Can There Be a Less Materialist American Dream?

The scholar and cultural critic Juliet Schor argues that the once-niche opposition to hyper-consumerism is becoming more mainstream.

Mike Blake / Reuters

For about as long as there has been an “American dream” there have been critics of it, and perhaps none has been as comprehensive as Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College. Schor has examined every facet of this dream—what it means to people, the effect it has on how Americans work and play, and the effect it has on their children.

I talked to Schor about her research into these questions and an edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Rebecca J. Rosen: The American dream has always been, in some ways, a consumerist vision. But it also seems that today people may be distancing themselves from that sort of pursuit, whether out of economic need or for ecological reasons. What are the changes you’re noticing?

Juliet Schor: Let’s start with the American dream. I think the biggest transformation in the role of the American dream in our society is that the majority of people no longer have faith in the possibility of attaining it. This is a major shift.

I did some polling in 2014 with an organization that I co-founded called the Center for a New American Dream, and we found that the majority of Americans no longer believe that they'll be able to attain the American dream. That's a really big shift—an economic pessimism about where we’re going and the ability of our economy to lift people up and give them a better life materially than their parents had.

What people think the American dream is has also shifted over time. Freedom and personal freedom remain at the top of the list for people’s conception of what the American dream is. But the second most-cited idea of what the American dream is is just getting your basic needs met, which is not what we would traditionally think of as the American dream. It would be more about upward mobility and a level of material affluence that’s beyond basic needs. I think that's another interesting dimension of change.

There is a widespread sense among the population that people have gotten too materialistic, and that's been around for a while. It’s also the case that materialism is the other person’s disease, so 80 percent of people think that Americans are too materialistic. But as you get closer and closer to them—their friends, their family, their kids—they are sort of less and less likely to think that they're too materialistic. It's one of those findings that you have to be careful about how you interpret.

The other thing is that there is a high awareness that our style of life is not ecologically sustainable. That’s a really general sensibility that comes from lots of different perspectives. It comes from true environmentalists who actually look at the evidence and understand what's happening to the planet, but it also comes from people who really don't know much at all about the environment but do have a sense that we have this wasteful society.

Rosen: One of the things that I think is interesting—correct me if this is wrong—is that it seems that there are two major sentiments at play and that they're kind of at odds with each other. On the one hand you have people who are really struggling in this economy and they seem to be saying that the American dream is no longer attainable or they have this extremely reduced notion of what the American dream is. And then, on the other hand, you also have this revulsion to the extreme abundance and consumption people see in American life. Can you tease out how these two different things play out: both the fact that the economy is very hard for so many people, but at the same time there is this very persistent and aggressive consumerism.

Schor: It's an interesting question, and I have to say the polling we did doesn't allow us to get very deep into that.

Rosen: Perhaps you can just speculate a bit?

Schor: We have a materialistic culture, but people also see that as a problem. I would suspect, but I haven't gone back and looked at the frequencies on this question, that there are some generational differences. Older generations are more sensitive to waste. Probably immigrants are more sensitive to waste. If you come from a poorer culture, you're less habituated to the levels of waste in American society, which are really off the charts historically.

I guess another way to reconcile it would be that when you live in a culture where the consumption expectations are so high and so expensive, those needs are more difficult to meet. So that may be part of the reconciling.

There's another point worth making which is that it's also the case when it comes to consumption and lifestyle issues, people do hold contradictory attitudes. People who by almost anyone's accounting would be extremely materialistic and have a lavish lifestyle can be very critical of other people's materialism, and fail to see it themselves. There's a lot of inconsistency.

Rosen: There's often a class dynamic to that. Elites tend to think that they way they consume is superior to the mass culture that they see other people partaking in.

Schor: Absolutely! Economically privileged people can be very critical of the materialism of very poor people, because they have a large television or a pair of sneakers.

Rosen: I'd like to go back to the thing you were saying about the generational shifts. There’s been a lot of polling on how Millennials seem to be rejecting some of the more grueling aspects of American economy, and are looking for work that is more meaningful. Is that a cohort effect? What is going on here?

Schor:  I'm not sure. You know, I tend to be a little bit skeptical of some of those analyses. I mean there are for sure cohort effects in attitudes to materialism and lifestyle and so forth. The most well known in the academic literature is the impact of the Depression, which had a really lasting effect on the cohorts that had direct experience of it. My sense of some of the more recent attributions about big cohort effects are, that a lot of this stuff won't last through the lifecycle. I don't see them as so durable. One of the things about lifestyle and consumption is that as people form families and have children you see a lot of changes in their spending behavior.

