In today’s unsustainable consumer culture, are young people part of the problem… or the solution?

by Rebecca Collins

Shopping Centre. Photo by Gordon Griffiths, via Wikimedia Commons

Most young people like to have new things.  This much has been true since the birth of the ‘teenager’ in the 1950s when young people were first recognised as a distinct – and influential – group of consumers.  In the summer of 2011, the strength of young people’s desire for the newest, most fashionable, most up-to-date material things was made clear with devastating consequences.  While there was certainly no single driving factor behind the riots of August 2011, the extent of the looting that took place has led analysts studying the events to point to an acquisitive consumer culture as a key factor – and one that has become even more potent in the context of dismal economic circumstances that are biting harder for youth than for any other group.

In recent months, more than 250 participants in the riots have spoken about what motivated their involvement.  70% have stated that “free stuff” was a key factor.  As one fifteen year old female participant said, “In our generation it’s important – having the nicest clothes, up-to-date things…”  The desperate ‘need’ for items from iPhones to Nike trainers reported by many of the looters paints a grim picture of the pressures experienced by young people as a result of contemporary consumer culture.

Admittedly, the events of August 2011 represent the actions of an angry, socially marginalised minority.  But they raise important questions about young people’s actions: on the one hand, how they respond to increasingly powerful consumerist pressures; and on the other, their capacity to take action in the face of perceived injustice.  In “A Tale of Two Teens: disciplinary boundaries and geographical opportunities in youth consumption and sustainability research”, my co-author, Russell Hitchings, and I consider how geographical research might uncover facets of young people’s consumption that get closer to the heart of what young people are actually seeking to achieve or experience when they consume material things.  We contrast the image of the hedonistic young consumer with the actions of other young people who seek to balance their responsibilities as citizens with their consumer aspirations, and suggest that geographical input into youth consumption research may help to articulate the profoundly social concerns that often underpin young people’s consumption choices.

The author: Rebecca Collins is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, University College London.

Collins R and Hitchings R 2012 A Tale of Two Teens: disciplinary boundaries and geographical opportunities in youth consumption and sustainability research Area DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2011.01075.x

Topping A and Bawdon F 2011 ‘It was like Christmas’: a consumerist feast amid the summer riots The Guardian, 5 December

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