individuality, we are a country obsessed by brands. Some of us wake up to find ourselves with the "right" SUV and the "right" Sub-Zero refrigerator, just like the next-door neighbor.
We have the freedom to choose, but our palette of choices is standardized. Some people want their material possessions to reflect the life of free-spirited adventurers. Many drive cars that could support an assault on K-2 and step out of these cars in Gore-Tex boots suited for Ice Station Zebra. Marketers use extreme sports to sell products, yet Americans, on the whole, are becoming more sedentary and inactive. Many buy these fantasies and readily gobble up the idea that we are something we are not.
Beyond what we buy, we are what we do. The way people think about their jobs and the job marketplace has shifted greatly. We watched as certain Internet companies rose up from nothing to "gajillion dollar" somethings only to evaporate overnight. But we still believe in the American dream updated - where college dropouts that work 20-hour days can create a thriving business from nothing but their own creativity and technical savvy.
Freelancers and telecommuters have been seemingly on the rise as everyone puts a high value on flexibility and control over their workday. A growing number of people change jobs every couple of years and even switch industries midcareer. Workers determine their worth and use this information to get companies scrambling for them as opposed to them scrambling for a job. Head hunters and companies outdo each other with benefits and perks to attract workers. Employees have had the upper hand.
But how long will it last? The flow from traditional companies to the dotcoms and new media is probably over, especially now in the face of e-commerce's crash and high-tech's slowdown. People are trickling back to more-stable, unglamorous jobs that bring home more-dependable bread and butter. The e-lancer tide is turning, and people are feeling a distinct sense of slavery in what they once saw as freedom. They constantly have to hustle for business and wait for the phone to ring. Traditional benefits and a 9-to-5 workday are starting to look better. We sometimes value freedom at our own expense. It is a world that for many of us is moving too fast.
It hasn't always been like this.
Fifty years ago there were three major television networks, 15 national magazines, and where people built careers over a lifetime of working for the same company. People stuck to the brands they were brought up on.
William H. Whyte described corporate culture in his book "The Organizational Man," where workers willingly suppressed their individuality for the good of the company. This type of loyalty seems unimaginable in today's workplace. You had the salaryman and the IBM uniform. Now we have gurus and casual dress every day.
In our consumer society, Americans are becoming aware of a tug of war between conformity and individuality. We want to be individuals, yet our participation in society entails a certain amount of conformity. The world has shrunk so that there are fewer differences among industrial nations or among US regions. The other end of this equation is an inordinate romance with individuality.
Take a gander at the Harley-Davidson that sits in the neighbor's garage and is taken out every few weeks. It is a symbol that expresses the capability of that individual to pick up and go, although he or she probably never will.
The power of the individual has been discussed in several recent books. Thomas L. Friedman discusses the impact of
globalization on the world culture in "The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization" (Anchor Books).
With the shrinking of the world come conflicts between old and new values. Globalization is a
snowball rolling down a steep hill that cannot be stopped, and people have to rethink their cultural values to accommodate the way that the world is changing. Internet and fax capabilities, not to mention digital wireless, have broken down barriers among people. And we are now seeing communication between individuals accelerating as we have never seen before.
One person can reach thousands instantly. Another book that makes it apparent how important the individual is today is "The Tipping Point" (Little Brown & Company) by Malcolm Gladwell. This book discusses the way in which trends can spread like wildfire when once a buzz is created among just a handful of the "right" individuals. In today's culture, people are skeptical of what companies tell them, but they trust and rely upon word-of-mouth advice from peers. Both books point to how individual people have the power to trigger change.
In the face of our new power, gained from this almost limitless interaction, we are still subject to having the same old buttons pushed. People are constantly lured by the promise of creating a better version of ourselves. That lure bifurcates in frightening ways. On the one hand, there's disco yoga and Tae-Bo - and yet the nip, tuck, suck, and color business plied by plastic surgeons has never been better.
The idea of self-improvement hits us on such a personal level that most of us can't help at least checking it out. This cult of promise is especially pertinent as the largest generation in history - the baby boomers - ages. This group is going to be a major shaping force over the next 50 years (or however new technology helps people to live longer). As elderly people become more active and healthier, baby boomers will want to have fun long into their later years. And look good - another American goal fueled by popular culture - while doing it.
As women sag, they will have ways to pull it up. As men's testosterone levels drop, they will be reaching out for something else to express their "viagric" vitality. This group of people will be the 1,000-pound gorilla that companies scramble after in the race to pick up their discretionary dollars.
Where the aging group of baby boomers decide to retire will be a major influence in itself. Will they opt for Florida for the good weather, or for other cities to take advantage of their wealth of cultural experiences?
The decisions that these consumers make will determine which companies survive. If this group feels slighted by a store or company because of their age (print that is too small for them to read, or advertisements featuring only the young and firm), negative buzz against the business could be devastating.
Baby boomers are used to being catered to, and this will only intensify as they get older. They are waiting for all those Generation-X and Generation-Y marketers to wake up and see who's in charge.
In a world where most of us could live the rest of our lives on fruit, vegetables, olive oil, pasta, and yearly doses of socks and underwear, where and how we spend our discretionary income is up to us. If indeed we are older, wiser, and better, we need to take more responsibility for the decisions we make.
Paco Underhill is managing director of Envirosell Inc. and author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping" (Touchstone).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society