A Christmas gift from the next generation

The Great Recession helped reverse a decades-long rise in materialism among many young people. Despite a tough financial future, they are also more concerned about others. This shift is a gift for those seeking less spending at Christmas.

Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Customers, many buying Christmas presents, shop at Tyson's Corner Mall Dec. 6 in Tyson's Corner, VA.

Polls consistently show Americans wish they could spend less on Christmas gift-giving. Well, a new study suggests their wish could come true, at least among younger people.

Researchers who have tracked the attitudes of high school seniors over decades find the Great Recession of 2007-09 has caused a great reversal: These young people of today are less interested in worldly goods.

It is not only that they can’t afford all the flash and bling of American consumerism. Many simply don’t want it. This change of attitude ends a steady rise since 1980 in the materialistic desires of young people, according to researchers Heejung Park, Jean M. Twenge, and Patricia M. Greenfield of the University of California, San Diego.

Previous recessions, especially the Great Depression,  have caused a shift toward frugality, only to see a rise in materialism once the economy booms again. “Wealth reduction promotes collectivistic values and diminishes individualistic and materialistic values,” the survey concluded.

But the researchers also found that today’s younger Millennials are more community-minded and show a greater concern for others. And they are not pessimistic about themselves. “The Great Recession was unique in leading to more, rather than less, positive self-views,” they found.

To put it another way, many of them embrace the spirit of Christmas – a time to honor the coming of Christ to humanity – but with fewer trappings of conspicuous consumption.

To be sure, young people are less able to buy much, having been forced to temper their expectations. During the recession, the youth unemployment rate was nearly as high as for all adults during the Great Depression of the 1930s. More than 13 percent of people between ages 25 and 35 still live with a parent. By putting off a transition to settling down, they are putting off buying stuff.

But many do not want to own a car, opting instead for using Zipcars, bike sharing systems, and mass transit. The wired generations connect with others digitally. They are more inclined to rent than own a home and to live in urban areas than the previous generation.

A survey of 14-to-30-year-olds conducted for Junior Achievement in November found 71 percent would rather have a job that serves others than have a job that promotes their personal brand. And despite the financial toll of the Great Recession, “Millennials [are] confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change,” finds a Pew Research Center poll.

Who knows if this generational shift will last. Yet, at least for the Christmas of 2013, this trend is a useful reminder to seek the intangibles of the Christmas spirit more than the tangibles of material presents. Materialism only leads to loneliness, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research. Christmas should be a time to rejoice with loved ones and to look beyond worldly goods.

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