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The Consumer Society

Overview Essay
by David Kiron

In industrialized countries, the costs of affluence are coming into focus. In 1989, the average American consumed twice as much as his or her counterpart in 1969, while the average worker labored 160 more hours -- equivalent to an extra month of full-time employment.[2] The expectation that productivity increases would eventually translate into a life of leisure for the masses has not been realized. As communities become more fragmented, status consumption has intensified rather than diminished. The fruits of economic growth -- more consumption, a growing strain on the natural environment, but no more happiness all around -- raise serious questions for our economic agenda.

This section analyzes rising consumption levels in affluent societies during the twentieth century and their effect on both the public sector and the experience of consumers. The summarized articles address various aspects of the relationship between production and consumption. The first five papers focus on the relation between work life, consumption, and issues of personal identity. The next four look at the social impact of increasing consumption levels.

The American Dream
The relationship between producers and consumers is essential to understanding consumption in the affluent society. One of the most influential writings on this topic is John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society.[3] Galbraith questioned one of the basic tenets of neoclassical economic theory: the assumption of consumer sovereignty, which implies that tastes are exogenous to the economic system. His concern was that creating and satisfying wants through the market would not lead to greater well-being.

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