Having lived through yet another Black Friday (the local radio station called it the “Black Friday Holiday”), I think it is an appropriate time to move on to Chapter 2 of Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. Chapter 2 is, appropriately, about mass consumerism: it is actually entitled “Captive to Consumerism.” Frankly, this was an issue that I was not expecting. But after reading Dr. Smith’s chapter, it makes sense. Dr. Smith’s team set out to find what do emerging adults (aged 18-23) think about all the seemingly endless products, services, and “stuff” that is available for purchase. Are there any dilemmas connected with a consumerist lifestyle? What he found is that most are either positive or neutral about mass consumerism, and few express doubts.
According to Dr. Smith, “Contemporary emerging adults are either true believers or complacent conformists when it comes to mass consumerism. Most like shopping and buying things. Most enjoy consuming products and services. It is the way of life with which they are familiar and content.” This group is sixty-one percent of emerging adults.
Thirty percent of those interviewed did express concerns, but thought they could do nothing to change the situation. For them, “mass consumerism remains in place and their lives remain unchanged.” In this group, the problem of mass consumerism was often thought of as “the problem of other people.”
What is the purpose of a good education?
Having explained how so many emerging adults are “bought in” to a consumerist culture, Dr. Smith then offers an aside on what is the purpose of education. And it’s a good question. Having just shown that most emerging adults are fine with mass consumerism, we quickly find out that for most students a college education is nothing more than a ticket to better jobs, for money, for mass consumption.
What happened to education for the life of the mind, and soul craft? It seems to be gone. And this is a problem. For one thing, more and more students are going into debt on hopes of a great job after graduation, only to end up deep in debt when they leave school. Secondly, for a democracy to flourish, it must have an educated population that values civic virtue, a common culture, and understands where the nation has come from. When one is looking at college as mostly an investment in making money, much of these important values are lost.
What is a good life?
But Dr. Smith is not finished with asking what is the purpose of education. He goes on to ask what is a good life? And it is a great question to work in with this chapter. Is this all that life is about? Amassing goods and enjoying services?
According to Dr. Smith, “when asked about a good life broadly conceived and what they wanted to achieve in life, the ideas of material success, financial stability, not having to worry about money, being successful in work, being able to provide for the family, and having money to spend on valuable experiences were expressed again as significant themes in the majority of their answers.” Though sixty percent did bring up having kids, relationships, and stable marriages, most of these answers were also mixed in with talk about material success. Only nine percent mentioned God, or some value related to religion.
In finishing the chapter, Dr. Smith pushes back about anyone thinking that the “next generation” is going to be alternative thinkers who care about environmentalism or question consumption (but remember this is a snapshot from 2011). He sees a generation that is out to make money, sees no problem in spending any way it wishes, and is not concerned about deeper questions about the purpose of education or life.
For those of us working with college students (emerging adults), I think that this chapter raises a lot of good questions to pose to students. If the general culture or the educational institutes are not asking students to ponder the purpose of education or a good life, then it certainly is up to college ministers, lay people in the church, and pastors. Of course, we can’t replace college teachers and the college culture, but we can help guide students to thinking beyond just getting a degree, making money, and dying with the most toys.
If you are interested in thinking about good books, the purpose of education, and what is a good life, check out my review of Senator Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult.
Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash