Edited by Lucia A. Reisch and John Thøgersen
Chapter 27: Toward a post-consumerist future? Social innovation in an era of fading economic growth
While there is a tendency to attribute the advent of contemporary consumer society in the United States and other affluent nations to a combination of heroic entrepreneurship and historic inevitability, more prudent analysis points to the critical role of state intervention at key moments during the twentieth century (Cohen 2003; de Grazia 2006; Garon 2013; Prasad 2012; Seiji 1999). Starting in most countries with the provision of guaranteed pensions, which reduced the need to accumulate personal retirement savings and increased propensities to spend, governments enacted an expanding array of policies and programmes to bolster consumerist lifestyles. These interventions combined and co-evolved with several auspicious social and economic factors during the post-1945 period: a relatively youthful population, a sustained pattern of rising per capita income, a growing middle class, and a quest for affordable housing and mobility (see in particular Field 2012). Demonstrable evidence of a weakening in the capacity of mass consumption to drive economic growth began to appear during the 1970s and these conditions were exacerbated by high inflation, rising and unusually volatile energy prices, and expanding public attentiveness to the environmental consequences of industrial production. In response, a grand political bargain was struck in the United States favouring deregulation of key economic sectors (particularly finance), liberalization of international trade, and reassertion of military power abroad that reinvigorated household consumption, prompting a new wave of acquisitive social striving and competitive spending (Collins 2002; Yarrow 2010).
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