What’s wrong with consumerism and materialism? Lots

Earlier this year, I started volunteering at my local library for a couple of hours a week. I’m a big fan of libraries, and I wanted to find a way to give back. And for some odd reason, I felt compelled to do something good. I couldn’t really pinpoint why, so I chalked it up to getting older.

At the library, one of my duties is to make sure one of the weekly programs doesn’t go over capacity. Most buildings have occupancy regulations, and the library is no different. I politely tell people, “Sorry, we’re full for this program. But we have another one starting soon.”

You’d think people would be understanding, and for the most part, they are. But each week, at least one person throws a fit, says awful things, and then proceeds to tell me they’ll report me, a volunteer, for suggesting they wait 15 minutes for the next program.

I’m not going to lie. It feels good to publicly vent about this. But more than just annoying me, their behavior has me thinking a lot about entitlement lately. While my entitlement doesn’t manifest itself in temper tantrums, I’m still guilty of it. I get wildly impatient over stupid, first-world problems — waiting in line more than five minutes for my groceries, for example. Having to take off my shoes for airport security.

Entitlement annoys the hell out of me. It makes people rude, unpleasant and unhappy. Take anyone off the street and ask them, “Hey, what do you think of entitlement?” and they’ll tell you, “It’s terrible. I hate it.”

Yet everywhere I go, I see people yelling at cashiers, barking orders to wait staff and leaning on their car horns for silly, unjustifiable reasons. If everyone hates entitlement, why is everyone so entitled?

Our Environment and Background

Sharing his own thoughts on entitlement, J.D. Roth, the founder of Get Rich Slowly, speculated that where you grow up has a lot to do with it.

“If you’ve never been hungry, never wondered where you would sleep, never had to go without shoes, then your sense of what is by rights your due may be askew.

“If every winter your family went on vacation to a warmer clime, if every summer you went to camp, if each fall you started the new school year with a fresh wardrobe and all the school supplies you could imagine, why would you think you were entitled to any less as an adult? Even if you haven’t got the income to support it, you have no idea why you can’t have everything you want when you want it. And if you’ve been handed a pile of credit, no doubt you’ll satisfy your sense of entitlement, damn the long-term costs.”

To put it bluntly, this has to do with being spoiled — growing up with luxuries you don’t even realize are luxuries. And, yeah, I’m spoiled. I never had a fresh wardrobe or went to camp. But I did grow up with plenty of food, lots of modern conveniences and few worries.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine my mother ever throwing a huff about having to wait 15 minutes for a free program or even standing in line for her groceries. In fact, she doesn’t complain about much. When your childhood memories consist of hunger pangs, you tend to be a little more grateful for an abundance of food and shelter later in life.

Our Consumer Culture

But it’s our consumer culture, I think, that makes us more entitled than anything. We want Stuff. We convince ourselves we need Stuff. And we work hard, so we must deserve it. But there’s a difference between feeling you deserve something and feeling you’re owed something. The problem is that the line is really, really fine.

Sue L.T. McGregor, an economist, researcher and Full Professor in the Faculty of Education at Mount Saint Vincent University, discussed this topic in a paper titled, “Consumer Entitlement, Narcissism, and Immoral Consumption.” In the paper, McGregor points out how easy it is for consumerism to take over our behavior.

Entitlement makes us rude. All of you can probably think of a negative experience you’ve had in dealing with someone’s entitled rudeness. MGregor writes:

“Remember that, in a consumer society, people have very high expectations for personal gratification.”

Well, what’s wrong with that, right? Except that:

“People feel that they are entitled to have all their expectations met. Life should be easy…. Not surprisingly then, a sense of entitlement can lead to destructive, as well as aggressive, consumption behaviors. An entitlement mentality holds that the world is theirs for the taking, regardless of possible harm to others.”

And this isn’t such a big deal when the patron who wants to get into the library program yells at me. But this mindset can be a little more destructive when you consider that most of us consume despite the moral conflicts. We read about a company doing something terribly corrupt, and we’re briefly appalled. Hell, we might even tweet about it with a convenient little hashtag. But then, we go right back to being consumers — or, worse than that, we turn a blind eye to it altogether and chalk it up to capitalism. Not to sound too judgmental — in my life, I’ve done both.

