Money, Marketing and the Innocence of Youth

Address to the Annual Conference of the Teachers of English, Sydney, 4th July 2004
Clive Hamilton
Executive Director
The Australia Institute

The dominant cultural force today is that of materialism and the marketing society that goes with it. Children grow up in a dense fog of commercial messages which form the most powerful influence on what they wear, eat and listen to, how they think about the world and how they define themselves as people. It is not just the specific messages about buying this or that product, but the entire ideology of materialism that underlies it − the endlessly repeated message that the way to live a successful and happy life is to accumulate as much money as you can.

If these messages were being propagated by a political organisation we would be scandalized; the cry of ‘brainwashing’ would go up and something would be done to protect our children from this insidious force. But because they emanate from the marketing arms of commercial organisations − whose objective is simply to make as much money as they can − they are virtually immune from criticism. Only when they attempt to persuade our children to make choices that are manifestly contrary to their health and well-being do we step in. But even then we are unwilling to enrage the great god of consumer choice too much, as the recent refusal by the Federal Government to outlaw junk food advertising has shown us.

Kids are a special and increasingly lucrative target of marketers as they are seen to be impressionable, and have a large say over household spending on everything from food to electronic equipment and even the cars families buy.

As a result, the family living room has become what one observer called a ‘marketing free fire zone’ in which kids, and their parents, are bombarded by subtle and not-so-subtle messages for hours every day. Yet despite this almost unrelieved cacophony of messages designed to display the vast array of consumption possibilities, we hear a political discourse that persuades us that we are suffering from material disadvantage and that we need − nay, have a right to expect − a larger flow of consumption goods.

Last year the Australian economy grew by $20 billion, yet the tenor of much of the public debate suggests that the country is in a dire situation. In the public domain we hear endlessly of funding shortages for hospitals, universities and public transport.

In the private domain, Australia, like other rich countries, is subject to a constant rumble of complaint, as if Australians are experiencing hard times. So the Government thinks it can win an election by handing out to families a $600 bribe for each child, and $3000 for each new baby. And despite widespread reports that the $3000 baby bonus and the $600 kid bonus are being spent on flat-screen TVs and the like, the scary thing is that it may well be right.

The Government’s hand-outs to new parents prompts us to reflect on how much a baby is worth.

Becoming a parent used to be something we did because it was part of the human condition. Now it is a lifestyle choice, and it is the consumer approach to parenthood that the Howard Government is appealing to with its package of ‘family friendly’ taxing and spending decisions.

For most Gen Xers the decision to have a baby is the outcome of a cost-benefit analysis. How much will it set us back if we have a baby? If you add up twenty years’ of food, clothing, pocket money and mobile phones, not to mention the forgone income of the new mother, the costs of childcare, the school fees and more then you can only lose.

The fact that, in the richest societies humanity has ever known, only now are people asking whether they can afford to have a baby is an irony nowhere acknowledged.

When today’s twenty and thirty-year olds conclude that they cannot afford to become a parent it is not because they are struggling financially. It is because, driven by the irresistible pressures of consumerism and luxury fever, they have set themselves absurdly high lifestyle goals.

Somehow those in their 20s and 30s have come to believe that they are not in a position to have a baby until they have paid off most of the mortgage, hold down two high-paying jobs, own a couple of expensive cars and are well on the way to providing for their retirement.

Of course, once you become habituated to these goals, and define your success in life by the quantity of stuff you own, then giving up any of it promises so much emotional pain that becoming a parent seems crazy. Their attachment to these lifestyle goals and the sense of self acquired from them is so strong that they genuinely believe that they cannot afford to have a baby.

And, regrettably, one has to ask whether those who deploy a financial calculus in the parenthood decision are worthy of becoming parents. How much unconditional emotional commitment is a father or mother going to give to their child if they are constantly evaluating how much this person is costing them? It’s not uncommon to hear of parents who berate their ungrateful or uncooperative children by lecturing them on how much they have had to pay out to raise them.

