The End of Hyperconsumerism

Today's dark economy has a silver lining: A survey shows that people are looking for fulfillment, not more stuff.

What was the last thing you did that really, truly mattered? What was the last conversation you had about something more meaningful than a project at work, plans for the weekend, a novel you read or film you watched? We work a lot, play a little, and marvel at how quickly time passes. What we don't do is spend much time pondering why we're doing the things we do or whether there might be a better way to live. For a long while, this surface-level existence was enough; but now our priorities are changing. The Great Recession has yielded much hardship, but we also must credit it for yanking us out of our ruts and routines and making us reconsider what is really important - and how satisfying our lives truly have been.

At the tail end of 2009, Euro RSCG Worldwide undertook a seven-market study to better understand an emerging shift toward what we refer to as mindful consumption. Whereas in recent decades our spending had been quick and unthinking (I see, therefore I buy), now it is becoming more conscious and considered. Our examination of these patterns forms the basis of our new book, Consumed: Rethinking Business in the Era of Mindful Spending. What we discovered in our research is that this change in consumption reflects far more than a desire for savings or anxiety over an uncertain future; people are experiencing a deep-seated discontent and desire for change. Among the 1,500 Americans we surveyed, for example, two-thirds said society is moving in the wrong direction, while eight in ten complained that people have become too shallow, focusing too much on things that don't really matter. Three-quarters worry that people have grown intellectually lazy. More surprising, two-thirds actually see an upside to the recession, saying it has served to remind people of what is really important in life. What the survey respondents were expressing is unhappiness with life as we have come to know it and a hunger for more. Not more "stuff," but more substance and meaning. More purpose and fulfillment. A more satisfying way of living.

Why the sudden urge for more? While the economic skies were bright, most of us were kept busy by our day-to-day affairs as consumers and the eternal quest to accumulate. Begun in earnest in the years following World War II (an automatic washer! a percolating coffeepot!), our hyperconsumerist tendencies accelerated in the 1970s and 80s, when we suddenly realized just how many things we couldn't bear to live without, whether it be the fad of the day (Pet Rock, anyone?) or the latest in electronics. As Mad Magazine astutely noted years ago: "The only reason a great many American families don't own an elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for a dollar down and easy weekly payments."

The problem with our obsessive consumption--even overlooking such pesky considerations as the plundering of our natural resources--is that it managed, in the last half century, to become our culture. In school, we sought to learn more so we could earn more so we could yearn less and own more. And that worked out quite well for lots of people (particularly those in the upper income brackets), until that great killjoy of a downturn sucked all the fun out of Sub-Zero fridges and 60-inch plasma TVs. Even people who managed to hold onto their jobs saw their savings plummet and confidence shaken. We started to become more conscious of what we bought--and how much we owed. More important, we started to think more about why we bought and whether all this heretofore mindless accumulation had really gotten us anywhere. Had our profligate spending made us happier? More satisfied? Many of us came to the conclusion that the answer was No. More than a third of the Americans in our survey said they feel as though they actually have been wasting their lives, and around half said they are actively trying to figure out what makes them happy. Six in ten worry that people have become too disconnected from the natural world, and nearly eight in ten think most people would be better off if they lived more simply. It turns out that while we did indeed own more, we actually had less. Less purpose. Less time for personal relationships. Less joy. But plenty of stress, anxiety, debt, and irritating clutter.

For all the disruption and angst it has caused, the global downturn has given us an opportunity--and motivation--to step off the hyperconsumption treadmill and consider whether there might be a better way to live. Already, nearly eight in ten Americans say they are making an effort to improve how they live and who they are as individuals. For many, as we explore in Consumed, those personal and lifestyle changes include being more mindful of their purchases, with large majorities saying it makes them feel good to save money (87 percent), reduce waste (73  percent), buy locally (69 percent), and make environmentally friendly choices (65 percent). This is a real change for many, with eight in ten saying their shopping has become more mindful than it used to be. In their personal lives, people want to devote more time and attention to community and friendships (around half sometimes feel they don't have enough close friends) and are seeking the more purposeful pleasures that come from focusing less on instant (and constant) material gratification in favor of a more substantive existence. As part of this new way of living, most Americans would like to get involved in a "truly important cause" and just more than half would like to increase the role of spirituality in their lives.

There are some who suggest the shift toward mindfulness is no more than a phase--a reaction to the downturn that will fade away as soon as pocketbooks are flush. What these analysts fail to take into account are the fundamental economic and social factors influencing this shift. The simple truth is that the elements that permitted hyperconsumption to flourish (near-full employment, easy credit, plentiful natural resources) aren't coming back anytime soon, if at all. The employment sector is in upheaval, with many job categories obsolete. Easy credit has all but evaporated, and the world's burgeoning middle classes will only intensify the pressure on our increasingly scarce resources. So even if the consumer masses wanted to go back to mindless excess, they could not. Most important, people would not choose to return to the old ways of hyperaccumulation because it was no longer making them happy. Rather than revel in their heaps of material goods prior to the downturn, many were already expressing a desire to simplify, to get back to basics and "rightsize" consuming no more nor less than they truly need. They also were expressing heightened concern over the impact of their personal consumption choices on other people and the planet; hence the increased popularity of organics and Fair Trade, locavorism and the slow food and travel movements, and the sudden profusion of carbon footprint calculators.

In much of the developed world and in particular in the United States, many of us have experienced a decades-long journey marked by mindless excess, increasing artificiality, and alienation. Now we are looking for the sorts of satisfactions that don't come with a price tag and three easy payments.