I am a textbook example of how changing the way you engage with the consumer culture can allow you to significantly change your life.
For six years, I had the opportunity to be a stay-at-home dad. It wasn’t all grins and giggles, but being there to watch and help my two boys learn and grow during their preschool years was an absolutely amazing and rewarding adventure. When I stayed at home to care for the kids, the whole family benefited. It strengthened our family bond and allowed us to share experiences together that we would have missed out on otherwise.
My wife and I both agree that deciding that one of us should stay at home with the kids was one of the best decisions we ever made.
I bring up being a stay-at-home dad because it wouldn’t have been possible if my wife and I hadn’t made a few key decisions regarding how we approached consumerism before we had children. The most important decision we made was choosing to live simply.
Practicing intentional simplicity allowed us to have the the freedom and flexibility to have one parent stay at home. The option to stay at home would not have been on the table had we lived the typical consumptive lifestyle. While our particular situation might not apply to everyone, I think it is important to recognize that opting out of the consumerist mindset can help people put some of their priorities into practice.
"Opting out of the consumerist mindset can help people put some of their priorities into practice."
The consumer culture status quo requires us to sacrifice the things that we often say are our priorities: our health, our relationships, a livable planet for our kids and grandkids (to name a few). When I was a stay-at-home dad, people would often say to me, “It is so great that you are willing to sacrifice so much for your kids.” I know they meant well, but I always found this both frustrating and sad.
Yes, we had to avoid purchasing the latest and greatest gadgets, we often bought used instead of new, and many times we would choose access over ownership, but none of this really constitutes a legitimate sacrifice. Having stayed at home with my boys, I can tell you that the real sacrifice would have been for our family to have missed out on that time together.
I would like to see organizations like New Dream and Take Back Your Time (disclosure: I am the new National Coordinator for TBYT) highlight the sacrifices that people are making by buying into the consumer culture. We must do a better job pointing out that consumerism wasn’t designed to encourage or cultivate contentment and satisfaction. In fact, quite the opposite is true! The goal of marketing and advertising is to make sure people are dissatisfied with what they have.
Organizations that seek to create alternatives to consumerism must help people recognize that, at a certain point, increasing one’s material possessions does not increase one’s well-being. This is not to downplay the importance of material things; we all need basic material things to survive and thrive. What is important is the recognition that a fulfilling and meaningful life cannot be cultivated through material things alone. There are limits to what material things can offer. We also have non-material needs (e.g. connectedness to our family and friends, our community, and nature) that must be met. These non-material needs require our time and attention.
"A fulfilling and meaningful life cannot be cultivated through material things alone."
If we are to change the consumerist status quo, we must point out the following: the only way that those who wish to perpetuate the consumer culture can do so is to promote (for lack of a better word) misery. Consumerism can’t function if people are generally content with what they already have and are able to use a significant portion of their time to tend to their non-material needs.
Consumerism needs to create a vicious cycle in which: 1) people are dissatisfied because they have non-material needs that are not being addressed (these needs don’t get the time, care, and attention they need/deserve); 2) people are encouraged (via marketing, advertising, and cultural norms) to consume goods and services to meet their non-material needs; 3) people purchase these goods and services and end up having to work longer/more in order to afford them (thus they have even less time to meet their non-material needs); 4) go back to #1.
When we critically examine the system of consumerism, the aim of the consumer culture seems to be snuff out or diminish that which would bring us genuine freedom, contentment, and joy so a few people can make a buck. When viewed from this perspective, the consumer culture is not only incredibly unappealing, it is destructive on a very personal level. Those of us that want to change the culture of consumerism need to bring this to light. It is hard to imagine that anyone would want to actively and willingly participate in such a system.
I am no longer a stay-at-home dad, but the lessons I learned from my experience have given me an even greater appreciation for time than I had before. The passage of time is far more real to me now. I guess watching your children grow before your eyes can have that effect on you. In her novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes, “When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters.” If this is true, and I suspect for many it might be, we seriously need to change our “ordinary course.”
"To me, time is not the 'stuff' life is made out of, time is the medium through which we create a life."
Shouldn’t our lives be full of time to reflect upon and address what matters? Shouldn’t our lives have ample space to create connections and cultivate meaning? Shouldn’t we have time, as W.H. Davies said, “to stand and stare”? If we don’t have the time to do these things, are we really living, or are we merely existing? To me, time is not the “stuff” life is made out of, time is the medium through which we create a life. This is why I got involved with Take Back Your Time and this is why I want TBYT to collaborate with organizations like New Dream.
As the new National Coordinator for Take Back Your Time, I would like to see TBYT pursue the following goals:
To push for public policy changes that address work/life imbalance.
To advocate for cultural change regarding attitudes toward time, money, work, and consumerism.
To collaborate with other organizations (like New Dream) that seek to advance the non-material needs that the consumer culture seeks to minimize or ignores.
While I think it is important to push for policy changes and to champion any bills that seek to address work/life imbalance, my focus will be primarily on the second two goals: advocating for cultural change and working with other like-minded organizations. Public policy change can take a very long time, but if individuals change how they interact with the culture of consumerism, they can begin to change their lives almost immediately.
As more people reject the consumerist culture, the culture will begin change. This change in culture will make public policy change far more likely. But ultimately, a critical mass is required to make this cultural and public policy change a reality. And this will not be possible unless organizations that are working to create alternatives to the consumer culture, such as New Dream and TBYT, work together.
Chris LaPlante is National Coordinator for Take Back Your Time, an organization based in Seattle, Washington, that seeks to challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling, and time famine in the United States and Canada that threatens our health, our relationships, our communities, and our environment.