This is the ultimate selfishness of consumer society, yet for all of their dewy-eyed praise of the family, it is precisely this self-centeredness that Messieurs Howard and Costello are promoting with their tireless emphasis on the financial burdens facing parents.

Ironically, while the support for households with children is designed to ease the financial burden of family formation, the subtext of the whole debate – that having children is and should be a financial decision – works the other way. This has been an unnoticed consequence of the creeping spread of economic rationalist ideas and market thinking into all aspects of our personal and social lives. It is shared by the main political parties and a growing portion of the population who have known no other society than one driven by the values of the market.

Every time a research organisation announces that it has calculated that having a child will set a couple back by $300,000 (or some similarly large sum) it reinforces the idea that the decision to become a parent is appropriately a pecuniary one. A recent report on the costs of having children from the University of NSW declared:

The price of a child is the commitment of resources required to raise a child of given ‘quality’. It is the relevant concept when thinking about the factors that might influence fertility decisions.

It is this calculus of parenthood that the Government is appealing to every time it talks about the ‘burden’ of having children.

Never mind that bearing and raising a child is the most profoundly human thing that we can experience; that parenthood unlocks deep springs of emotions that otherwise remain untapped; and, that most parents come to recognise that they themselves only grow up when they become mothers or fathers.

Never mind that watching your children grow and step out into the world, stumbling, suffering, achieving and flourishing, gives a parent’s life a depth of interest and richness that cannot be bought for any price.

Never mind that becoming a parent extends the tree of family stretching back generations, that children and grandchildren can provide a sense of rootedness in the world and a commitment to building a better society that can be had no other way.

Forget all of that. Today, all of the wondrous virtues of parenthood are drowned in the icy waters of financial calculation. The ecstasies and challenges of parenthood cannot compete against the dream of the modern consumer for a stainless steel kitchen and a house at the coast.

Yet the Government believes that they can undo decades of escalating selfishness – a change in the national character promoted by the very market-based individualist policies they champion – by offering $3,000 to tip the cost-benefit analysis the other way.

If parents have so much invested in their child then it makes sense to attempt to maximize the return. Of course, a well-balanced and loving human is not enough. No; the child has to achieve! And so we have seen the rise of the pushy parent, imbuing the child with the desperate need to achieve, defining their life goals from the cradle, identifying their extraordinary talents and dragging the child from sporting fields to the gym and from music lessons to cram schools.

The tragedy of all of this is that, if the goal is to provide our children with happy and fulfilled lives then these efforts are doomed to failure. There is now a large body of psychological literature that has shown this. People who pursue extrinsic goals and look for rewards outside of themselves, lead les happy lives than those who pursue intrinsic goals. So those who set their sights on money, fame and the envy of others will fail; and those whose goals are stronger relationships, a sense of personal fulfilment and stronger ties with the community will have happier lives.

These studies confirm what many people know intuitively − that the goals of wealth, fame and attractiveness are hollow. They show that when those pursuing them achieve their goals they do not feel any better off as a result. Indeed, the research shows that people who have extrinsic goals tend to be more depressed than others, and they suffer from higher levels of psychological disturbance as well as scoring lower on measures of vitality and self-awareness. One study found that teenagers in a high-risk group who put great stress on financial success were less likely to contribute to their communities and more likely to engage in anti-social behaviour such as muggings and vandalism.

The implications of this new research for social development and public policy could not be more far-reaching. The results strongly suggest that the more our media, advertisers and opinion makers emphasise financial success as the chief means to happiness, the more they promote social pathologies. This is why the quoted researchers give their papers titles such as ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ and ‘The Dark Side of the American Dream’.

While citizens of rich countries have attained unprecedented levels of personal wealth, they are also afflicted by an epidemic of psychological disorders. According to one study, depression has increased ten-fold among Americans born since World War 2. Young people, the principal beneficiaries of super-affluence, are most prone to clinical depression, manifested in record rates of teenage suicide and other social pathologies such as self-destructive drug taking. The risk of major depression is two or three times higher among women than men, but the gap is narrowing due to a faster increase in the incidence of depression among young males.

