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Yearning for Balance Views of Americans on Consumption, Materialism, and the Environment
July 1995
Prepared for the Merck Family Fund by The Harwood Group


This report, prepared by The Harwood Group, was commissioned by the Merck Family Fund as part of a broad, long-term effort to examine patterns of consumption in the United States and the conse-uences of those patterns for our society and the environment. The Fund's interest in the culture of consumerism and American lifestyles was sparked by a growing concern that the nation is on an unsustainable path - one that robs resources from future generations, generates far too much waste, and under mines community and family life for many Americans.

Yearning for Balance is a report of citizen perspectives on the issue of consumption. It is based on a series of focus group discussions and a national survey designed to allow Americans to frame the issue for themselves - to describe the concerns, beliefs, and values they bring to bear in thinking about the role of consumption in their lives and in our society.

In January, 1995, The Harwood Group conducted four focus groups across the country - in Dallas, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Frederick, Maryland - with Americans from all walks of life. We listened as people talked together about their concerns, and how those concerns are shaped by our patterns of consumption. We listened for the language people use, the values they emphasize, and the hopes, fears, and aspirations they share around this set of issues.

We then developed and conducted a national public opinion survey, a survey framed by the expressed concerns and language of citizens themselves, rather than solely that of experts or advocates. This survey, taken in February 1995, provides a statistical portrait of how Americans are thinking today about a wide range of issues connected to consumption, the environment, and the values and priorities of our society. Together, the survey and focus groups constitute a rough map of the political landscape that anyone who wishes to work on these issues should consider.

Four key findings emerged as we explored people's concerns in the focus groups and survey:

1. Americans believe our priorities are out of whack. People of all backgrounds share certain fundamental concerns about the values they see driving our society. They believe materialism, greed, and selfishness increasingly dominate American life, crowding out a more meaningful set of values centered on family, responsibility, and community. People express a strong desire for a greater sense of balance in their lives - not to repudiate material gain, but to bring it more into proportion with the non-material rewards of life.

2. Americans are alarmed about the future. People feel that the material side of the American Dream is spinning out of control, that the effort to keep up with the Joneses is increasingly unhealthy and destructive: "The Joneses is killing me," declared a man in one focus group. People are particularly concerned about the implications of our skewed priorities for children and future generations - they see worse trouble ahead if we fail to change course.

3. Americans are ambivalent about what to do. Most people express strong ambivalence about making changes in their own lives and in our society. They want to have financial security and live in material comfort, but their deepest aspirations are non-material ones. People also struggle to reconcile their condemnation of other AmericansU choices on consumption with their core belief in the freedom to live as we choose. Thus, while people may want to act on their concerns, they are paralyzed by the tensions and contradictions embedded in their own beliefs. In turn, they shy away from examining too closely not only their own behavior, but that of others.

4. Americans see the environment as connected to these concerns - in general terms. People perceive a connection between the amount we buy and consume and their concerns about environmental damage, but their understanding of the link is somewhat vague and general. People have not thought deeply about the ecological implications of their own lifestyles; yet there is an intuitive sense that our propensity for "more, more, more" is unsustainable.

People are struggling to find a vocabulary that captures their concerns. Indeed, one obstacle to moving forward on the issue of consumption is language. People share a sense of what the problem is but have trouble agreeing on what to call it. "Consumption" as a word has little public resonance. In the focus groups, most people eventually agreed on the word materialism as a useful catchall term. Others preferred terms such as consumerism, selfishness, and/or waste.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a latent consensus that we need to alter our priorities and behavior, but there are obvious tensions and ambivalence embedded in people's views. Americans want change, both to achieve more balanced lives and a cleaner environment for their children, but they are nervous about the implications of taking action and skeptical that others are willing to be part of the solution. To embark on a course of sustainable action, people will need an opportunity to discuss these issues with others, to work through their ambivalence, and to forge a sense of common purpose. The citizens we interviewed for this report have given us some starting points from which to begin that process.


