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A Study on How Consumerism Has Affected Families in America and China

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America’s post-World War II success has come at a price. Many Americans have dug themselves deeply into debt and have become disconnected with their families because of their inattentiveness to the importance of family. An unhealthy focus on material wealth and possessions has replaced the traditional importance of family. The Chinese have more recently become successful; however, they have not let material possessions impact family life as much as Americans have.

In China, Confucianism and Communism both influence society and family substantially. According to Sri Swami Sivananda, a respected Indian teacher noted that Confucianism has influenced all of the main Chinese religions, teaches dignity, nobility, and humbleness, and also scorns pride, arrogance, crookedness, and the expectation of rewards in the essay “Confucianism,” which was later published in the magazine Chinese American Forum. Most Chinese people consider these traits important to Chinese society. A humble person would not devote a lot of attention to material things. Humble persons also do not forget where they come from, meaning that someone should take time to respect family and spend time with relatives. In the mid 1900’s, the Chinese government became Communist. The Chinese government had total control over the economy and society and regulated the food supply, which led to food shortages (LaFleur, Palmer, Rapp, Robson, and Hamlish 89-93).

The little, if any, economic freedom that average Chinese people had at this time must have conditioned them to save food and money in order to overcome hard times. Later on, the Chinese government opened its doors to the free market economy. Today, China reigns as the world’s largest exporter and manufacturer, and for the most part, has a free market economy (LaFleur, Palmer, Rapp, Robson, and Hamlish 104-114). Factories manufacture goods and employ many workers no matter their location in the world. New jobs of any kind can bring new wealth to people who can then spend it. A growing number of Chinese also earn money doing professional jobs in the technology sector. The Chinese government used incentives to bring back professionals to its technology sector. As a result, the Chinese information technology sector grew rapidly and gained value in the 1990’s. The new growth also created new jobs (Luh 87-88). In the last sixty years, Communism and a free market economy have influenced the Chinese; however, most still keep their Confucian principles.

America went through major changes during the early and mid-twentieth century. The first occurred during the Great Depression, during which a large percentage of Americans found themselves unemployed. The Great Depression started in 1929 and lasted in varying degrees of severity until World War II. During the Great Depression, many families struggled to afford the bare essentials such as food, shelter, and clothing. During this era, Wilbur Anderson, distinguished World War II veteran and father of three, said in an interview that he could afford only to eat a raw tomato for lunch when hired to pick tomatoes on a farm for the day. Wilbur must have considered it a luxury to eat a sandwich for lunch. Today, sandwiches are taken for granted as with many other items that would have been much appreciated during the Depression.

In 1941, America entered World War II and many Americans took part in the war effort. In the interview, Anderson also cited that before the war, he did not own a car, but after the war, he purchased one. When the war ended, returning soldiers and their families purchased new consumer goods for the first time in four years. Factories suddenly started to turn out consumer goods instead of planes and tanks. Soldiers and their families boosted economic activity by spending money that they had saved during the war (Schneider and Schneider 312). Since the end of World War II, Americans have continued to spend more and more on consumer goods. Experienced journalist Louis Uchitelle reported in the 2004 New York Times article “We Pledge Allegiance to the Mall” that American consumers now spend more than they did after World War II. By spending more, consumers increase the profits of manufacturers which drive advertising campaigns that put more pressure on consumers. This cycle has proven effective at influencing American consumers, even to this day. In general, Americans have gone from dirt poor to living comfortably in the last eighty years.

Changes to the American and Chinese economies have resulted in increased consumer power for the middle class. Families in both countries have adapted to the economy no matter the situation. By adapting, families have shifted from their original structures and dynamics. Consumerism has caused more change to American families than Chinese families because of reckless spending, the setting of material goals, and holiday commercialization.

Reckless spending causes American families to unravel, while Chinese families spend smartly and have familial problems. Financial neglect causes American families to become distanced, while frugal and less extravagant spending keeps Chinese families stable. Buying things on impulse without considering the consequences demonstrates disregard for one’s financial security. Naturally, this type of spending could easily lead to financial problems for a family. Financial problems can cause anyone to become stressed, which can cause them to express anger around family or worse. The Jet magazine article “Why Money is the Leading Cause of Divorce” cites the results of a Citibank survey which reports that financial problems cause fifty-seven percent of American divorces. The tremendous consequences of financial neglect become apparent it causes so many marriages and families to split. World War II veteran Wilbur Anderson recounted in an interview that some of his friends overspent during the 1950’s and 60’s with credit cards that had recently become available.