Children learn their goals in the home, and pushy parents (themselves the victims of consumer ideology) teach their children young that they must accumulate to succeed. In this zero-sum game, it is no use setting out to accumulate enough to get by on. Having more than others is the goal. They are taught to define themselves by their possessions.

In one study of the relationship of people to their possessions, the researchers used psychological measures to divide families into ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ homes depending on the strength of ‘emotional integration’ within the family. They found that people from warm homes are much less attached to the objects in their homes and, where objects do have value, their worth depends on the meaning they carry as signs of relationships between people.

People from cool homes are much less likely to talk of the emotional significance of objects for their relationships, and indeed often object to being questioned about their possessions, claiming that people are more important than things.

This rejection of the symbolic mediation of things in favor of direct human ties seemed plausible at first, until we began to notice that people who denied meanings to objects also lacked any close network of human relationships. Those who were most vocal about prizing friendship over material concerns seemed to be the most lonely and isolated.1

Psychologists have confirmed this relationship between family structure and consumption behaviour. One study showed that young adults who had been reared in disrupted families are more materialistic and display higher levels of compulsive consumption than young adults reared in intact families.2 Compulsive consumption may be a coping strategy in which material goods compensate for the relative absence of emotional warmth.

The authors of the ‘warm homes, cool homes’ study ask what explains the modern addiction to material things.

A great deal of the energy we consume goes to providing comfort: more and more elaborate houses, clothes, food, and gadgets. The energy we use still serves ends that mimic basic needs − food, warmth, security, and so on − but have now become addictive habits rather than necessities.3

While we are increasingly dependent on the market economy, the nature of our lives makes it more difficult for us to express our identities and be acknowledged for who we are. This induces a sense of impotence, so that material possessions serve as ‘pacifiers for the self-induced helplessness we have created’. Consumption becomes an emotional habit in which the tenuous bonds of self are repeatedly restored.

This sort of attitude is transforming our schools too, as education becomes increasing seen as a commodity that schools produce and children consume as a means of ensuring career and financial success.

There are tremendous pressures on young people to turn themselves into commodities for sale in the labour market. And there are heavy pressures to measure their success in life by the amount of money they have, the size and location of their house and whether they have a home theatre, a flash car and the trappings of consumerism.

The cultivation of the intellect for its own sake is viewed as wasteful, even decadent. Not long ago, I received a letter from a student completing honours in Classical Greek at the University of Sydney. After gaining a TER of 98.9, the consistent message she receives is that she is wasting her time studying Classical Greek. People are saying to her: “it’s all very well to indulge in the humanities while [you are] young” but sooner or later she will have to do something “practical”.

She has not relented, believing that her education has shaped who she is and allowed her, as she put it, “the intellectual stimulation and space to explore all sorts of aspects of being human”. Some of her friends who opted for more “practical” subjects have, unfortunately, “become arrogant instead of humbled by their great debt to past geniuses and civilisations”.


My organisation, The Australia Institute, has been investigating modern attitudes to money and material things. We asked Newspoll to conduct a national survey which asked Australians, among other things, whether they could afford to buy everything they really need. Sixty two per cent believe they can’t afford to buy everything they really need. When we consider that Australia is one of the world’s richest countries, and that Australians today have real incomes nearly three times higher than in 1950, it is remarkable that such a high proportion feel that their incomes are inadequate. It is even more astonishing to note that when we separate out the richest 20 per cent of the population, almost half (46 per cent) say they can’t afford to buy everything they really need. The proportion of ‘suffering rich’ in Australia is even higher than in the USA, widely regarded as the nation most obsessed with money.

It is fair to conclude that a substantial majority of people in Australia who experience no real hardship, and indeed live lives of abundance, believe they have difficulty making ends meet.

The sense of deprivation felt by most Australians is closely related to the phenomenon of ‘luxury fever’. The desire to emulate the lifestyles of the very rich has led to booming sales of trophy homes, luxury cars, professional quality home equipment and cosmetic surgery. The scaling up of ‘needs’ outpaces the growth of incomes so that many people who are wealthy by any historical or international standard actually feel quite poor.

