As an adult, I cringe when I think about the (questionable) decisions made in my youth to dress in baggy jeans, with stainless steel chains looped from belt to pocket. My hair was black with an ‘electric-blue’ tint and I could often be found clad in a hooded sweatshirt with my favourite band plastered on the front. My friends all dressed almost identically. Rather ironically, we believed that our ‘individual’ or ‘alternative’ style defined who we were and made us stand out from the crowd.
Unsurprisingly, this was not the case. Our usual Saturday day out was spent standing with another thirty to forty people who were dressed identically to us, listening to the same music and making the same sweeping statements about their own individuality and their unique perspective on the world.
The irony here is that this is not a standalone phenomenon specific to my generation. ‘Fitting in’, whilst having the courage to demonstrate one’s own individuality is an important part of growing up. Referred to as one of our most ‘creative and controlled behaviours’, consumer consumption is widely acknowledged as an activity which allows individuals to do exactly this. Living within a consumer-focused society can offer people the creative license to demonstrate a certain level of self-awareness and self-expression.
However, there are obvious negatives associated with such a choice. With the rise of social media, product placement and targeted advertising, we are continually bombarded with images of products and services which promise to make our lives easier, more glamorous and essentially better than those around us. This inevitably raises concerns regarding the impact of this exposure on the more easily influenced or vulnerable members of our society. Young people are often the worst affected, forced to keep up with the latest trends in order to feel fulfilled and/or accepted by their peers.
The highly regarded sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, separated consumers into two camps, those he referred to as the ‘seduced’ and the ‘repressed’. This sought to highlight the basic level of inequality which consumerism can cause. Consumer choice is only truly available to those who have the necessary financial resources. This is necessary to afford the latest trends, such as the newest branded trainers or the latest version of a mobile phone.
The ‘repressed’ are those individuals forced to stand on the periphery, forced into situations where they compete with peers to keep up with the latest trends. This can force many to resort to cheaper alternatives, such as counterfeit goods, copy-cat brands (where they get the bargain but not the same shelf-life). We have previously written about the impacts that counterfeit goods have on consumers and the economy. This article is available HERE.
All these factors lead us to question whether we always exert personal choice as consumers or are our consumer choices ultimately controlled? Are we pushed and pulled in certain directions by retailers vying for our money? In order to fully understand the spending practices of teenagers and young adults, it is necessary to assess where society at large is ‘pulled’ or ‘pushed’ into making consumer decisions, regardless of the scale.
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