August 17, 2011 / Theology
Editor’s Note: If you missed Part One of Ryan Harper’s article, click here. Louise Glück’s …
April 4, 2005
The laissez-faire capitalism of Adam Smith (1723-1790) solidified the concept of private ownership seeking maximum profits primarily through self-regulation and competition. Time has passed and the laissez-faire model has shifted though the essential elements of private ownership motivated by the accumulation of profits has remained. Profits once held predominantly by the bourgeois courtesy of the proletariat could be seen through land, finance and a host of other tangible products. Only a handful of people could really lay claim to such items, the rest worked not for the accumulation of wealth but for survival. Karl Marx examined capitalism and classified individuals into two distinct economic groups: the bourgeois and the proletariat. Marx did not anticipate that the appeal of united classes would become largely irrelevant, even to those who would most benefit from this ideal, as a result of individualism. In fact, radical individualism has so changed economics that although investment was the major driver of economies at the time of Marx, current classical economics recognizes current consumption as the industrial world’s economic engine. Marx could never have imagined this radical individualism let alone have predicted its impact in chartering the current ethos of adolescent culture in the western world.
The term “capitalism” has various meanings and evokes strong emotions. For some it is a derogatory term denoting the neglect or even exploitation of the weak or the poor by the strong and powerful. For others, it denotes a system where opportunities abound for those who are dedicated, work hard, and have ingenuity. In reality, both of these views have merit. When a person uses the term capitalism, they are rarely thinking of laissez-faire or pure capitalism. Usually they are referring to their preferred or non-preferred mix of private market and publicly provided goods and services. The American Heritage Dictionary defines capitalism as “An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market.” When someone uses the term capitalism, it is well to explore what they intend: the meaning of the term will vary as world views vary. Regardless, some commonalities exist when this term is used. Capitalism has to do with economics. Specifically, it has to do with the supply by individuals rather than governments of goods and services that are demanded. The existence of private ownership and accumulation of wealth requires the underlying acceptance of a social system where individual rights are established, maintained, and protected. Even more than being about a free market economy and open competition, capitalism is about individual rights. It is a world view that touches every part of life.
Any discussion of teenagers and capitalism needs to begin with these two major themes – individualism and personal rights. Today’s teenagers express this by their very existence. They are self-focused. This is a normal developmental stage. It is also a normal stage in the lifecycle where personal consumption now trumps investment and deferred consumption. In addition to the normal development, we now teach children from birth that they are important, so important in fact that each one has been nurtured and celebrated, not as they connect with their families, their community or larger society but for who they are individually. There are of course exceptions to every rule, but with emerging adulthood now commonly accepted as a developmental stage, the communal scene has shifted.
Individual rights are a precursor to private ownership. Initially, property was owned by individuals or individual families. This established wealth, status and power. Today wealth, status and power are still being displayed. Teenagers may not own a house but they certainly spend money to establish their image through ownership of goods. What you own establishes your status regardless of how much debt you accumulate to create your image. Status carries with it an implication of wealth, whether it is true or not.
The legacy of capitalism passed to adolescents today is a sense of entitlement and a preoccupation with image. I would say for anyone, but for teenagers in particular, capitalism is more about a lifestyle than economics. This plays out every day in millions of choices made by a group of people wielding over $155 billion in disposable discretionary spending each year since 2000 with no slowing in sight. In fact regardless of overall economic trends, teen spending (ages 12-19) has continued to grow by 5% for the past 7 years. By 2006 the estimation is for adolescent spending to top $190 billion.
Children and adolescents working is not new, the amount and where they spend their money is. The end of sanctioned widespread child labor in the US is a great accomplishment. We no longer offer public approval for sending children into mines or accept the non-existence of classrooms in favor of the abundance of factories. (By no means is this to say that child labor has been eliminated, neither here in the US nor in many locations around the world. It would be an entirely different article to look at the disparity of what we publicly state and what occurs in reality…for now, I will stay with the pervasive implications of what we publicly state.) Children and teenagers once took on backbreaking works for long hours to aide their families in paying rent and buying dinner. Today, it is more common to have children mowing lawns or babysitting and adolescents working at the mall or a local shop to buy iPods, lattes, and a new pair of kicks. When asked to contribute toward a camp, school trip or other extra-curricular items, let alone clothing, books or household necessities, it is not uncommon to hear the refrain, “Why do I have to pay for that? I worked hard for my money!” Before being so hard on teenagers as to assume they are greedy and narcissistic, remember that they are a product not only of the home in which they were raised but of the culture that has developed over the centuries. They really believe others are as interested in them as they are in themselves. They are a reflection, distorted as it may be, of individual entitlement before being tempered by the constraints of adulthood in an affluent capitalist society.
I have rarely if ever had a conversation with a teenager where the acquisition of money was a goal. At least not a goal in and of itself. Money in a bank account offers nothing to show, it does not express their image. Image is an expression of who they are individually (everything for which they have been trained) and carries with it status. I wish I were the only one to know this. Unfortunately, not only am I not the only to know this but I am among the least to capitalize (excuse the pun) on this information.
