Sunday, February 4, 2007

More Is Not Always Better: Examining Materialism Among the Young

Over the past few decades the United States has enjoyed an annual national income growth rate of more than two percent. As a result young people today generally enjoy a much more comfortable lifestyle than their parents did twenty years ago. Televisions, cell phones, personal computers, iPods (pictured below)—products that were once luxurious or even nonexistent—have become easily accessible. And with the blessing of affluence came confusion, anxiety, even frustration. Responses to the Roper surveys show that cohorts born later consider more goods to be “necessary parts of a good life” than those born earlier. This explains why high school and college students have become more and more materialistic, setting financial security as their primary goal in life. According to CNN news,UCLA's annual survey of college freshman […] found that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed in 2006 thought it was essential or very important to be ‘very well-off financially.’” The number, “compare[d] with 62.5 percent who said the same in 1980 and 42 percent in 1966, the first year the survey was done,” is astonishing. This obsession with wealth leads to the expectation and the pressure to earn high income, as well as the burden of more college loans. “No wonder we hear so many 20somethings talking about the ‘quarter-life crisis,’” says psychologist Jean Twenge.

It is natural to assume that accumulating more possessions will lead to a better, happier life; but the results of studies done by economists prove otherwise. Robert Frank, a professor of economics at Cornell University , argues, “We need ways to evaluate how we’re doing and make judgments about how best to adapt to changing environments. Such judgments almost always depend heavily on how we’re doing relative to others in the same local environment” (1). Therefore satisfaction with life is influenced by social comparison, a process in which the person compares his or her own situation to that of other people. For example, a student who does not own an iPod may not feel any desire to buy one until all his friends own an iPod; then he suddenly feels miserable because compared to his friends he is “worse-off.” On the other hand, Anke Zimmermann (pictured to the right) concludes after examining time series data from the Roper surveys, “On average, an individual’s wellbeing does not improve despite increases in income, because rising goods aspirations offset the effect of rising.” Thus hedonic adaptation, or getting used to one’s experience, is yet another force affecting people’s happiness. For instance, the excitement of having a new cell phone or a new car wears off after a while, leaving the once- proud owner bored and in search of a better product.

Materialism among the youth is especially alarming and deserving of public attention because attitude toward wealth affects decisions regarding education, career, and family life. The American Freshman National Norms for Fall 2006 how that students attending their second choice institutions listed “being offered financial aid” and “the cost of the college” as two of the top five important reasons influencing their college choice (8). Even before entering the work force, many students are already concerned about or even burdened by the cost of their education. The importance of financial concern in the process of decision-making is also likely to be reflected in the students’ choice of jobs after college. Since earning high income and buying luxury goods do not guarantee long-term high life satisfaction, selecting a job solely based on the amount written on the paycheck would be unwise. Instead one should consider the intrinsic elements of the job, such as the freedom to use creativity and to work independently. While the media are presenting wealth as the key to happiness, educators have the responsibility to inform young people of the limited effects of income on life satisfaction. Happiness and its sources should be introduced in high school or even in middle school, before students start making decisions about higher education or work. Like civics and economics, subjective wellbeing deserves to be a required course. Outside the classroom the spread of information can be promoted through providing welfare study data and results in school career planning centers and academic advisors’ offices. Even basic understanding of the topic can shape our youth into more responsible consumers and better policy makers in the future.

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