When they look at the condition of American life today, people from all walks of life - rich and poor, men and women, all ages, all races - reach a remarkably similar conclusion: things are seriously out of whack. People describe a society at odds with itself and its own most important values. They see their fellow Americans growing increasingly atomized, selfish, and irresponsible; they worry that our society is losing its moral center. They believe our priorities are mixed up.

When people are asked to compare the values they apply as guiding principles in their own lives with the values that drive the rest of society, the gaps are striking (see Figure 1). Huge majorities of Americans cite responsibility, family life, and friendship as key guiding principles for themselves, with over 85% of survey respondents rating those values at eight or higher on a ten-point scale.

Yet respondents believe that their fellow Americans do not share these priorities: fewer than half believe that responsibility, family life, or friendship rate eight or higher for "most people in our society". People also describe large gaps between themselves and others on the importance of generosity and religious faith in their lives. Conversely, people feel that most Americans are more strongly guided by prosperity and wealth than they are themselves. These gaps reveal a dissonance in American life - a divergence between how people view their own priorities and those of the rest of society. Those surveyed do not feel the same kind of dissonance regarding other values, such as financial security and career success (Figure 2). While people tend to place significant importance on these values, they believe that their fellow Americans do as well. On these values, most people do not feel at odds with the society. Survey respondents seem to be saying that financial security is something all Americans need, but that our society's focus on wealth for its own sake is out of sync with their values.

Freedom, the highest-rated value, also has a narrow gap - indicating that people see their belief in freedom as shared by most of their fellow citizens. The prominence of freedom as a guiding principle for Americans has significant implications for people's willingness to act on consumption-related issues, as we shall see below.

The combination of wide gaps on certain values and narrow gaps on others suggests that people are not blindly critical of others values. They have no quarrel with other Americans who wish to be financially secure or achieve career success.

But in our society's rush to embrace such values as freedom, financial security, and pleasure, people seem to be saying, another set of vitally important values - including responsibility, family life, and friendship - is being squeezed out.

Too Much Focus on Material Things

Focus group participants agreed firmly that there is a tension between their own priorities and those of our society. They view this tension as underlying many of the other concerns they raised in the group discussions - from crime to family breakdown to the lack of community. When pressed on their views, people insist they are talking about a single core problem with many aspects, not a list of separate issues.

Many people used the phrase "too much of a good thing" to describe this core problem. The "good things," they said, are freedom and material abundance - people are proud of our freedom to do as we choose and the material achievements of our society. But, they said, we seem to go overboard with those good things; we carry them to excess. "Freedom and selfish can go together," explained a Dallas man. Many people agreed that we fail to use our wealth and freedom wisely; instead, said a Los Angeles man, "We spend so much money to do stupid things." A woman in Indianapolis summed it up this way: "We're misusing the abundance and freedom we have."

The label most frequently applied by focus group participants to this core problem was materialism. While not everyone agreed on that label, the word materialism resonated more strongly than any other; many said it captured their view of a society that carries things to excess, that wants too much. Across the board, people agreed that we live in a materialistic society. Fully 95% of survey respondents characterized "most" of their fellow Americans as materialistic, with a majority saying that most Americans are "very materialistic."

People are deeply concerned about this pervasive materialism: in the focus group discussions, they made clear their view that we have gone overboard as a society in emphasizing material gain over all other things. As a Frederick man described it, "We spend so much time rat-racing around, working our fool heads off, trying to get all those material things." A Los Angeles man saw it as "the lust for wealth and power that...we're taught to worship."

Many assert that excessive materialism is at the root of many of our social problems, such as crime and drugs. An Indianapolis woman explained that the desire to have material things drives people to crime: "[Crime] goes with the competitiveness also. They know they can sell the drugs for the money and get what they want." Others connect materialism, greed, and selfishness to such problems as family breakdown and the loss of community. A Frederick man explained the connection this way: "We've become far more materialistic. We...idolize it.... Things have become so important to us that things and the ac-uisition of things run our lives and our relations with others."

