2014-02-26

Co.Exist

Why The New American Workforce Wants Better Consumption, Not Just More

While spending might be up for the richest 1%, the rest of Americans are quietly revolutionizing the economy, reshaping their spending habits to reflect a desire for quality over quantity.

America is on strike.

But don’t look for picket signs and bullhorns. Instead, one by one, Americans are lifting their collective middle finger and showing it to an economy that’s no longer in line with their values.

In the 2000s bubble era, too many Americans wanted something simple: more. A bigger house. A bigger car. A more expensive wardrobe.

Then came the recession. Consumption plummeted and the illusion of broadly shared prosperity melted away.

But the richest 5% of Americans are back to spending like they’ve got Gordon Gekko’s Visa card. They’re now responsible for 38% of domestic consumption (up from "just" 28% in the go-go '90s).

And since the recession ended, spending by the rich has risen 17%. The rest of us? Just 1%.

We’ve stopped looking for more. Instead, we just want enough. And better.

We’re saving. We’re eating healthy and local. We’re thinking about what each purchase means—for us and for our community.

It’s a Quiet Revolution, where small choices can lead to big change.

It’s no coincidence this thriftier, more conscious lifestyle is growing alongside the rise of freelancing. Independent workers that get by on fluctuating income know you have to plan for your low times, not your high times.

Each dollar spent is earned one gig at a time—so the connection between income and value is clearer than ever. With one in three workers now independent, we’re seeing the ripple effects in how we work, live, and consume.

More than six in 10 Americans say they would rather save than spend, and thrifty shoppers make for ultra-conscious consumers—especially when it comes to what we eat, what we wear, and how we get around.

By going local and organic, Americans are doing their part to protect the environment, eat healthy, and support local businesses. In the last 20 years, farmers markets have quadrupled to more than 8,000 today, part of a trend the Food Marketing Institute calls "value-seeking behavior."

And people are wearing those values on their vintage, three-quarter sleeves. As mid-level retailers like J.C. Penney and Best Buy struggle, consignment shops and thrift stores have grown by 7% in recent years to become a $13 billion industry.

It’s not just what we eat or what we wear; it’s how we get around, too. In the past two decades, car ownership has gone down while bicycle commuting has gone up. We’re choosing shared rides over shiny new SUVs.

The New York Times recently attributed changes in consumption to the eroding middle class and rising income inequality. But there’s another reason people aren’t shopping at Sears or eating at Olive Garden. Consumers with working-class income today—often independent workers—find a farm-to-table menu more appetizing than endless breadsticks. They’d rather buy a hand-designed shirt on Etsy than a mass-produced one at a department store.

Conscious consumers are creating a new mutual class, turning the made-in-China economy to a DIY state of mind.

They may not be marching in the streets or staging protests, but consumers are increasingly and actively changing the economic landscape with every dollar they consciously spend—or purposefully save.

The Quiet Revolution is getting louder. And the extra bucks in your bank account, the keys sliding into bike share slots, and the dollars spent at farmers markets and thrift stores all sound like one thing: change.

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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