In a previous era, the lifestyles of the rich were seen to be out of reach of ordinary people. Now they are rubbed in our faces every night on our television screens. Many average families now aspire to luxury items previously reserved for the wealthiest. There is a relentless ratcheting up of standards and increasing pressure to consume at higher and higher levels. We have come to define ourselves above all by our consumption behaviour. While addictions to alcohol, gambling and eating are widely accepted as pathological, the spread of ‘affluenza’ suggests that consumption itself has taken on a pathological character.

Perhaps the absurdity of the state we are in would be apparent if we heard Government ministers make statements such as this.

Tonight I am pleased to announce that the shortage of mobile phones among 14 year olds has nearly been solved. I am aware that there are still a few adolescents who remain deprived of more-or-less permanent communication with their friends but, on current trends, we should have that solved in the next year or so.

I am also pleased to announce that we expect very soon to rid all homes of the distress caused by having slightly curved television screens. We will need to spend billions, but if that is what it takes to ensure universal access to flat-screen TVs then that is the price we must pay.

Australia doesn’t have a public health funding crisis; it has a flat-screen TV crisis. No-one doubts that the economy will grow strongly over the next ten years. But nor should we doubt that the vast majority of this income growth will be spent on consumption goods the craving for which has yet to be created by the advertisers. Our stated concerns may be about health and the environment, but our spending patterns show where our priorities really lie. The fact is that most of us suffer from a chronic lack of stuff. The problem is that, after we have renewed our stuff one more time, there is not enough money left to fund investments in health and education.

And we will go to extreme lengths to get more stuff. Credit card debt has trebled in the last seven years, accompanied by a sharp rise in personal bankruptcies. The national savings rate has fallen by half since 1993. Young people – who spend almost half of their income on luxuries, including going out and recreational drugs – accept that they will remain in debt for most of their lives.

Contrary to popular belief, the accumulation of consumer debt is not the result of poorer households being forced to borrow to cover living expenses, but of wealthier households splashing out on luxuries. In the sixties, it was sometimes said that middle-class people saved because they were imbued with the values of thrift and hard work while working class people were unable to defer gratification and spent as if there were no tomorrow. Whether true or not in that era, the middle classes today are no longer deferring their gratification. They want it all now and are willing to go into debt to get it.

Platinum credit cards

The boom in credit cards can tell us a great deal about luxury fever. Ten years ago the gold credit card was a mark of distinction, a sign that you had made it (or at least that is the message the credit card companies put out). But, like all symbols of status, too many people began to qualify for the gold card and its symbolic value was diluted. (It was a bit like the venerable Rolls Royce whose peerless symbolism began to be eroded in the 1970s when upstart pop stars and working-class boys made rich from owning a night club began to buy them and put on personalized number plates that said ‘Reg’ or ‘Bob’.)

So the credit card companies invented the platinum credit card, designed to be accessible only to those at the very top of the hierarchy. Crucially, the platinum card was kept out of the hands of the general public; you got one only if your bank wrote and offered you one. The mystery surrounding it only added to the allure. Here was the quiet symbol of superiority. But it is a bizarre test of status; an extraordinary talent won’t get you one, a superior education means nothing, nor does decades of dedicated service to the community or exceptional moral character. No, all you need to qualify for this ultimate symbol of status is a bucket on money acquired by fair means or foul.

And what do you get from the privilege of owning a platinum credit card, apart from a very high credit limit? In fact the more important feature is the minimum credit limit, which defines a minimum income well into six figures. HSBC tells its exclusive clientele that its Platinum Visa card

is the ultimate choice for those who demand benefits and rewards that match their lifestyle. Powerful credit limits, prestige services and distinctive services combine to deliver exception levels of person recognition.

Owners of this card can luxuriate in the access to a personal concierge service available 24 hour a day. The American Express Platinum card comes with a dedicated team of service professionals.

For those times when you need assistance with life’s little demands, Platinum Concierge is there for you, whenever and wherever you need it. There are times a birthday is mentioned to you a moment before it’s belated. Or perhaps your anniversary is just around the corner. Simply call upon your Concierge to organise a speedy bouquet and a reservation at the finest restaurant.