People's criticism of our materialistic society extends to behavior as well as attitudes. In the survey, 82% agreed that most of us buy and consume far more than we need, while only 15% disagreed (Figure 3). People seem particularly concerned about what they see as a tendency to want everything now rather than waiting or saving for it: 91% agreed that the "buy now, pay later" attitude causes many of us to consume more than we need. This concern was expressed forcefully in the focus groups, including an Indianapolis woman who explained, "People want things. They don't want to wait. They...go right out and get it, even if [they] can't afford it." A Los Angeles man agreed that "we buy things we really don't need."

People seem particularly distressed at the degree of materialism they see in America's children and youth. Indeed, 86% of those surveyed agreed that "today's youth are too focused on buying and consuming things" (Figure 3). This level of concern held steady across all demographic groups, regardless of age, income, or whether people have children of their own; and African-Americans were near-unanimous in their agreement (94% agreed). Our out-of-whack values, people believe, are especially out of whack for our kids.

Struggling With Ambivalence

Despite these concerns, Americans are ambivalent in their views on materialism. This ambivalence should not be confused with indifference people feel strongly, but they are torn between opposing points of view. Part of this ambivalence has to do with people's appreciation for the good things material wealth can bring. Thus, while most people in the survey believe we buy and consume too much, just over half of those surveyed also agreed that "material wealth is part of what makes this country great" (Figure 3). "Why should a person live in a shack when he can afford a house?" asked an Indianapolis man.

The other point of tension about how much we buy and consume has to do with the freedom to choose how we live. While people are upset about the choices they see others make, they say they are reluctant to criticize those choices openly; it goes against the grain of their belief in individual freedom. A Dallas woman concluded, "If you have it and if that's the way you want to spend it, fine." A Frederick woman agreed: "Everybody chooses what they do with their money."

People are struggling to come to grips with their conflicting feelings - the deep concern that our society has gone overboard in our focus on material things, combined with an appreciation of material comfort, and a reluctance to impinge on anyone's freedom.

For good or ill - and people clearly believe it is both "materialistic attitudes and behavior are seen as pervasive in our society. "[The American Dream is to] live better than your neighbor.... Everybody wants to be on top," stated a man in Indianapolis. "That's just the American way," declared a Frederick man, "I'm making the money, so let me buy this car." In the survey, 89% agreed that buying and consuming is "the American way." The tension between this pervasive emphasis on consumption and the values people actually profess to care about has become the elephant in the living room of American life - the phenomenon which we all seem to know is there, yet is so big we are afraid to talk about it. Politicians do not mention the subject; little appears on the op-ed pages; pundits and civic leaders are mostly silent.

Yet, when Americans are asked what is driving so many of our society's troubles, they say that our values are out of whack "that we value things too much and people too little." A Frederick man put it this way: "I think we're at the point where we value things more than we value people. And the relationships, the relations that people used to have among each other's broken down. We've replaced them with things."


Americans intuitively believe that our current ethic of "more, more, more" is unsustainable in both human and environmental terms that we cannot go on this way without serious repercussions. They see environmental degradation as yet another negative conse-uence of our skewed priorities.

But beyond a general sense that we are on the wrong track, public understanding of the links between consumption and the environment remain somewhat fuzzy. More familiar concepts such as waste, pollution, and recycling are seen as more directly related to environmental problems and solutions. This research suggests the intersection of consumption, materialism, and the environment is understood and felt most deeply when people think about children and future generations.

Present Course is Unsustainable

Americans' level of concern about environmental issues is high: 86% of survey respondents say they are concerned about the -uality of our environment, with 57% "very concerned." When they think about what is causing environmental problems, it is clear that people see a connection to the way we live. For example, 93% of respondents agree - 40% strongly - that an underlying cause of environmental problems is that "the way we live produces too much waste" (Figure 4). And 91% agreed - 48% strongly - that an underlying cause is that "we focus too much on getting what we want now and not enough on future generations" - a higher level of strong agreement than any other suggested cause.

