In last week's column, I reported on how the students I led on a study-tour of China over my university's spring break managed - within three hours of their arrival in Beijing - to have Mickey D delivered directly to their hotel rooms. Closely rivaling this passion for fast food was their penchant for shopping.
Many of the major sites we visited, from the Great Wall to Xi'an's terracotta warriors, featured a gift shop. Additionally, a couple minor stops on the tour seemed somewhat suspect to me: a silkworm exhibit and a tea-tasting demonstration, for instance. In both cases, the related store dwarfed the educational component. I feared a backlash from the students.
But no… in every instance, they shopped enthusiastically. The tour company knew its customers better than I did, apparently.
As odd as it seemed to me for Americans, who traveled half way around the world, to eat American fast food, filling their suitcases beyond their weight limits with Chinese goods seemed almost as goofy. After all, there's not much made in China that U.S. stores don't stock.
So, okay, a few of the things on offer may have been available only in China, and some may have been available at bargain prices. Never you mind. My theory is that it's the hunt, not the prey that really matters. How else to explain:
o The "Black Friday" shopper who pepper-sprayed rival shoppers in a vicious quest for "door buster" bargains at her local Wal-Mart last November, or
o The crowd that rioted that same day for two-dollar waffle makers?
I like my waffles as much as the next guy. But I think there's more going on here than that.
My take on it: in our overcrowded urban/suburban world, our primal urge to pursue prey, programmed into our genes from the days of our hunter-gather ancestors, asserts itself when faced with a sale. I'm not alone in harboring this notion.
Nancy Deville, author of a book called "Healthy, Sexy, Happy," writes, "Just because we don't have to actually pick, gather, milk, hunt or fish for our food doesn't mean that we can walk into a market in a daze and load up the cart without thinking. We have to be as vigilant as if we're out on the savanna scouting for the next meal. We need to be modern hunter-gatherers."
An outfit called Far West Signs (farwestsigns.com) actually offers a wall plaque that reads, "Shopping with your husband is like hunting with the game warden."
I don't think the hunter-gatherer gene has been suppressed at all in the younger generation, but I could be wrong.
I think shopping - or rather, rampant consumerism - is not merely a generational thing, but an American thing. We've long associated certain lifestyles with material goods, ever since the image of the "perfect" 1950s housewife with her washing machine and white picket fence saturated American culture; we trick ourselves into thinking that buying this designer bag or that brand of television will transform our lives. It's also a sign of the times: it seems like the recession has only made shopping more appealing, more essential, to our culture. Bush urged Americans to keep spending in the wake of 9/11, and so far we've complied.
That's why the "lipstick index" still exists - the idea that we spend more on affordable luxuries during times of economic strain to make ourselves feel better. Of course, it isn't a perfect indicator of the economy, but there is certainly some truth to it. Add to that the now common use of credit cards to buy things we can't currently afford, and you can see how a shopping spree might seem mighty appealing.
Further, there's the fact that the majority of young people aren't moving out of their parents' homes until much later than was once the norm - and they're not necessarily spending that extra time at home saving up to get married and buy their own house, either. While many of us are saving as much as possible in the hopes of moving out, I know just as many recent graduates who "save up" for a whole week in order to buy new video games and cases of beer (to enjoy in the comfort of their parents' basements, of course). Others think slightly more long term - a new car or work clothes, for example. But make no mistake about it: when you're not spending your entire paycheck on rent and food, it's more than a little tempting to spend it on frivolous things, rather than putting it all in the bank.
My suggestion to fellow twenty-somethings? Let the older generations stimulate the economy with their spending, because they already have the salaries for it. The rest of us need some time to save up for our own future.