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Born to Buy

The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture
By Juliet B. Schor

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Chapter One: Introduction

The United States is the most consumer-oriented society in the world. People work longer hours than in any other industrialized country. Savings rates are lower. Consumer credit has exploded, and roughly a million and a half households declare bankruptcy every year. There are more than 46,000 shopping centers in the country, a nearly two-thirds increase since 1986. Despite fewer people per household, the size of houses continues to expand rapidly, with new construction featuring walk-in closets and three- and four-car garages to store record quantities of stuff. According to my estimates, the average adult acquires forty-eight new pieces of apparel a year. (She has also been discarding clothes at record rates, in comparison to historical precedents.) Americans own more television sets than inhabitants of any other country -- nearly one set per person. Observers blame TV for plummeting levels of civic engagement, the dearth of community, and the decline of everyday socializing. Heavy viewing has also resulted in historically unprecedented exposure to commercials. And ads have proliferated far beyond the television screen to virtually every social institution and type of public space, from museums and zoos, to college campuses and elementary school classrooms, restaurant bathrooms and menus, at the airport, even in the sky.

The architects of this culture -- the companies that make, market, and advertise consumer products -- have now set their sights on children. Although children have long participated in the consumer marketplace, until recently they were bit players, purchasers of cheap goods. They attracted little of the industry's talent and resources and were approached primarily through their mothers. That has changed. Kids and teens are now the epicenter of American consumer culture. They command the attention, creativity, and dollars of advertisers. Their tastes drive market trends. Their opinions shape brand strategies. Yet few adults recognize the magnitude of this shift and its consequences for the futures of our children and of our culture.

• • •

I have been studying consumer issues for twenty years. An economist by training and inclination, I became interested in commercialization through studying the culture of work. My first book, The Overworked American, reported my findings of an unrecognized and unexpected rise in working hours. The average employee now spends 200 more hours per year on the job, or five extra weeks of work, than he or she did thirty years ago. Fifty years ago, American work hours were substantially lower than those in Western Europe; they now exceed them by more than 300 a year (or about eight weeks). Even Japan, the world's workaholic when I began my research in the early 1980s, now has shorter annual hours of work than the United States.

My earlier book's analysis of why hours were increasing pointed to workplace factors such as employers' cost structures and the persistence of corporate cultures of face time and long hours. I found that employers were unwilling to allow workers to trade income for time, and that for the past half-century, most people got higher incomes but also had to work longer hours. What I did not understand was why so few employees had chosen to resist these schedules. Polling data showed that most people were satisfied with their balance of work time and pay, despite rising hours. Although eventually dissatisfaction grew, the extent of acquiescence to long schedules remained puzzling.

So I began to investigate consumer behavior, where I found an answer. Americans had gotten caught in what I called the cycle of work-and-spend, in which the compensation for longer hours was a rising material standard of living. People were accumulating stuff at an unprecedented rate. Demanding jobs and escalating debt in turn resulted in high levels of stress and enormous pressure on family life. Some tried to buy their way out of the time squeeze by contracting out more household services, jetting off for stress-busting vacations, or finding a massage therapist, strategies that themselves require greater and greater household income. Through the boom years of the nineties, as new wealth led to a dramatic upscaling of consumer norms, the pressures intensified. Luxury replaced comfort as the national aspiration, despite its affordability for only a fraction of the population. In my second book, The Overspent American, I catalogued these changes and identified the social trends driving them. Americans had come under strong imperatives to keep up with the escalating costs of basics, like health care and education, as well as luxuries, such as branded goods, bigger vehicles, and outlays for leisure and recreation. A trip to Disneyworld became an expensive, but urgent, social norm. Households spent more, saved less, and took on more debt. Meanwhile, commercialization proceeded apace as branding became ever more sophisticated, ads proliferated, and shopping turned into a 24/7 affair. The country was preoccupied with getting and spending.

As I was writing The Overspent American in the mid-1990s, I was aware of the pressures parents felt to provide for their children, with requisites ranging from extracurricular activities, to quality education, to fancy athletic footwear. I knew how anxious people were feeling about their kids' futures in a highly competitive global economy. I wrote a bit about these issues. But I conceptualized the consumer market in terms of its orientation to adults, as I watched SUVs replace cars, McMansions replace homes, and designer labels proliferate for everything from sunglasses to jockey shorts. I also studied downshifters -- the millions of Americans who were rejecting the work-and-spend lifestyle, opting instead to work less, spend less, and live more simply. As it turned out, they provided a powerful clue to the growing importance of children in consumer culture.

One part of my research for the spending book was interviews with people toward the far end of the downshifting spectrum -- those who were intentionally rejecting the consumer lifestyle rather than merely working less. I discovered that downshifters who were raising children were almost impossible to find. At the time, I reasoned that children are expensive or that most parents would not want to impose a regime of reduced consumption on their kids.

Eventually I realized that this dearth of downshifting among parents revealed a significant trend in consumer culture. Children have become conduits from the consumer marketplace into the household, the link between advertisers and the family purse. Young people are repositories of consumer knowledge and awareness. They are the first adopters and avid users of many of the new technologies. They are the household members with the most passionate consumer desires, and are most closely tethered to products, brands, and the latest trends. Children's social worlds are increasingly constructed around consuming, as brands and products have come to determine who is "in" or "out," who is hot or not, who deserves to have friends, or social status. In such a world, how many parents opt to downshift or simplify? It's a radical step many children don't welcome.

By the end of the 1990s, I began to take notice of the central role of children in consumer culture, not only as a social scientist, but also as a parent. Our first child, Krishna, had been born in 1991, so I was already encountering commercialized childhood personally. The standard rituals of preparing for a baby centered on consumer choices. Which brand of stroller and car seat? What licensed characters for decorating the baby's room? Is a video camera really necessary? Although we were committed to moderation in our material lives, it was hard as middle-class Americans to avoid many of the features of the work-and-spend lifestyle. I'll never forget our first weekend trip after Krishna was born. As we gathered our gear to pack up the car, my husband, who is from India, stared in disbelief. "There's more stuff in this pile than the average Indian family owns in a lifetime," he observed. What's more, by today's standards, that pile would be considered meager. In the past decade, product innovation and the expansion of "must-have" goods in the infant and toddler category has been nothing short of extraordinary. But as I learned, an excess of baby gear is the least intrusive of the challenges of commercialized childhood. Controlling consumption becomes far more difficult as children reach the preschool years and turn into consumers in their own right.

Our daughter, Sulakshana, was born in 1995. She afforded us firsthand experience of how deeply and pervasively commercialized childhood is gendered. With boys, parents worry about violent products and obsessions with video games. With girls, it's sexualized products and distorted body image. As our children grew, I watched the experience of childhood changing. Kids were coming under increasing pressures to succeed, as homework assignments became longer and performance expectations rose. Overscheduling became a norm in middle-class communities. Many children were growing materialistic, even spoiled. Television, video game, and computer time appeared to be rising, and in many communities, including ours, the streets were empty after school. One Saturday morning after a rare snowstorm, I was struck by the pristine snow and the pervasive quiet: all the kids were inside. I felt sad about their lack of autonomy and lost connection to the outdoors. I became determined to reclaim some of that for my kids and to protect them from the commercial influences I was uneasy about.

As I struggled with these issues as a parent, I also became intellectually captivated by them. I began to think that the most important change in consumer culture was not what the analysts were focusing on -- Internet shopping, branding, consumer credit, or customization of products. It was that the imperative to target kids was remaking the marketplace. By 2003, Martin Lindstrom, one of the world's leading branding gurus, opined that 80 percent of all global brands now required a tween strategy. (Tweens are a marketing category roughly comprising children from first grade to age twelve.) Lindstrom is referring not only to acknowledged tween targeted products such as food, music, fashion, and culture, but also expensive items traditionally thought of as adult oriented, such as consumer electronics, hotels, and cars. For example, his findings suggest that 40 percent of urban tweens worldwide are strongly attached to particular car brands and that 30 percent of their parents ask them for advice on car purchases. Marketing is also fundamentally altering the experience of childhood. Corporations have infiltrated the core activities and institutions of childhood, with virtually no resistance from government or parents. Advertising is widespread in schools. Electronic media are replacing conventional play. We have become a nation that places a lower priority on teaching its children how to thrive socially, intellectually, even spiritually, than it does on training them to consume. The long-term consequences of this development are ominous.