Many focus group participants also described the way we live today as unsustainable and destructive to the environment. An Indianapolis man said, "At some point in time, it's going to come back and force us to [change]...because otherwise we're not going to survive, because there's too much pollution or the ozone layer is going to be destroyed." A Los Angeles man agreed, "The earth is going to give out. We're not going to be able to sustain this."

Indeed, their perception that our present course is destructive leads most Americans to believe that our lifestyles must change. According to 88% of the survey respondents, "protecting the environment will re-uire most of us to make major changes in the way we live" (Figure 5). Furthermore, when placing our country's consumption in a global context (Figure 5), 67% of respondents agreed that Americans cause many of the world's environmental problems because we consume more resources and produce more waste than anyone in the world. And 60% said that if everybody in China, India, and Latin America consumed as much as Americans do, that would destroy the environment. People seem to grasp intuitively that the planet does not have enough clean air, water, and other resources to support billions of Chinese, Indians and others living the material side of the American Dream.

If people agree on the need for change, what kind of change are they talking about? Many Americans argue that in the long run, solving environmental problems is about living by a different set of values. As noted above, the underlying cause to which more people strongly agree than any other is that "we focus too much on getting what we want now and not enough on future generations" (Figure 4). In addition, 58% of respondents believe it would make a "big difference" in helping the environment "if we taught our children to be less materialistic" - outranking pollution laws, reduced packaging, and reducing consumption (Figure 6).

Focus group participants also emphasized the importance of values. For example, when asked what she thought had to change to protect the environment, a woman in Indianapolis answered: "Moral values...[that] we're teaching our children. That way they'll teach their children and pass it on - what's important, not so much how much money you have or what you do with it." A Los Angeles man agreed that values are central: "If you don't see it in yourself, then you don't see that your desire for creating chemicals that are destroying the ozone.... It's our funky value system that says more, and more, and more...that tends to have a really deleterious effect on the -uality of life and on the planet."

"Consumption" Does Not Jump Out at First

Despite their belief that our values and lifestyle are deeply implicated in environmental problems, when asked about the environment Americans tend to gravitate first to issues traditionally associated with "environmentalism". For example, in Figure 4, other than the concern about future generations, the factors that are viewed as most significant - such as overpackaging, recycling, and waste - seem to be those that are most directly linked with the environment in the popular media. Broader underlying trends such as population and consumption lag behind.

The focus group discussions shed some light on how people eventually piece these concerns together. Initial discussion on the environment revolved around toxic dumps, bad drinking water, corporate polluters, and overpackaging. Only a few mentioned on their own that consumption is part of the problem, such as the Indianapolis woman who explained it this way: "We want all these things, and so we say the heck with how many plastic cups we throw away.... If we lived a simpler life, we wouldn't have all the garbage."

Once someone described the connection, then it usually resonated with the rest of the group; they were quick to agree that environmental damage is another negative consequence of our propensity to buy and consume so much. A Dallas man, for example, agreed that "the more cars you have, the more they're going to wind up in the junkyard." And a Frederick woman worried about our level of consumption spreading to other countries: "I think there's a big problem with that because...if all the other countries would start doing what we're doing with the metals, the oil, the gas, the pollution would be so great.... They would...start to drain what resources are in the earth and we would be without it."

The links between the environment and our patterns of consumption make intuitive sense to people, but "consumption" is not the word that jumps out at first. Americans are unaccustomed to thinking about the environment in those terms. But once the door is opened, people make the connection -uickly. The environment then fits easily into a broader discussion of their concerns about the way we consume and the values that drive our behavior.

