What Is Consumerism? - Definition, History & Examples

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  • 0:03 Definition of Consumerism
  • 1:00 History and Growth
  • 2:09 Examples and Perspectives
  • 3:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Steven Coleman

Steven has his Bachelors in Communication and has earned his Masters in Education. He is also in the process of pursuing his Doctorate degree.

Consumerism is the culture or ideology of excessive consumption of material goods or services. In this lesson, you will learn about consumerism and its history while exploring examples and perspectives on the concept.

Definition of Consumerism

I would wager that most people, up until a certain age, love celebrating their birthdays. There are so many wonderful things about having a birthday: the gathering of loved ones, the cake and, of course, the presents. For children in particular, I would even go so far as to bet that gifts are the best part about birthdays. After all, who doesn't love to receive presents?

Of course, as we get older, getting the things that we want is not limited to birthdays. Being able to buy things that we do not necessarily need, but only desire is an ability that many people want to have relatively early on. I know that's why I got a job at age 15. I was desperate to be able to buy my own clothes, my own CDs and even my own car!

The desire to buy things that we want, apart from what we need to survive, is a huge part of the subject of today's lesson. We'll be talking about consumerism, or the ideology that places value upon the excessive consumption of material goods and services.

History and Growth

Of course, humans have wanted things for centuries. One of the most important elements to note about modern consumerism is the scale. Consumerism as we recognize it has relatively recent roots. Its most modern evolution emerged to the forefront of European and early American society as early as 1850, but really began to intensify in the early 1900s during the Second Industrial Revolution.

During this time, the boom of industrialization had a huge influence on how people spent their money in America. The industrial revolution's mass production of automobiles, growth and use of railroads and creation of factory jobs led to a steady flow of employment and wealth. Many people found themselves with disposable income for the first time.

With time, the newly-established middle class in America could more consistently afford to purchase things beyond their essential means of survival. Although the Great Depression of the 1920s did slow down the rate of consumerism for a time, it quickly rebounded by the close of World War II and has grown exponentially ever since. Some argue that modern consumerism has stagnated with globalization, a topic for a whole other day.

Examples and Perspectives

Although consumerism can take many forms, depending on an individual or family's income, it generally refers to high levels of excessive consumption, well beyond any reasonable needs or even wants. The American wealthy tend to exemplify modern consumerism. Individuals who choose to own more cars than they can drive in a week, celebrities who do not duplicate outfits and CEOs who take private helicopters to travel across town to work are all examples of consumerism at its most extreme.

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