Capitalism, Responsibility, and Teens

The last two times my daughter went to Goodwill, she scored 16 items for a grand total of 97 cents.  That’s right–sweaters, skirts, shorts, t-shirts, belts….  97 cents.

I love that she’s not tied to the Abercrombies and Hollisters of the world.  I love that she’s not interested in looking like everyone else.  I love that she has a job and recognizes how much work it takes to earn her money and that those stores are selling an ideal at very expensive prices and sorely lacking ethics.

This morning on NPR, there was a story about how the teen retailers were hurting in this recession. Teens, they reported, unable to find work, have cut back on their shopping just like everyone else.  Teen trend-setting companies are hurting.  They need teens to spend.

Given the shot in the arm that the country has had these last two years, it would seem that now might not be a bad time to teach our kids to be frugal and smart–to save when they can for the inevitable rainy day.  Unfortunately, because we have become such a retail/service society, we find ourselves having to talk out of both sides of our mouths.

For the last 20 years, we’ve watched our manufacturing fly out of the country at the behest of big box stores that took over our communities.  Walmart, for example, demanded that manufacturers lower their prices or risk not being carried in their stores–a death knell for a producer of almost any good these days.  These manufacturers took their companies and formerly good paying jobs overseas.

So now we have a service industry-based economy that, to be successful, demands that we all participate fully as consumers.  The way the CNBC-Wall Street-types talk about it, it’s almost a patriotic duty to spend.

This Catch-22 conjures up questions about what we have become.  The “citizen” and “consumer” are fully conflated (though we like to talk pretty about democracy and citizenry).  The reality is that Wall Street is running the show and that we all now live and die by the Dow and S&P. The most important thing that happens everyday is that we are sold ideals that revolve around stuff.

The pressure of economic success (and, in turn, tax revenue for roads, education, healthcare, etc.) falls on the shoulders of the citizen/consumer.

And so here I am, the mom of a kid that is making and spending and saving money responsibly.  But the success of a chunk of the economy depends on her and kids like her and that they spend their money.

I won’t be encouraging my teens to spend.  I’ll continue to talk pretty about democracy and what it means to be a citizen.  In the meantime, perhaps these companies need to scale back their expectations, begin changing their business strategies, or watch their corporate ships sink.

Our generation has learned the hard way that you can’t spend your way to success or happiness.  Hopefully, our kids won’t have to make the same mistakes to learn the same lessons.


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