Waiting for Someone Else to Act

Similarly, when people discuss how they could act to protect the environment, reducing consumption is not initially at the forefront of their minds. As the survey indicates (Figure 6), people believe recycling, anti-pollution laws, and reduced packaging would make more of a difference than reducing consumption. Initial suggestions in the focus groups tend to be along similar lines: Renforce the laws they have" (Dallas man), or "recycling more" (Indianapolis woman).

Indeed, once the discussion moves beyond recycling - the one action people agree they can take now - most people seem to be waiting for somebody else to act first: their neighbors, big corporations, or the government. "Find a different way, a less polluting way of producing something or a way of disposing of a waste product," suggested a Frederick man. Similarly, an Indianapolis man argued that "the individual can't do it. It's got to be the companies and the countries. Individuals can't do it," he repeated.

This is clearly a significant tension in people's views. On the one hand, as noted above, 88% of survey respondents believe that protecting the environment will require "major changes in the way we live" (Figure 5). Yet people resist examining their own lifestyles too closely, with only 51% agreeing that "my own buying habits have a negative effect on the environment." In the focus groups, people recognized the contradiction in their thinking but were not sure what to do about it. An Indianapolis man explained, "We can all sit around here and talk till this time tomorrow about what should be done [about the environment], but would we do it?... It goes back to selfishness - "I don't want to waste my time doing that."

Despite their belief that our lifestyles must change, many people are skeptical of each other's willingness to take action. Lacking a collective sense that we are moving forward together, people sit and wait for someone else to act first.

The Vocal Minority

Based on the focus groups, there seems to be a vocal minority of Americans who see little need for action on the environment. Some believe that environmental problems are exaggerated, such as the Dallas man who declared, "The planet is going to survive no matter what we do.... There's always been pollution, just different types of pollution." According to a Frederick man, "we're better than we used to be.... Twenty-five years ago...they told us it would take a thousand years before anything would grow in [Lake Erie]. You know, there's fish there now."

Others are looking to technology as an environmental savior. "They're going to make breakthroughs.... We're not going to be stuck in a gasoline society forever," said a Frederick man confidently. An Indianapolis man agreed that "the solution to the whole thing will make your life easier and cheaper and it develops. I don't think simplifying your life is going to do one bit." While these people are unlikely to be engaged on this set of issues, they seem to represent a small, mostly male, minority of citizens. On the survey, only 17% of men and 6% of women disagreed that protecting the environment will re-uire most of us to make major changes in the way we live.


People's concern about the priorities of American society today intensifies when they look to the future. They believe our skewed values are destructive of family life, having an especially negative effect on our children. They fear that this current trend, left unchecked, will lead to even greater problems of greed and social fragmentation as the younger generation rises to adulthood.

Americans have a sense that our excessive materialism and selfishness has made us short-sighted. They say we have failed to consider the needs of future generations: the values we are teaching them and the kind of world we are leaving them.

Kids are a Focus of Concern

On every question dealing with children and future generations, survey respondents registered overwhelming concern. For example, 73% of Americans were "very concerned" about the values that children are learning from their parents, with another 19% saying they are "somewhat concerned" (Figure 7). The full depth and emotion of people's concerns regarding children could be heard in the focus group discussions. "The values...we're teaching our children... Parents need to get down and do their job," said a Dallas woman. A Frederick woman observed that parents are "constantly on the go. They're not spending time together as a family, not really family any more."

The result, people say, is a generation of children focused on acquiring things instead of on more important values. "They're being self-indulged," explained a Frederick man; "a lot of kids, once you get the $150 pair of shoes, then it's the $300 leather jacket, then it's this and this." An Indianapolis woman agreed: "The more they get, the more they want." The survey shows how widespread these views are (Figure 7): 86% of survey respondents agreed with the statement "Today's youth are too focused on buying and consuming things." Also, 58% believe that most American children are "very materialistic," while only 6% believe they are not materialistic.

While parents are held primarily responsible for the children's misplaced values, focus group participants also blamed larger forces in society, particularly the media. They see children - and parents - bombarded with messages that reinforce a materialistic view of life. "[The message is,] if you buy this, you'll be happy," explained a Los Angeles man; a man in the same group added, It's "all hail Donald Trump." According to a Frederick man, children are the most vulnerable to these messages of greed - with serious conse-uences: "Kids are just getting bombarded with all this...stuff on television, and it's so expensive, and it's caused them to do all kinds of crazy things to get these types of things... [like] a kid getting shot for his sneakers."

This concern about children seems to grow as people think ahead to the America of tomorrow. "With each passing year it gets worse," said an Indianapolis man. People are alarmed about the direction in which we seem to be headed - they believe we have become too focused on the here and now, without thinking for the-- Hit future. "We're not going to be able to sustain this. We're going to have nothing but chaos," worried a Los Angeles man. A woman in Frederick explained why we need to change course: "We want instant gratification. We want it now and we're not worried about what's going to happen tomorrow. And I think...we have to worry about what's going to happen tomorrow for our children's sake."

This is the point at which people most strongly connect what is happening to our values with their concerns about the environment - the link is that we are too focused on material things and failing to look toward future generations. As a Los Angeles woman said, "When we talk about our children and what's better for them, I think of the earth, what we're doing to our's bad." The survey confirms that people see this connection: as noted above, 90% agreed (48% "strongly") that an underlying cause of environmental problems is that "we focus too much on getting what we want now and not enough on future generations"

The question of children and future generations seems to be a crucial turning point for this whole set of issues around consumption, materialism, and the environment. Once it is on the table, people tend to become more emotionally engaged in the discussion. Worried about the future, they start talking more emphatically about the need to change.


Americans are ready to talk about changing our priorities. Our present course alarms people - they see only worse trouble ahead. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, they believe our priorities must change - away from material things and toward family, community, and more enduring values.

Given time to think and talk together, people can begin to describe what they are looking for, but find it hard to imagine how to get from here to there. People are struggling with deep ambivalence about their own values - decrying materialism in our society, while simultaneously recognizing it within themselves. Fearful of losing ground or falling behind, they are suspicious of calls for sacrifice or "giving things up."

Still, this research suggests that people do share a deeper set of aspirations around these issues - a yearning to live in greater harmony with their own values. A productive conversation about change will depend on tapping those aspirations for a better way of living.

Yearning for Balance

Watch television for a day and you will get a clear picture of what Americans supposedly want in life: new cars, a big house, stylish clothes, the latest gadgets - and of course, fresh breath. Yet when Americans describe what they are looking for in life, their aspirations rarely center on material goods.

In the survey, people were asked to rate what would make them more satisfied with their lives. The responses were striking: non-material aspirations consistently outranked material ones by huge margins (Figure 8). Note that these ratings were on an absolute scale - people could easily have rated everything high. But they did not. Only small fractions said they would be significantly more satisfied with life if they had a nicer car, bigger house, or nicer things in their home. But a majority of Americans would be much more satisfied if they were able to spend more time with family and friends (66% rating 8 or higher on a scale of 1 to 10) and if there was less stress in their lives (56% rating 8 or higher). Also, nearly half (47%) would be much more satisfied if they felt they were doing more to make a difference in their community. These non-material aspirations are similar in nature to the aforementioned values on which people feel a tension with society (Figure 1) - they have to do with family and human connections rather than material achievement.

What prevents people from satisfying these aspirations? What is keeping them away from family and friends, and causing stress in their lives? Trying to keep up or to get ahead, they say. "I can't get it all to fit in right now as it is and keep it all straight. I've got do and I can't get it all done," commented a Los Angeles man. A woman in Los Angeles also feels squeezed: "I work all the time. It's hard for me to have any spare time." With no time to spare, our non-material needs - such as family and community - become harder to fulfill. A Dallas woman explained, "That goes back to the fast pace because both parents are working and you have all this money but no time to slow down and enjoy it."

