Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Consumers First?

Meet the gold-collar consumers -- "they're 18 to 25 years old, working at a poorly paid service job, living at home and buying $325 Christian Dior sunglasses". Apparently they've got Tastes for Glitz on Blue-Collar Pay.

The article quotes the author of Trading Up, which I still have in my bookshelf after reading the first couple of chapters last year. The basic premise is that we all find ways to buy luxury goods in specific niches that are important to us, but may sacrifice quality in other areas of our purchasing. For example, I have a mountain bike that's worth more than our car. It's a business book, so it focuses on how companies use that knowledge to leverage luxury products in all kinds of categories.

Aside from the obvious issues with tying our identities to what we buy, I'm interested in how this might affect how people envision their futures. A friend and I have been talking about software that could help people create views of their future lifestyles, where each activity (purchase, event, job, experience) is represented by a sort of value card. So I might select "mountain biking" and set my personal costs in time (four hours a week) and money ($20 a week), but more importantly select why I value it -- perhaps I mostly ride for its high social and emotional values, because I have a group of friends to ride with. The next person might choose the same activity, but value it mostly for the exercise and physical health benefits.

We had talked about the main categories of values being things like mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, etc...and we thought it would help people really think about how and why they value things. But how do you even try to quantify values for people who sponge off their parents and work at jobs they hate so they can afford overpriced shoes that make them feel like rock stars? Do we have to create a value selection for "pride" and "greed" and a housing option for "mooch"?

But perhaps that's the strength of a tool that helps people visualize how their values interact to create their lifestyle. If I create the shallowest, most consumeristic, energy-wasting, unrealistic vision of my future, then I will likely learn some things about myself and my perspective along the way. The "product" of an imagined future isn't actually as important as what you learn about what it is you really want, how you might make it work, and maybe even how it affects your community and the environment (even if you don't particularly value those effects?).

The theoretical underpinning of this stuff in reference to lifestylism is something like this: Most of our aspirations are borrowed in some vague way from the American Dream and societal assumptions like "you have to go to college to get a good job to make enough money for the big house". The process of envisioning what kind of lifestyle you really want will help expose some of the personal values, contradictions and trade-offs in a way that will constitute real learning -- instead of telling teenagers what they should do, or hoping they'll just absorb the goals everyone else assumes are ok, why not let them explore possible futures themselves and let them play with consequences first?

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