Business and Marketing / Economics Essay

How did the American culture of consumption evolve?

Despite America’s centuries of history, the culture of consumerism only came about after World War II. Just before the war, there was the Great Depression. However, America thrived during the war and in the years after. The increased profits lifted the country out of depression and made it a global economic force to be reckoned. There were plenty of jobs offering high wages, and Americans were eager to spend their newfound wealth on consumer goods and commodities that the war did not afford them.

It was also the prime time to live out the American dream – cheap houses, plentiful jobs, and as many consumer goods as money could buy. People had been looking forward to the end of the war, knowing that the world would be a safer place to begin a family. Couples began marrying younger and beginning their families, taking the opportunity of the G.I. Bill of Rights to purchase their own homes in the suburban areas. Suburban housing was affordable, plentiful and provided families with a quiet place away from the city. Between 1940 and 1960, the percentage of Americans that lived in the suburbs increased from 19.5 percent to 30.7 percent. Likewise, homeownership rates grew from 44 percent in 1940 to nearly 62 percent in 1960.

The resounding baby boom scaled the population to new limits and drastically increased the demand for resources and goods. On top of that, spending was actually encouraged – Americans were praised for being patriotic citizens and contributing to the success of the American way of life by being good purchasers. An American devoted to the mantra “more, newer, better” was a good citizen, based on the belief that building an economy of mass consumption was critical to recovering after war and depression.

During this time, Americans focused on buying pragmatic goods instead of luxury items. The most desired items revolved around home and family life, including televisions, cars, stoves, refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and toasters. Spending on practical items for the house helped Americans to feel that they were putting their money to good use and alleviated the common fear that spending would lead to decadence.

Of the products that Americans desired, the two most popular were perhaps the television and car. Cars quickly became necessary due to rapid expansion of the suburban areas, requiring people to travel long distances to get to work. The federal government also facilitated this surge in automobile sales by building highways. In 1944, the Federal Highway Act authorized the funding of $1.5 billion to be used in building and improving roads. Later in 1956, the Federal Aid Highway Act authorized $25 billion to be used over twelve years to build 41,000 miles of toll-free highways. The total costs added up to more than this amount, but the network of roads was constructed nevertheless. As such, citizens could easily travel between states, and this became the new norm. While there was still public transportation, it was limited to only within cities. Soon enough, anyone who was without a car was as good as in exile, for the limited amenities they could access. Since automobiles were made cheap to spur on more purchases, there was no reason for people not to get a car – or more than one.

Within the span of ten years from 1950 to 1960, the percentage of Americans that owned at least one television increased from 12 percent to more than 87 percent. With televisions making their way into almost every household, television programs became popular for entertainment, catering to working- and middle-class families. Instead of having to go to the movies, Americans could simply enjoy a show in the comfort of their own homes. Most of these television programs enforced traditional gender roles, where the men were the breadwinners of the family and the women took on household duties. Televisions also created an opportunity for advertising to reach a wider audience for longer periods of time, thus planting the seeds to influence people to buy more products.

Around this time, credit cards also came into the picture, making it even easier for homeowners to make their purchases. First introduced in 1950, credit cards quickly made it into the pockets of the everyday American owing to their compact size and ability to “pay it forward”. Americans could now purchase expensive items without having to amass all the cash first. In fact, they could simply carry any outstanding balance forward, essentially using “free” credit.  

Why was the culture of consumption championed? America believed that in order to recover from the years of depression, they had to focus on accruing material possessions. This era of early consumerism sought to bridge the gap between the different classes in American society. By defining new standards and making them attainable to every citizen, people were spurred on to work their way up the ranks of society. It was now easy for anyone to feel that they were being patriotic and contributing back to society, as long as they worked hard and spent their income on buying new goods. As the years went by, the market continued to redefine consumerism. Companies kept releasing newer and better products and people kept buying them. Since this was the mindset that the adults of today grew up with, challenging consumerism is even tougher.

It was not until some decades later that people realized their habits of consumption were not limitless. Americans had been buying and companies had been producing without heed to their environmental impact, but as the population and demand for goods grew, it was brought to attention that consumption had a hefty price. The many appliances in everyone’s homes were using plenty of energy to operate. Automobiles required depletable fossil fuels to run, and with the miles that Americans were driving each day, the volume was a lot. 22 million gallons of fuel were consumed in just 1945 alone, but that number could not hold a candle to the 59 million gallons that were consumed in 1958.

Eventually, attention was drawn to the harsh challenges our environment was facing, but making the switch was not so easy. The issue of sustainability was still woven tightly into the underlying culture of consumption that had been built up. People thought that if they wanted to be eco-friendly, they needed the latest and best equipment – an expensive hybrid car, a house fitted with solar panels, a greywater system or more. This belief put off many who were not in that highest social class of consumers. To convince people to adopt more sustainable habits, it was important to shift people’s views on the topic of consumption and show them that little things they did could still make an impact.

Today, we are ever striving to conserve the resources that were so carelessly used in the past. While considerably more people are looking towards eco-friendly products, America is still deeply rooted in its consumer past. It is very difficult to get people to give up what they have been so used toHow did the American culture of consumption evolve?, but sustainability all starts with the first step. 

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