Despite the cost in time and stress, many people say they feel stuck on this treadmill - striving for material goals that seem ever-harder to attain. "You have to work harder in order to stay the same as what you were before or get ahead," complained a Frederick man. But others question whether we need to be pushing so hard, or if we are choosing to do so. A Frederick woman wondered, "Why is it we need all the extra?... We do not need it. It's only that we want it." A man in Frederick explained, "We think we need it. A lot of the stuff we gather around us...we don't really need. Still we buy it."

Much of that feeling of wanting more seems to come from comparing ourselves to others. "It's hard though, because you see other people who have that new car or go out and they can buy their clothes at Jacobson's instead of Target," an Indianapolis woman explained. A Los Angeles man agreed: "We go out to keep up with the guy that's across the street." People seem to believe this competition is unhealthy and unnecessary, but they get caught up in it nonetheless. A Frederick man said, "Don't let the Joneses get you down.... You know, if the Joneses got a new car, I've got to go out and buy one." He wryly added, "The Joneses is killing me."

Perhaps surprisingly, then, fully 70% of survey respondents said they are satisfied with their personal economic situation. Only among those with household incomes under $10,000 does a majority say they are dissatisfied. Most focus group participants agree that money and possessions are not the main things lacking in their lives. "We have an abundance of most everything," declared an Indianapolis man.

What we heard instead is that people seem to yearn for things money cannot buy: more time, less stress, a sense of balance. "You find out that the materialistic things aren't as important as your families," mused an Indianapolis man. A Dallas woman made a similar comparison: "What's more important, that you stay home with your child or that you get a bigger house? Or do you find someplace in the middle?"

This yearning for balance is apparent in the survey results: 67% agreed with the statement "I would like to have more balance in my life." Young adults aged 18-29 (78%) and people with children at home (74%) seem particularly eager to achieve a sense of balance. Others prefer the term "simplify" to describe what they are looking for, such as the Indianapolis man who said, "You've got to try and simplify." In the survey, 62% agreed with the statement, "I would like to simplify my life." This idea appeals more to the baby-boom generation than to others, with 72% of those aged 40-49 agreeing with the statement.

Another indication that material abundance is failing to fulfill our deepest yearnings comes when people compare themselves to previous generations. In the survey (Figure 9), 71% said they have more possessions than their parents did at their age, 66% are more financially secure, and 61% live in a nicer house or apartment. Yet only 49% described themselves as happier. "When my parents grew up," said a Los Angeles man, "they weren't so much 'I want this, I want this'....They just wanted to be comfortable... A lot of people...[say] 'I need this' and it's really not a need." A Dallas woman agreed that material success is not fulfilling: "In the long run, it's whether or not youU're satisfied.... I've met a lot of people that make triple what I'm making...they're always still seeking for something and the other. They're kind of empty."

Ready to Talk about Changing

This sense of imbalance and dissatisfaction runs deep enough among Americans that people want to talk about making changes in the way we live. A woman in Indianapolis declared, "People have to look back and say...enough is enough and get away from the materialism." A man in Frederick agreed that "we have to try [to change]. Even if two of us started.... Somehow it has to get going." People want to change our priorities, to change the direction in which we are headed.

People's readiness at least to consider real changes in their lifestyles is evident in the survey. Figure 10 shows people's responses to a list of possible actions Americans could take to reduce the amount we consume and the level of materialism in our society. Respondents had two options to reject each of these actions: they could say it was a bad idea, or say it was a good idea but they were not ready to act. Yet large majorities in each case said, "That's a good idea; we should move ahead with it." They say they are ready to watch less television than they do now; to spend less and save more; to drive their cars less. They are willing to buy fewer toys for their children and grandchildren, and want to spend more time working on community service and less time shopping.