Anderson then went on to say that he always paid in cash. Unlike his friends, Wilbur did not get into financial trouble, confirming the value of paying in cash. As generations came after Anderson, reckless spending became a larger problem. In the article “Confessions of a Compulsive Shopper,” Joan Caplin, distinguished reporter for Money magazine, said that “Compulsive shopping affects up to 8% of the US population and 90% of these shopaholics are women.” Eight percent of people affected by compulsive shopping means that in a group of twenty-five people; two people would know a compulsive shopper. In the same article, Caplin later states that compulsive shoppers spend time by themselves and lose contact with their families. Shopping in this way demonstrates financial and familial neglect. One can easily see how divorces over money figure commonly in the United States when more people shop with little regard for consequences. For the most, Chinese families spend money carefully. Xu Hong, a member of the Chinese middle class stated from experience that she does not buy full-price items in an interview with reporter and long time China bureau chief for Bloomberg Businessweek Dexter Roberts.

The statement demonstrates the importance of frugality to the Chinese middle class because it comes from an average middle-class Chinese woman. Roberts also reported that around forty percent of the average Chinese income goes to savings. By saving a lot of money, members of the Chinese middle class create a safety net to fall on in hard times. The habit has come in handy during the food shortages and economic turmoil that has occurred with communism. In any situation, having savings gives someone piece of mind and can ease their worries. Accomplished journalists Isaac Fish and Alexandra Seno reported in their Newsweek article “Chinese Women Go Shopping,” that Chinese woman prefer small, simple, and inexpensive rings. Unlike some American women who buy excessively, Chinese women actually prefer to stay frugal when they buy luxury items. The growing prevalence of financial neglect causes resentment within American families while the old technique of smart shopping and saving creates a stability and little change within the Chinese family.

Over spending on children creates more problems for American families. In America, many different types of products target the youth market. Anyone can go into a store and see many aisles of products aimed at children such as toys, games, and clothing. “People used to buy things when they needed them; now they buy things when they want them or want their children to have them” (Dalton 95). The quote shows the shift in American ideas of what does and does not constitute necessity. American parents seem to have an urge to improve their children’s lives through the purchase of material things. In addition to buying things because they want their children to have them, parents also buy things because their children want to have them.

In a nationwide survey of parent’s views on spoiling children, Leisha Young, a Las Vegas mother told the trusted magazine Parenting “I often buy stuff to keep them busy so that I can have some time to myself.”. By limiting time spent with their children, parents limit their children’s social interaction and cause them to have future social problems. Children may also live with their parents longer if their parents support them and do not teach them how to support themselves. This living situation represents a change from the traditional transition to living alone or with a spouse from living with one’s parents. Parents may resent their children for taking advantage of their support. When American families buy excessively for their children, family life changes and negative effects ensue.

American families have changed more because of their new focus on acquiring material goods instead of keeping traditions and helping each other. Many American families split because the setting of material goals causes parents to work more while traditional values have kept Chinese families together. Parents spend more time working to buy things, which causes them to neglect their marriages and children (Dalton 96). Many parents fall into the trap of consumerism and work to obtain things that will not improve their family’s true happiness. Children and marriages both require attention; without it they will fall apart. Children of all ages need their parents around to help them solve their problems. If a parent is absent, their child will likely grow resentful. Some children resent their parents overworking to the point that they choose a simpler life and profession (Dalton 98).

This finding also shows that the consumerist lifestyle can and has changed some people’s views so profoundly that they have chosen to change their lifestyle in order to differentiate themselves from the previous generation. Wilbur Anderson, a World War II veteran and loving father of three asserted in an interview that he did not go out of his way to buy unnecessary things, meaning that he did not overwork himself to buy the latest and greatest product, unlike most Americans today. In their International Journal of Consumer Studies article “Materialism and Conspicuous Consumption in China: A Cross-Cultural Examination”, accomplished professor Dr. Jeffrey S. Podoshen and his colleagues Lu Li and Junfeng Zhang state that Chinese children respect their elders because of Confucian values. If Chinese children think so highly of their elders’ they would never think of insulting them by condemning their consumer and work habits. The next generation of Chinese would also never try and distance themselves from their parents in an attempt to live differently. As a result of this aspect of Chinese culture, the family stays closer and does not suffer like the American family. With new materialistic habits comes a dramatic shift in work habits, which spells trouble for American families who do not have the same value system as the Chinese.

Traditional Chinese values keep Chinese families from letting consumerism interfere in life and also influence consumption into helping maintain good family relationships. Normandy Madden, experienced senior vice president of Advertising Age magazine, said in the article “Reaching China’s Youth, A Balancing Act” that despite purchasing similarly to American teens, Chinese teens still hold on to traditional family values. Considering the large impact that communism and its relaxation made on Chinese culture, some find it surprising that the Chinese still keep tradition, also indicating that Confucianism is more influential to family life than any governmental or economic change. Elders in the Chinese family still help make major purchase decisions (LaFleur, Palmer, Rapp, Robson, Hamlish 162).