If this sounds like the credit card for people who systematically neglect their families you would not be far wrong.

No more milling about in queues, let us do the running around for you so you have more time to do the things that matter most.

The things that matter most, of course, are concerned with making more money rather than returning the love and care of those close to you. One commentator missed the point when he observed:

Whether people really need some of the services is questionable … It’s not that hard to make your own reservation or order flowers.4

Earlier this year the Commonwealth Bank spoiled the party by lowering the bar for a platinum card and allowing, horror of horrors, anyone to apply for one. The other banks called it ‘platinum for the people’. Imagine the annoyance of those with $300,000 incomes when they discovered that people on a paltry $70,000 could apply for the card.

Determined to stay ahead of the game, Amex has introduced the black credit card, known as the Centurion. This card, should you ever be lucky enough to get near to one, promises ‘six-star life experience’ and ‘access to the inaccessible’. One card owner called on the concierge service in Australia to return an Armani suit for alterations to the shop in Milan where he had bought it. Another sent the concierge off to Taiwan to buy some out-of-print books.5 One jealous platinum card holder breathlessly emailed a friend:

Regarding the AMEX Centurion, I was at a friends place on Sat night and he received the card Friday. It comes in the most unbelievable package − solid wood (maybe cedar) box lined with velvet.

He didn’t request the card, just a letter from Auspost saying that he had a package to pick up.

There is a certain pathos to this desire for the symbols of status, one that (as Alain de Botton has pointed out) seems to reflect a desperate need to be loved and admired. Undoubtedly, a product of cool homes.

Most segments of society are now infected with this particular status virus. Pretty much all of our purchases today have been invested with some form of status value, or at least a quality designed to match the particular identity we have chosen to adopt.

Tale the humble Aussie barbeque. While a barbeque in the 1980s was typically assembled at home from 150 bricks, a hot plate and a wood storage area, in 1998 the top of the line model cost $2,000. Today the ‘Turbo Cosmopolitan’ at Barbeques Galore, described as ‘Australia’s most prestigious gourmet outdoor entertainment system’, costs $4,990. Made of vitreous enamel, it boasts electronic multi-spark ignition in each of six burners, deluxe cast iron plates and a dual glass window roasting hood. It can roast, smoke, bake and grill. However, the Turbo Cosmopolitan has been superseded by the Grand Turbo, the main features of which are an infrared rotisserie rear burner and a price tag of $6,990. Even this has been superseded by one that costs $10,000. To match the price, these devices are no longer called barbeques but ‘outdoor kitchens’.

Few people buy the most sophisticated barbeques, but their existence serves to drive up the level of desire. After looking at the Turbo Cosmopolitan or the Grand Turbo, buyers are more likely to buy the Cordon Bleu for $1,299, ‘the latest look in barbeques and one of our top sellers’, instead of paying $200-$300 for a standard gas model. An advertisement for the Rinnai ‘Monaco Outdoor Kitchen’ (retail price $2,399) declares: ‘I love the look on the neighbours’ face when I roll out the Rinnai’.

In Australia over the last decade, sunglasses have become an important expression of identity for young people, replacing the cigarette as the statement of cool. A $200 pair of sunglasses is now regarded as cheap. A pair of Oakley X Metal XX ‘eyewear’ retails for $570, or more if you opt for titanium dioxide plating or 24-carat gold finish. They are

‘the only 3-D sculptured, hypoallergenic, all-metal frames on earth’. Not everyone can afford $570 but many more are willing to fork out $369 for a pair of Oakley 4267s or Gucci 2653/S for $339.95.

It is not unusual for young men and women with weekly incomes of $420 to spend $450 on a pair of sunglasses. Those who cannot afford the expense will justify it with statements such as ‘I couldn’t find anything else to suit me’ or ‘They were expensive but they will last a lot longer’. Other more self-aware consumers are more inclined to say ‘I was sucked in by the image, but what the hell’.

