Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Consumerism Game

This is what I looked like, washing dishes at the Olde Tyme Gaslight Restaurant, before it mercifully closed.  Not a penny of the money I made there, did I save, although it does show up on my Social Security Statement.

We forget, as we get older, how much it really sucked to be a kid.  Parents like to say hurtful things to their kids, like, "These are the best days of your lives!  Enjoy them!"   No wonder the teen suicide rate is as high as it is.  If high school truly was the "best days" of my life, I would have offed myself long ago.

Fortunately, it was the nadir, and it has gotten amazingly better every year.  So for all you kids out there who are depressed and thinking rash things, hang in there.  Once you turn 18, things improve - dramatically.

Why does being a kid suck?  Well, it is akin to being in a State Prison.  You are told when to get up, what to do, what to eat, what to wear, and when to go to bed.   You have very little in the way of choice in your life, other than how to decorate your cell.  Sure, as you get older, you have more free time to hang out in the prison yard and join a gang (and get shanked).  But again, it is just like prison - hours and hours of boredom with nothing to do.

The big problem is money - you have none, and you need it to have any control at all, over your life.  Money is power and control - it is just an idea, remember?  You have money, you can manipulate your environment.  With no money, you are powerless and passive.

So it is not surprising that young people like to get after-school jobs and make some money.  I know I did.  But it is non-intuitive that most of them just squander it as fast as they make it.  I know I did.  Why is this?

Well, to a kid, money isn't worth anything by itself.  It represents stored power - stored wealth - and a kid wants to wield power by spending it.   So most kids squander their after-school job money fairly quickly on clothes and junk - if they don't just spend it on pot and beer.

And as a kid, there is a lot of pent up demand to participate in the consumerism society.  For more than a decade, you sit and watch your parents pull out their wallet, checkbook, or credit card, and buy shit.  And usually, in your opinion, they buy lame shit, too.  So here is is, finally, your turn to have fun.  Why not?

And many teens alarm their parents at this stage in life by saying things like, "Well, maybe I won't go to college.  I have a job and a car, and I'll share an apartment with some friends."

And to a teen, this seems like a great plan.  After all, work is a lot more fun than school, and after years of homework and dorky teachers, signing on to four more years of it - at a college level - sounds like a bad plan.  Why do that, when they can just hang out, party, and get laid and be perpetual teenagers?

Some parents, panicked by this, will actually bribe their kids to go to college.  Or helpful grandma and grandpa get involved.  They offer to pay the whole way, if junior will just stop talking nonsense about making a career out of dish washing.

Of course, as adults, we know the score.  While it may seem liberating and fun to leave high school and get a shitty minimum-wage job, it is a dead-end lifestyle.  Kids can't do the math on this and realize that once the car Mom and Dad bought them breaks down, they won't be able to afford another one.  And while sharing an apartment with five of your friends might work at age 19, it is hardly a life plan.

How can you get a kid off the consumerism bandwagon?  Probably, you can't.  Kids are kids, and do kid things.  They will spend hundreds of dollars putting crappy chinese-made "accessories" on your old Honda, trying to make it into a "race car" - because their friends all think that's the cat's ass.  It is only later in life will they look back in horror.

And perhaps the lure of consumerism is just too strong to break free of.  Even the most anti-consumerist hippie covets his yurt or bong.  It is part of our nature.

But buying stuff and owning things gets in the way of your freedom.  While it might be nice to own a cool car, having to go to a crappy after-school job to pay for it, sucks.  Having enough money to live on, and not be beholden to others, is so much better.

And maybe not all of us can do that.  But every "thing" you buy is a little less freedom you have.  Just bear that in mind every time you pull out the credit card.