The Commercialization of Childhood

Plenty of evidence now confirms how far-reaching this process of commercialization has become. Contemporary American tweens and teens have emerged as the most brand-oriented, consumer-involved, and materialistic generations in history. And they top the list globally. A survey of youth from seventy cities in more than fifteen countries finds that 75 percent of U.S. tweens want to be rich, a higher percentage than anywhere else in the world except India, where the results were identical. Sixty-one percent want to be famous. More children here than anywhere else believe that their clothes and brands describe who they are and define their social status. American kids display more brand affinity than their counterparts anywhere else in the world; indeed, experts describe them as increasingly "bonded to brands."

At the same time, evidence of distress among children has been mounting. Rates of obesity are at epidemic levels. Diagnoses of attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have risen dramatically, and record numbers of kids are taking drugs to help them achieve self-control and focus. Anecdotal reports of electronic addictions -- to video games, Internet surfing, and online gaming -- have begun to surface. Teasing and bullying is rampant in schools, and includes a new protagonist, the "alpha girl," a mean-spirited social enforcer. A comprehensive study of anxiety finds a dramatic increase in recent decades. Today's average (i.e., normal) young person between the ages of nine and seventeen scores as high on anxiety scales as children who were admitted to clinics for psychiatric disorders in 1957. Increasing numbers of parents are sending their children off to expensive "behavior-modification" camps in the hope that these harsh and often abusive environments will cure them of their problems.

Researchers and advocates have focused primarily on social trends to explain the problems that beset children -- working mothers, poverty, divorce. But these explanations are insufficient. After years of study, there is decisive evidence that children suffer no ill effects from maternal employment. And while poverty has strong negative effects on kids, middle-class and suburban youth have also been afflicted. Similarly, plenty of children from intact families are in trouble. Conservatives have blamed liberal values and the decline of patriarchal authority. But the research shows that children with authoritarian parents tend to have more, not fewer, behavioral problems.

The ills young people are suffering span a wide range, from the physical to the psychological to the social. I began to wonder if there weren't connections among them. Consumption excess is widespread, whether it's unhealthy food, electronic media, or drugs and alcohol. Psychological distress, especially feelings of alienation and meaninglessness, is a common message in popular music. Drug and alcohol consumption often exacerbates psychological problems. Social pathologies are promoted by the materialistic and exclusionary messages of ads and marketing. Indeed, Martin Lindstrom reports that "fear and pressure are the two most common elements characterizing the daily lives of tweens" and that the exploitation of anxiety in ads has steadily increased in the past few years.

As I began to investigate the impact of consumer culture on children, I found that the existing studies focused on the adverse effects of a particular consumer experience or product on a child. There were studies on the relation between junk food and obesity, between television violence and aggression in children. But no study had assessed the impact of the new consumer environment as a whole. I suspected that the growing commercialization of childhood was at least partly responsible for the decline in children's well-being.

A Historical Perspective on Children and Consumer Culture

But I didn't want to jump to unwarranted conclusions. Children have a long history as consumers. Some children's products, such as literature and clothing, have been around for centuries. Historians report that as early as 1870, toys began to serve as status symbols. Throughout the twentieth century, kids have liked to shop, and they have been avid consumers of popular culture offerings, such as comics, movies, radio serials, and books. What scholars have dubbed "moral panics," that is, exaggerated adult fears about children's fads, are longstanding. In recent years, moral panics have been triggered by comic books, trading cards, electronic games, even stuffed animals such as Beanie Babies. Children also have a rich history as economic actors -- not merely as workers, but also as traders, wrapped up in acquiring, exchanging, and collecting. As long as we have had consumer capitalism, children have had a relationship to it.

The historical record also suggests how important it is to avoid overly romantic notions of childhood. Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer has convincingly argued that in the early part of the twentieth century, adult attitudes about children changed dramatically. Once considered almost expendable, children were increasingly thought of as sacred, priceless, and irreplaceable. This was also the time when ideas of innocence and purity came to dominate adult views of children. That legacy remains with us: childhood is designated the period of "innocence and wonder." But as cultural theorists have cogently argued, the concept of childhood innocence is less a description of reality than a way for adults to project their own fantasies onto children. Henry Giroux has argued that these fantasies "allow adults to believe that children do not suffer from adult greed, recklessness, and perversions of will and spirit." Flesh-and-blood children are not merely innocents, but complex beings, with conflicting desires and impulses. As we consider how childhood is changing, it's important to avoid our own nostalgia, wishful thinking, or culturally specific experiences.

