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An Identity Theft Like No Other

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

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?

If you’d like to learn more about how the consumer identity impacts us and what we can do about it, pick up a copy of Money, Purpose, Joy.

And if you haven’t done so already, please sign up for a free subscription to this blog.  Two or three times a week, you’ll receive ideas and encouragement for using money well.

Categories: Psychology of Money

9 Responses to “An Identity Theft Like No Other”

  1. Mitch says:

    Wow, what a conceptual change to our mindset. I thought this was brilliant. Removing the “consumer” tag allows us to be human and reach out to others to “build” as you describe.

    How often do we hear that the our whole economy hinges on whether people are buying things or not, again, being a consumer. That’s why we throw away so many things to buy new things because we are brainwashed to do it.

  2. Matt Bell says:

    Thanks, Mitch. And I agree that the messages embedded in our culture, and even some of the ways that products are purposely designed, leave us tossing things aside well before they should really need to be replaced.

  3. Diane says:

    Matt.. I fight this consumption battle as an individual with my choices and with my family! It permeates every area of Western life, including church, where we constantly study & consume knowledge; but don’t know how to love the poor. It is addictive pattern behavior that we no longer acknowledge! And, the “self-centeredness” of it is ripping apart the heart of what used to be joy-filled community living!

  4. Matt Bell says:

    Diane – That’s a great point about how consumerism permeates all aspects of our lives. It’s so tightly woven into the fabric of everyday life that we don’t even notice it.

  5. SAM says:

    This is interesting confirmation for me, because my New Year’s Resolution this year was to be a creator instead of a consumer. We are created in His image… the Creator’s image… so we’re intended to be creators too. I was thinking of it more in terms of how we use our time, not our money… but Truth is still truth in any light, right?

  6. Matt Bell says:

    Very cool New Year’s resolution, Sam. And I’m with ya on the creator identity. Anything that conveys using our gifts, talents, and passions to make a positive difference with our lives, rather than using stuff up, works for me!

  7. Very well written, Matt. True, indeed!
    We need to hear more of that. I will be using a part of that in one of my sermons to help all of us be better stewards of God’s blessings, and reject the consumer identity.
    Blessings,
    Pastor Cedric

    • Matt Bell says:

      Thanks, Pastor Cedric. I see that you are from Aruba. I spent one very memorable and enjoyable summer living on the neighboring island of Curacao. Let me know how your sermon goes.

  8. Nancy Hull says:

    I have believed for a long time that the invention of the the steam engine and the telegraph changed our world imensely. From Biblical times until these inventions, people walked, sailed, or rode on animals or in carts pulled by animals when they needed to send messages or see someone. After these inventions, this all changed. Your ideas fit with this so well. I see it as another “sign of the times”.

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