For a quick 101 on just how pervasive our adult world is into understanding (or is it exploiting?) adolescents, take a peek at The Merchants of Cool, a PBS Frontline special explaining an industry that has taken notice of the billions of discretionary spending done by adolescents. This has become something of a tutorial for understanding adolescents, research focus groups and how capitalism reigns supreme seeking the accumulation of profit through the ownership…of knowledge. It is not a tangible product to be consumed but it is highly valued. By obtaining, by owning knowledge, image may be marketed through products for maximum profit.
Perhaps one of the best known marketers of this knowledge is Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU), www.teenresearch.com. TRU is a force in the arena of teenage research. Their own proclamation states “We’re at the forefront of developing new and better methods for researching teens and sharing those learnings with clients. Founded in 1982 as the first marketing-research firm to specialize exclusively in teenagers, TRU’s initial vision remains true today: to develop an unparalleled expertise in the teenage market, and to offer our clients virtually unlimited methods for researching teens.”  And share they do…they have an impressive list of clients numbering over 240. These clients fall in the following categories: retail apparel and footwear, advertising and marketing agencies, food and beverage, media, entertainment and leisure, social marketing, electronics and technology, financial, health and beauty and other. Interestingly, in addition to Abercrombie and Fitch, Coca Cola, Time Warner and Verizon, Lifeway Christian Services is included. Several anti-tobacco agencies, American Cancer Society and the Partnership for a Drug Free America are also included. Their research is qualitative and quantitative, extensive and respected. Like rain, it falls on the just and the unjust. TRU is neutral, they gather the information better than anyone else and seek to make the greatest profit from selling their goods.
It has become increasingly difficult to differentiate between an innocent victim and savvy participant in marketing. The Persuaders, another PBS Frontline special offered another perspective on this same subject. Correspondent Douglas Rushkoff says
America is an Enlightenment society. We were founded on the notion that individual freedoms are of paramount importance. This philosophy has dovetailed quite well with the market’s need to treat us as individuals. It’s easier to market to isolated individuals than to cohesive groups or collectives. The loneliest people can more easily be convinced to buy stuff to fill the void. Marketers tell us we matter – that we’re worth it. We deserve everything. They won’t tell us about sacrifice, participation, or sharing. People who share things, don’t need to buy as much stuff. So advertising exploits the American belief in individualism by recasting it as some sort of consumer right. We are led to think of our consumer choices as some version of true agency – when the choice between Coke and Pepsi really isn’t a choice, at all.
On the same show, Douglas Atkin said
I don’t believe that Americans are more or less susceptible than anyone else. In fact I don’t like the word `susceptible’ at all…it implies that people are passive receivers of manipulative messages. In general we are highly discriminating. We have to be. We’ve been forced to edit the thousands of messages that assault us and select the few that may have some relevance. We’ve become very marketing literate. Some brands do generate very strong commitment, even devotion from their customers. But this is not the result of any inherent sensitivity or vulnerability to the clever machinations of marketing professionals. The devotees that I interviewed reported that their brands provided a rallying point for people who shared the same values. As one Apple user told me: “literally it’s [the Apple community] based around a machine. But actually it’s based on a common way of thinking.
Adolescents (as well as many Americans) are consumed with the idea of expressing their individualism… just like everyone else! See a bunch of friends in their sophomore year of high school and they will talk alike as well as own a small range of music and shop at the same stores. Image is everything and this comes not in the common products (we all wear clothes) but in the brands chosen. These brands come to express something much more, something much greater than a simple logo. They offer a lifestyle based around the product. The irony is that we all purchase a common lifestyle while insisting on individuality. Teenagers at least are honest enough to own this.
And own they do! Industrialization allowed for individualism among the masses. Capitalism opened the door for the veneration of youth and all that comes within this developmental arena. Michael Novak14 argues that capitalism may be interpreted to accept human sinfulness. So much so that it opens the possibility, that “rubs sinner against sinner, making even dry wood yield a spark of grace.” He views the foundational concept of “enlightened self-interest” as proof that capitalism does not deny sinfulness, but embraces it! He believes that capitalism embraces our proclivity toward individualism while a system like socialism would be dangerous because it depends on human goodness rather than religion to improve society. There are some rejoinders to this argument. First, proponents of Adam Smith used the term “enlightened self-interest” to describe the primary motive for supplying goods and services. The adjective “enlightened” suggests that these capitalists did not believe they were describing our sinful nature. Secondly, socialism recognizes that some public goods such as healthcare and law enforcement, which everyone in society needs, will not be provided if they are left to the market mechanism. So it could be argued that socialism may be more realistic about human sinfulness. Nevertheless, an essential mechanism of both capitalism and mixed market socialism reflects the brokenness of the world.