Now, it's also true that you have rising rates of single-headed households, and among certain groups big declines in fertility. But the other thing that's important as we think about the sort of attitudes to work are that people really adjust their expectations, desires, and so forth to the opportunities that they have. So when there is less opportunity for certain types of success, which is one of the things that we see happening—increased competition or shrinking number of really excellent jobs that pay very well and have great career ladders and so forth—it's not surprising that people would adjust, and also that the demands of those jobs would go up, because the employers can do that.

Rosen: A big part of consumption is socially determined. My husband moonlights as a financial coach and many of his clients are young people who are very successful and have a level of wealth that they didn't grow up with and are trying to figure out what to do with it. One of his key pieces of advice for people in that situation is to keep their old friends, because your level of consumption changes so fast if you start hanging out with other similarly high earners, and all of a sudden you don't have much in the way of savings from your big salary. You're just consuming more, and your financial situation is actually not much improved.

Schor: Well, I did a study of that. I don't know of another one that's ever been done, but what I showed—and I talk about this in my book The Overspent American book—is that people whose reference groups is in a better economic or financial situation than they are have much reduced savings and vice versa. I think that's excellent advice.

Rosen: One major inflection point for people’s consumption patterns is the moment they become parents, and suddenly there are all these things they supposedly need. Even for parents who reject excessive consumerism on ecological or other moral grounds, it can be very hard to resist the pressure to provide for your child in certain material ways. What is going on? And, likewise, why is it so hard to insulate kids from the pressure to become American-style consumers themselves?

Answer: I'm not sure I've seen research on [that first quest] and I haven't specifically researched it myself, [but] I do think there’s both a psychological and a social dimension to it, which is that people are probably less likely to take risks when they have children. Being an outlier is a riskier thing.

I have a better sense of the second question which is why it's so hard to insulate kids. The social pressures around lifestyle or consumption conformity are really high with kids because people worry about their children being different and excluded, so that sense of social fitting-in is really strong.

People don't want to raise their kids in ways that are too, too different from their context. This is why it's not hard to do it when you're in a community where other people are doing it. So, if you think about, for example, religious communities that raise their children in different ways, ways that are more insulated, or immigrant communities—for them it's a lot easier because they have those social networks and contexts where [some deviation from mainstream consumption is] a norm. I think it's really hard for the mainstream folks and that's why, if you can, try and intentionally create connections with other people who are doing it in less consumerist ways, or, one of the things I tried to do with my kids, was to steer them toward friends who were also somewhat insulated.

Rosen: How successful are people with that approach and do you see it catching on? I read your New York Times review earlier this year about, in part, why thrift never seems to really catch on in America. Is this changing?

Schor: I think there is a growing and increasingly significant movement of people who are articulating a different set of values and trying to live in different ways. It's really different today than when I wrote The Overspent American, which came out in the late ’90s. It's much more mainstream now, but you've got a couple of different incarnations, or different social manifestations, which I guess would be the right word, which do connect with race, class, and education.

I think the first thing to say about what's different now is that the economic situation is so different than when we started the Center for a New American Dream. We were in a really consumerist moment, which was not only confined to the wealthy or the upper-middle class, but there was an ability to consume beyond basic needs, really, throughout not everyone in the income distribution, but a much wider ability through debt and very cheap goods coming from abroad and so forth.

So you had that big buying spree that ends with the crash. The reality of economic deprivation for large numbers of people has changed consumerism, both as it's experienced and expressed in our society. [The fallout resulted in] a really widespread critique, at that time, from people who got into trouble. [People saying] “I'm never going to live that way again,” and just feeling like the excess of it was too much.

There's a more sober attitude to consuming since the crash. A lot of people don't feel as comfortable. I'm not talking about the 1 percent or the folks, who you know, just ordinary people are kind of less comfortable with showiness and excess at a time when so many people are suffering economically. There's a kind of solidarity, or at least a sentimental solidarity, that comes up.

What I think we're seeing is you have groups of highly educated, predominantly white young people living really different kinds of lifestyles. I've called it an "eco-habitus" using Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of habitus—your sort of underlying sensibility toward things. This is the rise of things like CSAs and farmers’ markets. These are not necessarily low-cost lifestyles, some of them are. It's a different sensibility. Again, that rejection of mass consumption, which has been there for a while, but rejection of materialism, advertising, people who are saying how do I raise my children in a way that's not having them just sucked into this dominant consumer culture. That's really mainstreaming and it used to be pretty niche.

We're also seeing a validation of some of that kind of attitude among, not so much among the white working class, or the white poor, but more among inner city communities of color who are also engaged in alternative ways of provisioning around food or some of the more community-based approaches to provisioning. There are a lot of parallels with what's going on with more affluent, highly educated consumers.

I do think there is a movement to transform the way we live to make it more ecological, more economically secure, less unequal, and more economically fair. And out of necessity you're seeing this in some of the most depressed cities, like Cleveland and Detroit, where you just have a flowering of alternatives.