Lost in Transition (to Adulthood): Whatever Makes You Happy?

In line with the boomers-stickers speech from Wendell Berry, Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition: The […]

Ethan Richardson / 5.10.12

In line with the boomers-stickers speech from Wendell Berry, Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood is a sociological look into the hyper-relativist boom-ist mentality of today’s 18-23 year old. His book identifies five of the premier values of emerging adults today (consumption, sexual relativism, binge drinking, political apathy, etc.), all of which point to an infantilized adulthood, an adulthood priding itself on mobile acceptance, a conception of freedom which paradoxically kills it. Smith is a bit heavy on the criticism, to the point that his understanding misses empathy, as well as too much of the belief that a misunderstanding corrected could make the necessary change, but the overall prognoses are powerfully indicative of current (and yet very, very old) cravings. We hang our happiness on the “right to buy,” and that right to buy points you back to “whatever makes you happy.” It is a simultaneously flightless and groundless philosophy, that our consumption liberates, because that liberation hangs us up into a world all our own. More than this, though, there is an unwillingness in the emerging adulthood to make truth claims–that any decision is based on “whatever makes you (the individual) happy”–that that ‘whatever’ could be just about anything. My question: is this just emerging adults?

Again, this isn’t a slant in favor of judgmentalism, but in favor of the assent to objective truth. For Smith, Truth is truth universally but, as his study shows, this is not a popular philosophy of the young adult.

We find a vision for self-improvement, for growth and transcendence beyond the old. But the improvement in this case does not concern self or morals or social justice, but rather material lifestyles and personal consumption. Yet another emerging adult we interviewed reflected a similarly uncritical mentality:

I am the ultimate American when it comes to that, I mean, I got 500 bucks in my pocket one day, and two days later, I’m looking to make my next 500. I spend my money, man I am great for the economy. If I won the lottery I would stimulate the economy on my own. Because I spend my money that I don’t save, unless I set [a savings goal] of what I make, I spend.

…Another set of emerging adults did not talk about helping the economy but rather more individualistically about how shopping and consumerism make them feel good, help them be respected, and build self-confidence. Consider the following representative quote, for example:

It feels good to be able to get the things that you want and you work for the money. If you want something, you go get it. It makes your life more comfortable and i guess it just makes you feel good about yourself as well. You want to get some, you work for it and you can get it. I think it’s a good thing to buy what you want if you work for it, because when you work for something, then you gain that accomplishment, it’s not like you were just given money, I want to get this, you know, I’ll buy that. It’s like you actually work for that thing so you feel that you deserve it, you earned it. You earned that thing you wanted. You weren’t just given it.

…Okay, when I’m having a bad day, a bad week, whatever, there is nothing that makes me feel better about myself more than going and buying myself a whole new wardrobe. I feel like a better person, I feel prettier, I feel more intelligent sometimes, I feel cleaner, it’s just a great feeling. I feel self-sufficient ’cause I bought it on my own.

A third theme among emerging adults on the topic of mass consumerism is the avoidance of making any evaluative judgments of anyone’s consumption habits. It is entirely an individual matter and should be driven by whatever makes people happy. Thinking collectively about these concerns as a society is either inconceivable or illegitimate. It’s up to individual people. Consider, as examples, the following quotes. “I think everyone has what they like,” one young woman declared.

If you have a thousand shoes, that is all you. If you want a thousand shoes, cool, that is all what you want. I personally wouldn’t want a thousand shoes, I love shoes, but I wouldn’t want that many because I don’t value spending my money on that. But I don’t want to judge someone else and say you can’t or shouldn’t have that.

In response to the idea that a person might own 12 mansions and 20 cars, another emerging adult said, “I think it’s kind of silly, but hey, to each their own.” Yet another said to a similar question, “I don’t really have any positive or negative feelings towards the issue. People should get things if it works for them, if that’s what they want.” So is any amount that people buy too much? “No. I don’t feel like that. I think people should do what makes them happy.” She then continued:

I guess I don’t really think about consumerism as far as its effects on society. I think I don’t like to have too much stuff like clutter. I do get rid of stuff a lot. I like to shop. I’ll be honest with you. I am a woman. I like to go shopping. [But] I don’t really thinkĀ  about long-term effects on society and mass production and mass consumption.

Finally, another only qualified the “happy individual” criteria with her personal problem with rich people who do not also give to those who have material needs:

I’m definitely a consumer. I like to buy things. I like to have things. Yeah, I think it’s great, capitalism and giving consumers choices are all good. I mean, you can have too many cars, too many boats, two planes, which is over the top. People can definitely get excessive in a lot of ways. There is definitely a limit. But it’s whatever makes you happy. If somebody needs all those things, then they need all those things. But if they’re not giving back to people who are more need, then, yeah, I’ve got a problem with that.

Yet even in this example, it’s still ultimately ‘whatever makes you happy.’


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