Teenagers express the best and worst in what humanity has to offer. Tempered in a capitalist world, they will outgrow some of the narcissistic tendencies and open their eyes (not necessarily) to the greater good but to survival through open competition. Left unbridled, the teenage mindset could grow up to echo Ayn Rand. Created, nurtured, and matured through capitalism, adolescents shift from a self-focused world to one where others are considered, albeit at times compulsorily. Some people experience a sort of arrested development never moving beyond the egocentric phase. Private ownership is not about what one owns for the long term. Rather it becomes about what one can consume, in the vein of the original meaning…what one consumes is what one uses up or burns up into nothingness thus requiring further consumption and never being satisfied. Current consumption can be understood from the perspective of adolescence not only to be egocentric but unrealistic in its ability to replenish. With images ever shifting, who needs longevity?
Victim or savvy participant? Manipulated or setting the trends? Teenagers are anything but ignored in this capitalistic society. They are the focus of attention with billions of dollars and thousands of adults attempting to capture their next move. They are literally telling the marketing industry what they want, what they demand. James Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising says it this way, “We were not suddenly transformed from customers to consumers by wily manufacturers eager to unload a surplus of crapular products. We may be many things but what we are not are victims of capitalism.” He sees capitalism and consumption as a liberating role. He refuses to see consumers as passive and helpless actually wanting to give credit back to people for demanding not only better products but better information surrounding those products. Teenagers are fickle. Many products and businesses burn bright and are gone in six months. Songs that every teenager seems to know are forgotten and never considered again as soon as the next big hit comes along. Private industry and marketers look to teenagers and if a teenager says jump, they ask how high? Buzz marketing may help but it will never equal that of the teenage preference.
It is clear and continues to be clear that capitalism is not solely about greed and money. Teenagers live this out intuitively, whether they can articulate this or not. We as adults have much to learn from them. They live their lives in the same world with the rest of us, not having yet learned to present what others want to see instead of who they authentically are. As Christians, we have even more to learn. Scripture does not deny notions of private ownership, private rewards, nor accumulation of good things. They are however tempered with the giving from those things to help other people. Scripture calls for diligent individual work that each person be fruitful, and for each soul to exercise love, mercy, and charity according to faith towards God. Our self-image is to come from Christ not the label on our shirt. That said, we are not looking to run around naked in a pious declaration rejecting capitalism. Blessing or a curse? A road to perdition paved with good intentions or like the disciples long ago will we cry Lord, did we not feel our hearts burn within us as we raise our eyes and realize we are already on our way to sanctification.
Perhaps teenagers have it right: individualistic entitlement and a preoccupation with image. It all depends on to what you feel entitled and with what image you are consumed. Perhaps we should spend a little more time listening to them, everyone else seems to be.
 Douglas H. Rosenberg, “Capitalism” Encyclopedic Dictionary of Sociology, 4th ed. Dushkin Publishing Group, eds. (Guilford, CT: Dushkin, 1991), 33-34.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 79-93.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Consumption patterns do alter throughout the lifecycle. These are also impacted by one’s SES. Typically, teenagers are not in the upper echelon of wealth. This does not mean they do not have money to spend. Rather they have comparatively small amounts and consequently, they spend what they have. “Economic studies have shown that income is the primary determinant of consumption and savings. Rich people save more than poor people, both absolutely and as a percent of income.”
—Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus, Economics, 15th ed. (San Francisco: McGraw Hill, 1995), 424.
Jeffrey Arnett, “Emerging Adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties” American Psychologist,55, p. 469-480.
Wealth, Status and Power are the three characteristics Max Weber used to explain stratification. To explore his perspective on capitalism more fully see:
—Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.)
See Teenage Research Unlimited at www.teenresearch.com
This is known as adolescent egocentrism.
—Jean Piaget, “Intellectual evolution from adolescence to adulthood”, Human Development, 15. 1972. p. 1-12.
—David Elkind, “Egocentrism in adolescence” Child Development, 38 1967, 1025-1034.
—David Elkind, “Egocentrism Redux” Developmental Review, 5. 1985, 218-226.
There is even and industry looking at this pattern of consumerism known as lovemarks. See www.lovemarks.com
Michael Novak currently holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., where he is Director of Social and Political Studies. He is an author, professor, philosopher, former ambassador, and theologian.
Michael Novak, Three In One: Essays on Democratic Capitalism, 1976-2000.(New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2001), 4.
Thanks to Dr. Paul Shrier for editing and more clearly stating here what I intended.
For another look at capitalism and its connection to greater society see:
—Edward Younkins, Capitalism and Commerce: conceptual foundations of free enterprise. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002).
James B. Twitchell, Lead Us Into Temptation: the triumph of American materialism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) 27.
Amy Elizabeth Jacober, Ph.D is a veteran youth worker with a background in theology and social work. She is currently a youth ministry volunteer and an assistant professor of practical theology and youth ministry at Azusa Pacific University. She is also on Young Life's misson-wide Capernaum committee addressing ministry for adolescents with disabilities.