Even though the way Chinese families consume has changed, they still see the importance of honoring family and cannot be swayed into purchasing big ticket items on impulse. Family conflict is avoided because the family reaches an agreement before purchasing something expensive, unlike many American families. Spending new wealth with traditional values in mind has also helped keep the Chinese family happier. Wu Yan, an office worker at a state-owned bank in Beijing told the major magazine Economist that “One day, we might buy an apartment for mine and my husband’s parents, with a servant for each elderly couple” in the article “Golden Boys and Girls.” The new Chinese middle class shows their respect for elders through their purchases. By doing things like this for elders, younger Chinese generations ease their elders’ burdens and allow them to have more worry-free time to spend with their families. Even with more money to spend, Chinese families stick to tradition and still take time to honor and help their elders.

American families change because of holiday commercialization while Chinese families keep their holidays more traditional. Holiday commercialization causes Americans to disregard traditional celebration and move toward expensive, stressful, gift-oriented holidays. “For too many families, the holidays have become just another stressful and expensive time in our already busy lives” declared Betsy Taylor, executive director of the Center for the New American Dream in the article “Christmas: Trying To Get It Right,” written by Jennifer Wolcott, seasoned staff writer of Christian Science Monitor. The expensiveness of the holidays comes from the vast amount of gifts that families buy for other family members. Countless advertising campaigns funded by profit-hungry companies urge Americans to buy gifts.

Advertising infiltrates Christmas as Americans have more money to spend. According to Karen Hube, an accomplished freelance writer and reporter for Money magazine in the article “Getting Through Holiday Gift Hell,” parents rack up credit card debt in order for their children to open more presents. Parents think that they have made their children happy but instead they have made family life more difficult by putting themselves into debt. Debt stressful on the debtor and in turn causes them to act angrily toward their family. The impressionability of children makes them a target for advertisers who try harder to rake in profits. In turn, children go to their parents and beg for toys and games that their parents then purchase out of guilt. Children grow accustomed to this and begin to expect to get what they want whenever they want it. World War II veteran and father of three Wilbur Anderson said in an interview that he expected to go to church and receive candy on Christmas during his childhood while his children expected to receive new shoes and toys for Christmas.

Anderson’s experience shows the major change in children’s Christmas expectations as the average family began to have more buying power. Christmas has also gradually shifted towards secularity as indicated by Anderson. Besides advertisers, parents also contribute to their children’s ever-expanding Christmas expectations. Betsy Taylor, president of the Center for a New American Dream, expertly stated in Karen Hube’s article “Getting Through Holiday Gift Hell” that “the first question adults ask kids is, what do you want this year? That reinforces the message that the holidays are mostly about presents.” One can see that the commercialization of Christmas has also influenced American parents to the point that they want to spare no expense to buy gifts for their children and everyone on their list. Generosity may make the gift giver feel happy until the credit card bill comes. The reality that Christmas has come to symbolize gifts sets in and one realizes that commercialization has caused their once-happy family Christmas into a time of shopping and stress.

Chinese families celebrate traditionally and keep gift giving in its traditional place. According to the article “Chinese New Year Spending Leaps Ahead” in Women’s Wear Daily, an authority on retail news, Chinese consumers spent around sixty-one billion dollars on iPads, iPhones, jewelry, appliances, and other things during Chinese New Year. This amount seems like a lot but really is deceiving because the sixty-one billion dollars is spread out between one point three billion people. Esteemed business writers Ellen Gibson and Anne D’Innocenzio cited from the National Retail Federation in their Huffington Post article “Christmas Eve Shoppers Poised to Set Spending Record,” that Americans spent 452.8 billion dollars at retailers during the 2007 holiday season. This figure dwarfs the measly sixty-one billion US dollars that the Chinese spent during the 2010 Chinese New Year.

The 452.8 billion dollars is only spread between three hundred million people in the United States. Americans spend much more on gifts during a major holiday than the Chinese. According to the article “Festivals of China,” published in the educational magazine Faces, Chinese families shop during holidays but also make time to celebrate the true meaning of the festival by spending time together. Chinese families do not let consumerism take over their holidays. Americans have let consumerism turn the once family- and religious-centered Christmas holiday into a frenzy of buying presents for relatives and spoiled children while becoming stressed over mounting debt.

Consumerism in the form of reckless spending, overemphasis on material goals and commercialization of holidays has changed American families more than Chinese families. Some may argue the opposite because of the vast difference in Chinese life between the 1940’s and today. Most Chinese people have different jobs, more possessions, and more money. What they do not have is a different set of principles. Confucianism has acted as an anchor that keeps the Chinese from drifting away from their traditions. The profound effects of consumerism on American family life have shaped American culture in the last sixty to seventy years. Economic factors, which influenced consumerism after the war, will likely play a major role in the development of the modern American consumer in the coming years and decades. Consumerism will continue to influence American families because of its effectiveness at erasing old traditions and influencing how Americans work, celebrate, and spend time.

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A Study On How Consumerism Has Affected Families In America And China. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 26, 2022, from
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