We become so engrossed in what we’re owed, we become disconnected with where our goods and services come from. As McGregor explains, our “consumption decisions are adversely affecting the next generation, those not yet born, those living elsewhere, and the environment.”

I do think this is changing a little. Consumers are starting to become more interested in shopping responsibly. Whether or not we’re acting on it is an entirely different question, but we’re at least interested in it, and some companies are beginning to take notice.

The Other Extreme

It’s hard to talk about entitlement and consumerism without sounding like you’re on a high horse. So let’s look at both sides of the coin. There’s another side to this argument.

For example, my mom is probably the least entitled person I know. That is one of her best qualities. She once told me a story about how, when she was a child, she worked for a candy company, packaging the candy. She didn’t describe it as sweatshop labor, but considering what she was paid for what she did, that’s pretty much what it was.

“That’s awful,” I said, appalled.

“No!” she barked. “You kidding? We were starving. I was lucky to have that job!”

It makes me sad to think that, as a child growing up in severely impoverished conditions, my mom saw sweatshop work as being lucky. And even to this day, I feel like she doesn’t truly understand her value. She shortchanges herself a lot. My aunt is the same way. You tell these women how amazing they are; they scoff and say, “What amazing? I’m lucky to be alive!”

Which is kind of endearing and inspiring, but it can also work against you when it comes to things like asking for a raise. So we go from one extreme, entitlement, to the other, a lack of self-worth.

Consumerism Isn’t All Bad, Right?

And I’ll take another step down from my anti-entitlement high horse.

We’ve had a few readers speak up in the comments about consumerism. What’s so bad about earning money, finding financial independence, and then spending that money on things you enjoy, they ask. Even if it’s a car or a boat or a fancy suit?

Nothing. Not everyone agrees 100 percent with this, but I buy the argument that, at its core, there’s nothing wrong with consumerism. The problem is, most people don’t do it in a responsible way. For most people, it leads to negative things — not just the emotional issue of entitlement, but practical problems, too — like lifestyle inflation and debt. Maybe the problem is less about consumption and more about overconsumption. There’s nothing wrong with buying stuff; but when your whole life becomes Stuff, that’s when things seem to get a little nuts.

A Solution

In her paper, McGregor talks about narcissism and consumerism. That’s the lack of connection she mentions — when we’re so engrossed in ourselves and our consumption that we don’t consider others.

We don’t consider that the waitress might be going through a devastating time in her life, making her vulnerable to simple mistakes, like forgetting your side of beans. We just yell at her, make her feel stupid, and take it out of her tip.

Maybe she’s not going through a tough time. But narcissists don’t consider it either way. All they see is their lack of beans. A lot of people are guilty of this. You see it every day.

But there’s another side to narcissism McGregor brings up when she talks about the solution to entitlement.

“If people crave attention by being a consumer, change the focus of their attention to being a global citizen first and a consumer second. Then, create a situation where they crave that sort of attention. If they need to focus on rights and entitlements to gain power, shift their attention to being morally powerful…”

With this solution, narcissists still get their egos fed. They still get their “narcissistic supply,” as McGregor calls it. Only they’re contributing to something positive now and not being jerks to everyone around them. It seems like a big shift; but as she points out, “narcissists will transform themselves into anything to get and keep attention.”

She suggests narcissists make this shift by focusing on conscious spending. Volunteering at a library will probably also work. (Ahem.)

Am I calling myself a narcissistic consumer? Kind of, yeah. Just one who has shifted her focus.

Really, I’m not much different from the people who come in, yell at me, and expect to have things their way. They’re demanding something they feel entitled to. But I’ve realized that, so am I. As much as I really do love the library and really do want to give back, there is a slightly more selfish motive: I want to feel good about what I’m doing.

It’s not an attractive thing to admit, but there’s a part of me that wants to pat myself on the back and feed my ego a bit. There’s a part of me, semi-deep down, that volunteers because I want to be appreciated and respected and important. I feel I deserve those feelings.

Ugly, right? Like the entitled consumer who craves control and power, I, too, have a “narcissistic supply.” I’m not immune to entitlement and ego.

But I have to say, there is an important difference: My entitlement happens to be a little more productive.

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