In little more than a couple of generations the developed world has gone from the ‘have not’ to the ‘have’ to the ‘have too much’. Our value system, which is past down from generation to generation, has yet to catch up. Post war austerity was rapidly followed by mass-market production in the 1960s and that in turn moved on to the excesses of the 1980s.
In parallel the thrift of ‘make do and mend’, became ‘having it all’ and then ‘the need to have the latest and best’. This rapid evolution in consumption has lead to some extraordinary trends:
Self storage was launched in the US to help oil field support workers store their equipment during the off season. While some drilling equipment was stored the facility appealed to mass market middle America as somewhere to keep their perfectly good possessions so that they could go out and acquire more. They did want to be seen as wasteful by their thrifty parents while wanting to show their friends that they had the latest and the best! Today people talk about their habit – £20, £40….£100 per month – the cost of storing items they don’t want and don’t need.
Traditional wedding gifts – eBay and auction houses are full of expenses crockery and glassware that, if it sells at all, makes pennies on the pound compared to the original cost. Today’s ‘digital adults’ do not aspire to the same aspirations as their parents and place little value in the same physical possessions.
Collector’s items – probably the biggest con of them all – the mass manufacture of items that are sold with the promise that one day they will be rare and valuable. The Post Office churns out ‘First Day issues’ of new stamps that are specially franked and sent directly to tens of thousands of collectors. Likewise the Royal Mints produces regular mint condition ‘collectors’ sets’ of coins.
Probably the best marketing master class of the last century was Ty – the manufacturer of Beanie Babies. These soft toys were produced in their tens of millions then skillfully sold as being rare – households all around the world today have ‘collections’ hidden away that they hope may become valuable – dream on!
The Race to the Bottom – this was a term used by the Director of the Antiquarian Book department of a large London auction house. He was describing the impact of the internet on book sales globally. If more than one copy of a book is available anywhere in the world it instantly becomes a buyers market – which seller will accept the lowest price for their item – the value of second hand books has plummeted. Conversely, if your item really is unique, the internet will push the price up as more buyers fight over it. The same applies to all possessions.