Increasingly, high-end manufacturers are making entry-level products to attract consumers other than the very rich. Gucci and Armani attach their brands to sunglasses that are bought by people who cannot afford to buy clothes or accessories with such prestigious names. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘democratisation of luxury’ – those who buy the entry-level products feel they can emulate the image of the very rich. Carmakers such as Mercedes and BMW are manufacturing models that middle-income households can afford.

For example, the Mercedes C180 Classic retails for only $51,800. At the other end of the spectrum, the Mercedes Maybach 62 costs more than $650,000. The brochure alone costs $400. It has been developed for a very small segment of the market. ‘They are people like movie stars, they are entrepreneurs, they are industry giants’, in the words of the president of Mercedes-Benz in the USA. The company expects to sell no more than 1,000 Maybach’s each year, but in fact low sales are the goal. According to one observer:

In the jargon of automobile marketing, the Maybach is a ‘halo’ car, adding an aura of exclusivity to some of the less expensive cars sold by its parent company, DaimlerChrysler. Analysts point out that even the once-revered Mercedes name has been diluted somewhat. With 200,000 Mercedes on the road in the U.S., it’s just not as special as it used to be.


Childhood, of course, has become a marketing free-fire zone, and the lounge room is the kindergarten of consumerism. We all know of the extraordinary pressures placed on children to consume; what is less understood is how the thick fog of commercial messages in which children now grow up conditions their understanding of the world and themselves.

While teenagers with pocket money were once the target, marketers are increasingly targeting tweens, children aged 8-14, not because they buy many of the goods marketed to them but because they hope to build life-long brand loyalty that will pay off for decades. According to the recently published and definitive marketing manual titled BrandChild:

….car companies, airlines, hotels and financial services are competing withtraditional kid marketers to establish a relationship with young consumers. Initially targeted at teens, research and marketing programs are now seeking to understand and develop a relationship with younger consumers in the hope that their predisposition towards their brand will sway their purchasing decisions in the years to come. The result has been a dramatic increase in the number of advertising messages targeted at tweens …6

Brands have become an inseparable part of children’s maturing consciousness. Nearly half of the world’s urban tweens state that the clothes and brands they wear describe who they are and define their social status. The manual notes that tweens are exposed to more than 8,000 brands a day and that tweens influence close to 60 per cent of all brand decisions taken by their parents.

What has become clear is that more and more tweens define their worth, their role in the social hierarchy, their popularity, and their success by the brands they wear, eat and live with. … [T]ween tribes … have become active advocates for the brand.

The dramatic change in the role of brands has been part of the advertising agencies’ long-term goals. It was initially the advertisers who envisioned turning brand into a form of religion, to increase their sales. And it has worked.

Most children want to transcend the limitations of lifestyles manufactured by brands and available to everyone. They want to achieve the new pinnacle of social success − celebrity. Children do not see fame as the reward for achievement but simply as a state in itself. And with the proliferation of celebrities whose fame owes nothing to any talent or achievement, this is an accurate judgement. The worldwide survey of tweens for BRANDChild found that more than half say they want to be famous, with Indian (90%) and American (61%) children topping the list (and with Japanese kids at the bottom

(28%)). In Australia, when a talent hunt for Popstars was launched more than 120,000 young people put their names forward. Of course, most of them had no talent at all, but they know that talent is irrelevant, an fact confirmed each time the winner of these competitions is finally selected.

Celebrity is the opposite of the thing tweens fear most, rejection and social isolation. To attain acceptance they will go to extreme lengths. A 1999 survey of tween and teenage girls found that 46 per cent say they are unhappy with their bodies and 35 per cent say they would consider plastic surgery. Being sexy is being cool and that’s why even pre-pubescent girls are being sexualised. Two years ago the Olsen twins visited Australia promoting their brands of lingerie, including padded bras, to their 6-12 year old fans. If adults sexually attracted to children are called paedophiles, what do we call adults who set out to make children sexually attractive? Advertising executives.

