Emily Huddart-Kennedy

I should preface this critique by saying that I appreciate the positive lens of Maurie Cohen’s viewpoint. A colleague of mine has spoken of the need for sociology that is more positive, and this certainly fits the bill. That said, my comments with be primarily argumentative, speaking directly to Maurie Cohen’s points of evidence of the winding down of economic growth.

(1) The aging of the American population

This trend is assumed to lead to smaller homes, fewer consumer goods, and more healthcare services. To the best of my knowledge, one reason for a shift to smaller homes is that the elderly are less likely to live with their families than in the past, and that the boomer preference for large homes in low-density suburbs has now become the status quo in most jurisdictions. That these boomers now want higher density and smaller home options is part of what is driving up real estate prices in city centers, making it more difficult for those with less money to live there, and fostering a second wave of moves to the suburbs. The second wave is characterized less by wealthy elites and more so by new immigrants and families with young children.

(2) The decrease in income levels

Cohen asks whether a consumer society can persist in the face of a shrinking middle class. He reasons that this seems unlikely because increasing income inequality deepens the divide between the affluent consumers of boutique goods and the non-affluent consumers of prosaic commodities. Though I agree with his response in principle, I don’t believe it answers his question. In contrast, some of the institutions propping up a consumer society, such as access to credit and the world of cheap goods (with considerable social and environmental externalities), are well-documented. Tackling the premises of such evidence would build a more convincing argument.

3. Youth have different consumer preferences.

I love reading the statistics that show youth are not getting cars or licenses in droves as they once did. However, I remain unconvinced that this trend is a result of diminished interest in consumer goods. In fact, I am often challenged by what I see amongst my students as the view that consumption alone is the path to creating a brighter future (which to me suggests a deeper entrenchment of the consumer society, i.e., when civic engagement becomes commodified). For instance, I just finished grading a paper where the student wrote, “In our capitalist world, nothing speaks louder than our actions as consumers.” The future Cohen suggests is still far away.

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Emily Huddart-Kennedy
Emily Huddart-Kennedy is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Washington State University. Her current research focuses on the structural and individual antecedents of sustainable lifestyles (including urban design, social networks, and environmental values) as well as the functioning of sustainable food citizens and the role of ecological citizens.

Cite as Emily Huddart Kennedy, "The Decline and Fall of Consumer Society?," Great Transition Initiative (May 2014), https://www.greattransition.org/commentary/emily-huddart-kennedy-the-decline-and-fall-of-consumer-society-maurie-cohen.

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