I and my wife are expecting our first child in the month of July. Being a new parent is an exciting development in our lives. A lot of our time is spent in getting prepared for this life changing moment. But I must admit that it has come with its own share of anxieties and apprehensions. My fears stem from the rampant culture of materialism in society. I have spent sleepless nights ruminating over how I will promote a healthy balance between materialism and simplicity in my child’s life. And yes, when I observe the world around me, the more convinced I am that my fears are not unfounded.
Before I voice my views let me make it abundantly clear that I am an ardent supporter of capitalism. It has propelled the Indian economy to greater heights. One can debate the distribution of the fruits of economic growth but the Indian economy is moving on the right growth trajectory. The World Bank estimates that the Indian economy will grow at a stupendous rate of 7.2 per cent. Consumer spending is healthy for the economy and after a brief period of contraction in economic activity post demonetization, the economy is bouncing back. The rapid pace with which new products are entering the market and the changing pattern of consumer spending is a sign of a healthy economy. But this is the macro level picture. Now let me elaborate on the micro level.
When my wife entered a baby store her anxieties peaked. She was livid when she saw price tags on many products; baby tubs, baby detergent for washing clothes (yes!) and baby nail cutters. The list is interminable. A number of companies have penetrated this niche market for baby product. Till a few years ago this was a relatively unexplored terrain but new entrants have introduced a slew of different products. It was then when we decided to not be vulnerable parents and purchase whatever is being displayed.
I could not help but think how we were raised. My parents could certainly not buy these products in the 1980’s when the Indian economy was growing at a pace which earned it the disparaging label ‘the Hindu rate of growth’. The days prior to 1991 were different. There was never a wide range of products. The labyrinth of red- tapism and strict government controls had shackled Indian industries. Our entertainment was the Saturday night movie screened on Doordarshan or a drive around Dehradun in a modest Maruti 800. At times my mother baked pizzas and we took walks on a hiking trail. Choices were limited but we were content.
There was always enough money to spend on world-class education for me and my sister. My parents took time of their hectic schedule to read us stories. We preferred the outdoors. My folks are voracious readers and they inculcated this habit in us. I have fond memories of cycling in the idyllic surroundings of Dehradun; vivid memories of pitching a tent on the terrace and starring into a sky pregnant with glittery stars; memories of breathing crisp air during a morning walk near the golf course. This was occasionally followed by samosas and jalebi. My father possessed a telescope and he used to frequently encourage us to look through it and cherish the panoramic view of the stars above. It was not that we were never exposed to materialism. We were. Foreign trips were common. But there was always a fine balance and my parents knew where to draw the line. I do not see that happening today and I find this to be a manifestation of a deeper malaise which is plaguing our social mosaic.
What has happened to the new generation? Smart phones and tablets are thoughtlessly gifted on birthdays. Parents are working hard to be able to afford products their children don’t really need. The irony of life is that the culture of
unmitigated consumer spending has forced many parents into believing that if they do not conform to the latest trends in fashion or mimic other parents, their own child is somehow going to lose out on something. What is this something?
Well it is nothing really. The rampant culture of advertising and promotions has created an environment where some parents feel compelled to fill up the void by making purchases. Somewhere we as society are losing the work life and personal life balance. The real value of relationships is eroding. This is the lamentable truth.
When the sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ he was referring to the act of buying a commodity which is not necessary to one’s life but the act of purchasing it makes a social statement. We all see this happening all around. But are we really focusing on the subtle impact of this on our children?
It is my conviction that we stand at a very crucial juncture today. The money we spend and how we spend it is definitely going to influence our value system and if this culture of irrational spending- yes at times it is- continues, it is going to have broader repercussions.
I think at this point we need to ask ourselves some very important questions. We are producing smart phones but not smart children. Technology is certainly facilitating learning in our classrooms but its excessive use and promotion is rather disconcerting. Keep a gadget away from a school going student and he will get fidgety and anxious. There is a term for it; disconnection anxiety. We live in a twenty four seven society. Children sleep with smart phones next to their bed. My one and a half year old nephew cannot eat food without watching a video on an ipad. I find it alarming.
I do not mean to sound didactic but this is a rather curious phenomenon for somebody like me. I can stay disconnected for a rather long time spending my time in the remote areas of Uttarakhand. Just because my phone rings does not mean that I answer it and social media is really not my come of tea. On many occasions I have preferred to stay in-doors on a Saturday night to wake up fresh on a Sunday and enjoy a hike to Mussoorie with a dear friend.
I think in such an age and time, parents have a vital responsibility of promoting an understanding of frugality and wise spending. If we are engaging in this culture of conspicuous spending and making unethical value judgments we are committing a grave injustice to our posterity. If you think your child deserves that expensive gadget just because you can afford it, and he really does not need it, then you need to introspect. It is that simple.
The writer is a socio-economic commentator. The views expressed are his own