Sheffield, over the past couple of weeks, has paid testament to the enduring health of a consumer society despite the recessions, crashes and debt crises of recent years. With rising tuition fees, depressing job prospects and soaring costs of living, students have been one of the major groups in society affected by the government’s desperate scramble to cut spending in the belief that austerity measures will fix the struggling economy. An average student receiving base maintenance and tuition fee loans will now graduate with around £38,000 of debt. And yet retailers continue to target students in a way that would belie this financial burden, encouraging spiralling spending on commodities that a student budget simply can’t afford. Nowhere has this been more obvious recently than in the “student lock-in” event hosted by shopping centre Meadowhall last week.
Meadowhall is the biggest shopping centre in the north of England. Huge posters scream about their amazing student discounts, mid-season sales and other opportunities for saving money. The student lock-in promised to be an evening of entertainment, giveaways, exclusive student offers, and more, and self-described as “the UK’s biggest and best shopping party”. Handily, it was scheduled to coincide with the arrival of the first batch of student loan in hungry bank accounts throughout Sheffield. A lump sum of money and the inevitable interest-free overdraft? Clearly a “shopping party” is the solution.
Joyce Appleby has defined consumption as “the active seeking of personal gratification through material goods” (1999). As early as the seventeenth century it had been pointed out that whilst consumption was morally objectionable (especially in a religious, strictly hierarchical society as then existed in most of Europe), too much emphasis on the vice of private consumption would be detrimental to national prosperity – prosperity here meaning economic growth. Four hundred years later and consumption still promises prosperity, in louder terms than ever. The Meadowhall lock-in is just one example of this.
However, you only have to look around to realise that consumption has brought anything but prosperity, at least for the majority of people. Economic growth – or currently, the desperate struggle for continued economic growth – has taken on a very different meaning for most. If growth is dependent on desperate spending by people who can’t afford it, is that bringing those consumers prosperity? I doubt it. Movements such as the Equality Trust and Action For Happiness are working tirelessly to redefine prosperity in terms of human well-being rather than material opulence. Tim Jackson set out a convincing alternative picture in Prosperity Without Growth, which highlights the damage current ideas of prosperity and consumption cause both to individuals and the planet.
Events such as the “student lock-in” create the appearance of a culture of wealth and affluence even if the reality is far from this. In true Gramscian style, it is tempting to buy into this system, believe the shiny floors and bright colours of the shopping mall, and pretend that everything’s okay. But at a time when life satisfaction levels are falling, community bonds are weaker than ever, and the relentless drive of consumerism gives people the option of buying happiness on credit rather than examining their lifestyles for what truly matters, we literally cannot afford to continue this way.
Whilst an idea of prosperity based on economic growth may now be hundreds of years old, that still leaves it thousands of years younger than human society and humanity itself. This alone should prove that a consumption-driven economy, and consumption-driven ideas of welfare and well-being, are not inevitable. However, an individual’s happiness, if not dependent on ever-increasing consumption (which it isn’t, read The Spirit Level), will always be at odds with the prevailing capitalist ideology our economy is based on. So even something as seemingly simple as the desire to move away from consumerism and build a more meaningful life is a radically different position to that of the state, which seeks to maximise GDP rather than human well-being.
However, people are powerful forces of change. A good place to start looking for things to do that make a positive difference in one’s own life, as well as the lives of others, is the great organisation Action for Happiness: “For fifty years we’ve aimed relentlessly at higher incomes. But despite being much wealthier, we’re no happier than we were five decades ago. At the same time we’ve seen an increase in wider social issues, including a worrying rise in anxiety and depression in young people. It’s time for a positive change in what we mean by progress.”
It’s easier than it sounds to stop striving for possessions and start striving for happiness and quality of life. Small things can make a big difference, and they prove that prosperity does not have to mean economic growth at the expense of financial stability.