I work part-time at a large supermarket chain (surprise, surprise, writing doesn’t pay my bills). Everyday I see the variety of choice out there and am bewildered at the complexity we face today. Not only do we have walls of jam to pick from but babies and toddlers are now improving their palate: organic vegetable, spaghetti bolognese, thai green curry, exotic fruit. My question is twofold: what affect does this amount of choice have on us, the consumer; and now we have cornered the toddler/baby market where are the emerging markets of the future to come from? In effect, what is the state of consumerism today and what will it look like in the future?
American psychologist B.Schwartz explores the effects of choice in his book ‘The Paradox of Choice’, highlighting the paralysing nature of too much choice and denying the official dogma that suggests more choice equates to more freedom. And quite a few scientists agree with him. Further research shows that more choice invariably means people make no choice at all and that oftentimes it can be beneficial to offer up decision-making to others (especially in cases where the other person has more considerably more knowledge than you, i.e. doctors).
At the end of the day more choice lessens the pleasurable experience of each choice you make. Say you go for the Golden Peach Preserve and that’s pretty damn good, what’s to say the Imperial Pear wasn’t better? Of course choose the Imperial Pear next time and that experience is marred by the memory of just how good the Golden Peach Preserve was. Then comes the problem, which one will you go for now you know both were a mighty fine jam experience? Ultimately whichever choice you make you’ll be unsatisfied and Schwartz suggests this happens even when the decision made actually benefits you. Why do we need the extra stress in our lives? As if modern life wasn’t tough enough already (statistics show that adults are ten times more likely to suffer from clinical depression today than in 1945).
Now let’s turn to the future of consumerism in this country. I fear we are beginning to reach the end of a previously unquenchable line of exploitable markets. We surpassed pre-teens (quite an uproar when I was growing up that was) and are now in the territory of the pre-child. Baby food, educational toys for toddlers, the overwhelming range of nappies, wipes, milk, sterilisers… The list is becoming steadily endless. I think most economists would agree that capitalist economies require burgeoning markets to exploit in order to survive. In this case, where are the next markets to magically appear from? Perhaps we could develop the foetal market, a variety of musical accompaniments to life in the womb perhaps? Sonic resonance massaging, or a brand new range of replacement placental fluid to enhance the developmental experience?
To top this off, now that people will have little to no pension the silver pound will soon start dissipating. Pensioners houses won’t be worth half as much when they get around to retiring and things will probably be twice as expensive. So where are the markets to come from? The answer seems to be from abroad, specifically the developing countries. Here is a positive point for all those of a liberal sensibility. Once we have exhausted all exploitative markets in Western countries global capitalism will be forced to ignite the democratising spark in developing countries. The bottom line is that consumers need to have freedom and expendable incomes to become proper consumers. I have said it before in another context and I say it again: if we want conditions to improve in this country we will need to start campaigning for an improvement in the conditions of the citizens in the developing countries that are exporting cheap goods to us.
If we want to continue in a global capitalist economy (and I’m not saying we should, but it’s what we got) we have deal with the global trade imbalance. Even China has realised it needs to start exploiting internal markets and with this comes the necessary freedoms that must exist in a consumerist world. Consumers must feel like individuals. A burgeoning middle-class in China is already starting to exert a little influence and I suggest this bottom-up pressure will only increase. There’s the democratising spark of capitalism. Osborne’s cringeworthy begging bowl trips to China and India show just how important these markets are to us. Let’s hope the kind of legislative change that occurred in the labour markets in this country will happen in those countries, the minimum wage, decent health and safety. Perhaps then they won’t be able to undercut workers in this country. Workers of the World Unite!
The amount of choice we have in this country is an inevitable symptom of late-stage consumerist capitalism and it probably does us more harm than good. That said, we shouldn’t forget that we are lucky to have the choice. Any choice. Perhaps the silver lining that might emerge is that there will soon be no new markets to exploit and we may be forced to make lives in other countries better. Only because it will be immediately beneficial to us, of course. Looking further into the future, however, perhaps ultimately it would be nice to live in a world where we don’t need ‘stuff’ to give our lives meaning.
- Too much product choice keeps us from buying (modernbuyerbehaviour.wordpress.com)
- Too much to choose? (daanvonk.wordpress.com)