Money and family

Of course, the extraordinary emphasis, indeed obsession with consumption has its costs. One, the huge increase in credit card debt, I have already mentioned. The effect of overwork on family relationships is another. Children are well aware of this, something confirmed by a recent report, commissioned by the Australia Institute, by Barbara Pocock and Jane Clark at the University of Adelaide.7 Through a series of focus groups with kids aged 12-18 they examined the attitudes of children to money and their parents’ working patterns. Among many other things, they asked:


If you could choose to have more time with your parents on the one hand, or more money because they worked more, which would you choose?


A fifth nominated both. Of those who chose, more than two thirds said they would prefer more time with their parents. Less than a third chose more money.

Kids in Sydney are much more likely to prefer the money than those in the country and other capitals. But listen to one of them, Mike, 17, explain why:

Put it this way, this day and age, it’s just money. Cause I reckon people our age don’t really hang around with their parents much. I only see my dad when he’s about to go to bed. We don’t spend time together that much. Maybe on a Sunday we might go for a walk at Manly, [so it’s] money for sure.

Mike has decided not to have children for the same reasons:

Just think how much money you can keep for yourself. My dad says, “Mike, we spend so much money on you three kids − just one of you costs about $250,000, just raising you … If you didn’t have kids you could keep it all to yourself. Just be rich.”

Thanks Dad. I’m sorry I am such a burden on you. Reassuringly, some of Mike’s class-mates saw this as selfish and extreme.

For those for whom time comes first, time is seen as the first requirement of a good dad and a good relationship with parents. Kelsey is 12.

Dad earns money and gets out, but he hardly spends any time with you. He comes home, eats tea and watches TV. We’d like time … He feels bad because he can’t spend time with the family. He puts Mary [step-mother] before my sister and me.

The preference of most children for more time with their absent parent instead of more money in the household suggests that the absent parent (usually the father) is sacrificing a better relationship with his children in order to work longer hours. Pocock and Clark found that many children understand the dilemma in which their parents find themselves but declared that they will spend more time with their own children when they have to choose.

Boundaries and values

It is intensely ironic that the same conservative politicians who bewail the decline of moral values in the youth of today are the most vehement defenders of the ‘right’ of advertisers to flog their products to children. The same political leaders who want young people to display more fellow feeling and community spirit also want to turn our schools into factories producing fodder for the labour market. They do not want well-rounded human beings whose education is above all a journey into understanding who they are, their moral selves, but workers with the skills that will serve GDP growth.

For is it not the culture of marketing and consumerism that promotes above all else the belief that we are each distinct individuals, beholden to no-one, engrossed in our own life’s project, with the innate compulsion to satisfy our own desires through our consumption activity? Is it not the marketing society that insists, over and over, that no matter how much stuff we have accumulated it is never enough, and that we can only measure our success in ways that entail the failure of others?

In the face of all of this, kids today are engaged in a daily struggle to create themselves in ways that retain at least a modicum of autonomy and self-respect. The society that their parents have created at every point threatens to engulf them, and strip them of their individuality. It provides no moral compass − other than a corrupt pecuniary one − by which they can map out their life’s purpose.

Yes they are influenced by the enormously powerful forces of the market − how could they not be otherwise, given the massive effort that goes into it. But they are also savvy about the attempts to manipulate them and they adopt in a range of tactics to protect their independence − constant differentiation, a pervasive cynicism, and keeping a healthy distance from the meaningless politics of their elders.

More power to them. Our only hope is that today’s young people can trace out a new moral map for us all to live by.


1 M. Csikszentmihalyi and E. Rochberg-Halton, The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1981) p. 164

2 A Rindfleisch et al., ‘Family Structure, Materialism, and Compulsive Consumption’, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 23 March 1997.

3 Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton, The meaning of things, p. 229

4 Denis Orrock in Bina Brown, ‘Plastic fantastic takes service to the extreme’, ‘Wealth’ supplement, The Australian, June 30 2004, p. 6

5 Ibid.

6 Martin Lindstrom, BRANDChild: Remarkable insights into the minds of today’s global kids and their relationship with brands (Kogan Page, London, 2003) p. 46

7 Barbara Pocock and Jane Clark, Can’t Buy Me Love, Discussion Paper No. 61, Australia Institute, Canberra 2004




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