Nevertheless, the sheer extent of children's immersion in consumer culture today is unprecedented. In the past, consuming was modest in comparison to other activities, such as work, play, school, and religious involvement. Now, marketed leisure has replaced unstructured socializing, and most of what kids do revolves around commodities. Children's purchasing power and influence have exploded as they spend their days shopping and watching more television.

A second difference is that today's commercialization is coinciding with major changes in the nature of childhood itself. In comparison with baby boomers, today's youth have earlier exposure to and more involvement with adult worlds. Children from single-parent families, a growing portion of the population, shoulder significant family responsibilities. Social analysts, media critic Neil Postman, and others have argued that these developments constitute a "disappearance of childhood." Evidence of the blurred boundaries between children and adults includes the decline in children's games, such as marbles, stickball, or hand-clapping, the disappearance of special clothing styles for children, early sexual activity, drug and alcohol use, and the widespread eroticization of children through beauty pageants, ads, and fashion. Advocates of the disappearance of childhood thesis have their critics, and there is some evidence that a counterreaction has set in, with the growth of homework, school uniforms, and increased supervision of kids. But there's little question that emotionally, children are growing up faster and that they are more integrated into adult spaces and activities and wield far more power in family decision making.

Marketing and advertising have been influential in transforming children into autonomous and empowered consumers. They have done this by overturning the original 1920s formula for selling children's products, which was an alliance with mothers. Advertisers had to convince moms that the product was beneficial for the child. Wheatena's proteins built bodies. Milk contained Vitamin D. This approach, which the industry termed the "gatekeeper model," was practiced through the postwar era as well. Today, marketers create direct connections to kids, in isolation from parents and at times against them. The new norm is that kids and marketers join forces to convince adults to spend money.

In some sense, this shift is not surprising. Important changes in consumer society have historically involved new forms of triangulation. One such shift occurred a century ago as women and merchants formed an alliance to overcome opposition to the emerging consumer economy from frugal, conservative husbands. In both England and the United States, the success of retail establishments, including department stores, was partly predicated on merchants' willingness to let women purchase goods on credit, which they could arrange without their husbands' consent. The merchants pursued these policies of easy credit even in cases when the husbands' approval was in doubt or had been explicitly denied. (Sometimes men would take out ads in newspapers repudiating responsibility for any future debts their wives might incur.) The merchants' motivation, of course, was that buying on credit expanded sales far beyond what they would have been had wives been required to obtain their husbands' permission -- and dollars -- in advance. Husbands for the most part owned the marital property but in return were required to support their wives at a "customary" level that was set by social class and past practice. As one might imagine, the customary number or quality of dresses and household items turned out to be a matter of disagreement. Many of the overdue credit cases ended up in court, because husbands refused to pay what they considered outrageous bills incurred by their wives at dressmakers' and milliners' establishments or department stores. The courts usually sided with the husbands, and the bills often went unpaid. Nevertheless, the alliance made it possible for women, despite their lack of control over family purse strings, to emerge as the nation's dominant consumers. Opposition to the emerging consumer economy came from men, who worried that its hedonistic aspects threatened self-control, sobriety, chastity, and, perhaps most important, male authority.

I note this history in some detail because it shows how a new alliance can remake a culture. Today, the partnership is between children and marketers, who are sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, allied against parents. The gatekeeper model has become an archaic remnant of another era, operating only in the market for very young children. Advertisers have direct access to kids because they watch television without their parents. Marketers have also pried open other parent-free environments, most notably schools and the Internet, where they speak directly to their target market. Indeed, marketers are connecting with children in an increasingly close embrace that parents find difficult to penetrate and is even affecting how kids and parents get along.

These developments have not been beneficial for children. My research shows that those who are more involved in consumer culture fare far worse in psychological and social terms. What's more, my findings reverse the conventional wisdom that dysfunctional kids are drawn to consumer culture; in fact, the reverse is true. Involvement in consumer culture causes dysfunction in the forms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and psychosomatic complaints.

Many adults respond to the critique of media and consumerism by shrugging it off, on the grounds that this culture is inescapable. Some are fatalistic; others contend that the critics exaggerate or are missing the true causes of kids' distress. Many reason that they themselves grew up on television with no untoward effects. But this stance is increasingly untenable. Day by day, marketers are growing bolder. Year by year, the scientific evidence about harmful effects is mounting. I offer this book both as a record and in hopes of breaking through what seems to me to be a case of collective denial about the nature and consequences of children's consumer culture.

Copyright © 2004 by Juliet Schor

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