To explain the position from which I am writing this article from, I was born in 1953, in Mankkaa, a middle-class suburb within the Helsinki metropolitan area. Born in the wake of the baby-boom generation, I am a post-puritan toiler and a long-distance runner on the path that is my life. I am also a middle-aged youth researcher, a sociologist by training. How on earth can I, and will I, ever understand the young, my research objects, children and youngsters of the “baby bust” generation or even young adults who have been brought up to consumerism?
Consumer researchers have informed us that Finland did not become a consumer society in the truly affluent sense of the word until the 1980s. That is when economic deregulation really took off and Finns were led slowly but surely to freedom as represented by market forces and everyday consumer choices.
Take, for instance, this summer’s must for anyone with even a postage stamp of a garden: the gas grill. The choice is overwhelming: anything from a one-burner cheapo with a sheet-metal hood sold by the bargain hardware chain Hong Kong, for 95 euro to an eight-burner, stainless steel deluxe grill available at Bauhaus, the hardware store for the ladies, for 3,685 euro in the end-of-season sale.
There is much debate on the fragmentation of the consumer society. What this means is that the various consumer segments live separate lives amongst their peers, without a common language between the segments. The common spirit and mutual understanding among Finns is being turned into atoms by the surges of polarisation. Using the gas grill analogy we can ask ourselves what will happen, for instance, to the communication between the Hong Kong and Bauhaus segments?
Generation gap and future consumption
Some of my colleagues who are considerably younger than I have discovered a highly enticing generation gap. Terhi-Anna Wilska and Minna Aution write that “the traditional Finnish consumer culture, which consists of an alternating cycle of the pleasure of consumption, the compulsive need to accumulate wealth, and the shame of extravagant spending, has come to the end of the road. Children of commercial consumerism, today’s young people have the will and freedom to choose differently.”
Although we can assume that the low-birth-rate generations will have acquired the compulsive need to accumulate wealth by the time they reach middle age, just as their parents did, the above quote does open up new horizons. Furthermore, such a forecast for future consumerism is in line with the scenario referred to as ‘middle-class materialism’ by Sitra’s National Foresight Network.
The last sentence of the quote puts forward young people’s will and freedom to choose differently as a key principle in the ethos of the young generation. The will and freedom to choose differently fits into a puzzle, the other pieces of which are an emphasis on personal experiences and pleasure seeking, even hedonism. Or to take the idea even further: corporeality. These aspects form the key navigation points in young people’s lives, as life prisms or principles of their mentality. They do not, however, necessarily lead to uninhibited and uncontrolled consumption. In fact, the opposite may be true, because the techniques of the self used for controlling one’s behaviour correspond to the mentality of consumption. Without such techniques of control – or more broadly, without life skills – and the ability to act according to the rules they have set for themselves, young people, or any other consumer, for that matter, will be sucked into a vortex of addiction.
Forced individual choices
Whether you are young or a youthful adult – which can be anything up to 65 these days – you must be able to make choices in order to live a fulfilling life as a consumer citizen. To be in a position to make choices you need, of course, to have had the savvy to acquire sufficient capital first. Together with Petri Paju, Leena Suurpää and Mikko Salasuo, I have called these young people, who were born in the early 1980s and later, the generations of compulsory individual choices. Kari Paakkunainen refers to the same generation as the ‘portfolio generation’.
Being forced to make choices is naturally an exaggeration here, used as a metaphor for a demand that the children of this highly competitive and efficiency-focused age have to face. They have to know how to make choices and know what they need to know in order to be successful members of the information society, an environment where schools no longer have classes but consist instead of various courses and streams with buzz words such as ‘option’ and ‘specialisation’. In this environment, you cannot succeed unless you are able to make choices and you know how to let the world know how “cool” your choices are. If you are not seen, you do not exist.
All this will no doubt lead to the diversification of consumer culture and an increase in genuine prosperity for Finns. The only difficulty that lies therein is that everything depends on individuals themselves. As Jukka Peltokoski1 has conjectured, we now live in an individualising, rather than individualised, society. The responsibility for societal and political issues is thrust onto the individual. Risks are still produced by society at large, but risk management is made into an individual responsibility. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves what individualisation actually means in a mass society where everyone must be youthful and highly individual in order to survive.
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But what about my grill? It is a cheapo from the said Hong Kong, of course, bought in 1996 and thoroughly rusty by now. Only layers of charred food remnants, carefully built up over the years and now irremovably stuck on the grill, can provide that certain aroma that no gourmet grill will ever be able to equal.
1 Peltokoski, Jukka: Prekariaatti, palkitsematon elämä. In Tommi Hoikkala & Mikko Salasuo (eds.): Prekaariruoska? Portfoliopolvi, perustulo ja kansalaistoiminta. Finnish Youth Research Network/Finnish Youth Research Society electronic publications 2006, 21-26. http://www.nuorisotutkimusseura.fi/prekaariruoska.pdf