Identity theft has become a common crime, impacting an estimated 15 million people each year. As bad as the problem is, about a hundred years ago, an identity theft took place on a far grander scale.
Everyone’s identity was stolen.
Amazingly, this huge heist didn’t make headlines, and it didn’t prompt any calls for greater security. In fact, no one even seemed to notice. And although every generation since has continued to be impacted by the Great Identity Robbery, very few people today are aware of the problem.
What in the world am I talking about? I’m talking about the change in personal identity that happened during the Industrial Revolution. That’s when people stopped being referred to as citizens and became consumers.
The consumer identity has been messing with our finances and our sense of self-worth ever since. Here’s a brief look at how the deal came down.
A Short History of Our Consumer Culture
According to Historian William Leach, author of Land of Desire, the foundation of our consumer culture was established roughly between the 1880s and 1920s. That’s when people moved in mass from the country to the city and took up positions along assembly lines that mass-produced branded versions of everything from cars to clothing.
The move from country to city marked far more than a change of address; it marked a change in people’s way of life. They went from farm work to factory work, from making things to buying things. As Susan Strasser writes in Satisfaction Guaranteed, “Formerly customers, purchasing the objects of daily life from familiar craftspeople and storekeepers, Americans became consumers.”
Before that time, people usually bought raw materials in bulk; there were no branded packages of ready-to-eat cereal and not much in the way of ready-to-wear clothing. “People who had never bought corn flakes were taught to need them,” Strasser explained. “Those formerly content to buy oats scooped from the grocer’s bin were informed about why they should prefer Quaker Oats in a box.”
Soon enough, consumption became tied to people’s very identity.
How Consumption Shifted From What We Do to Who We Are
It was during the Industrial Revolution that department stores emerged, which, in turn, spawned the increasingly sophisticated science of merchandising. Store managers learned to display items with an eye toward enticement.
The expansion of railway lines helped create national markets. The spread of telegraph and telephone lines helped create national advertising. With more goods to sell and more markets to reach, more sophisticated techniques for driving desire were developed—psychological techniques.
Boston College Sociology Professor Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American, said the 1920s marked a clear turning point in the ad industry: “Of course, ads had been around for a long time. But something new was afoot, in terms of both scale and strategy… Ads developed an association between the product and one’s very identity. Eventually they came to promise everything and anything—from self-esteem, to status, friendship, and love.”
Marketers began positioning the activities of consumption as being in the best interests of those doing the consuming. According to William Leach, “The cardinal features of this culture were acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness,” and what religion historian Joseph Harountunian called “‘being’ through ‘having.’”
What’s In a Word?
Today, the use of the word consumer has become so common that most of us don’t even notice. Every week, we hear about consumer spending, consumer sentiment, and consumer segments. We accept it without question.
But consider this: To consume literally means to use up, squander, or spend wastefully. It’s right there in the dictionary. The acceptance of the consumer identity goes a long way toward explaining why so many people have too much debt, too little savings, too much financial stress, and too little contentment.
A Modest Proposal
While there’s much to be said for all the practical aspects of wise money management – using a budget, getting and staying out of debt, spending smart, and such – I believe that how we see ourselves is just as important.
My recommendation is that we consciously reject the consumer label. Every time we hear the word in the news, let’s remind ourselves that we are not machines whose main purpose is to use stuff up. The term I prefer is builder. We were designed to create, to build – strong relationships, lives of meaning and contribution.
When life is viewed through that filter, it’s much easier to choose to do the right things financially, no matter how uncommon or counter-cultural.
Have you ever thought about how the term consumer impacts you? What do you think about seeing yourself as a builder instead of a consumer? Is there a better term?