Again, the changes people support echo the values to which they aspire (Figure 1) rather than the ethic of consumerism they see dominating our society. Unhappy with our materialistic way of life, people clearly are ready to talk about changing our priorities. They would like to have our society move away from greed and excess, and toward a way of life more centered on values, community, and family.

But when it comes to actually making that change happen, a number of obstacles arise.

Limited to Individual Action

One barrier standing before people is a difficulty imagining how such a change could happen - beyond their own individual choices and households. Individual change is easy to envisage. "The whole thing just gets down to setting your priorities individually.... We just have to set priorities that are best for us," offered a Dallas man. A Frederick man agreed: "We have a choice as to handle all those things. If you want to find a way to get unstressed, you can do that. If you want to slow your pace, you can do that." In fact, many people have already taken steps to reorder their priorities (see box, p. 17).

The Downshifters

It appears that millions of Americans are already "downshifting" - they have chosen to scale back their salaries and lifestyles to reflect a different set of priorities. Twenty-eight percent of the survey respondents said that in the last five years, they had voluntarily made changes in their life which resulted in making less money - not including those who had taken a regularly scheduled retirement. The most common changes were reducing work hours, changing to a lower-paying job, and -uitting work to stay at home. It is unclear from this research whether 28% is a historically high or low figure, or if the proportion of downshifters has remained fairly constant over the years.

Downshifters offer a wide range of reasons for making these changes in their lives. In the survey, the most fre-uently cited reasons are: wanting a more balanced life (68% of downshifters); wanting more time (66%); and wanting a less stressful life (63%). About half (53%) of the downshifters did so to spend more time caring for their children. Downshifters are somewhat younger and more likely to have children than the population as a whole; 60% of them are women.

Downshifters spoke up in the focus groups as well, such as the Indianapolis man who recounted:

"I'm whole sold for simplifying your life, because that's what I just [did] . I left a job making three times the money that I'm making now; but by the same token, I've got more time with my family. I just had a little boy. I want to watch him grow up . I've got more time with my family, less stress."

A Los Angeles woman also described her decision to change her priorities:

"As I started climbing the corporate ladder, I really decided that I was hating it more and more, and I was bringing more and more work home . I was already hiring people to clean my clothes, watch my kid, and now clean my house. And I changed careers and got paid less. I sold the car and I bought a `65 Ford Falcon. And I'm much happier. I work two blocks from home and I'm doing something that I really enjoy."

Although many say they miss the extra income they once had, most downshifters describe themselves as being happy with the changes they made. "It's been a sacrifice, our pay was cut in half," said a Dallas woman who decided to leave her job, "butI I think it's the best choice that can happen, because you're with your children and they're in a loving environment." The Indianapolis man also felt he had made a good choice: "I'm much more content. I may not have the extra pocket money I had before, but I'm telling you, it's worth it."

On the survey, 87% of downshifters describe themselves as happy with the change, with 35% saying they do not miss the extra income (Figure 8). On other survey questions, downshifters are more likely than others to say that they are happier than their parents at the same age, and that they are more involved in their community - but they also tend to be less satisfied with their economic situation.

But the problem of materialism is as much a collective as an individual one - it is society that is out of whack, people say. And yet people cannot seem to describe how a more collective kind of change could take place. In a fragmented, atomized society, people are unsure where and how to begin; they seem fearful that if they act, others will not join them. A Frederick man described the sense of paralysis: "As an individual you don't really know what can be done about it, and how it can be fixed." A Dallas woman also feels stuck: "I'm not sure how you do it or how it would be received."

When given a list of policy changes that might help the environment and reduce the level of materialism in our society, survey respondents thought several policies were good ideas, but many doubted if they would make a big difference. 52% thought that limiting the amount of advertising allowed on prime-time television was a good idea and would make a difference while another 28% liked the idea but didn't think it would lead to positive change. 49% agreed that changing the tax structure to reduce taxes on savings and increase taxes on consumption was a good idea and would make a difference while another 24% liked the idea but were skeptical about its impact.

When people lack a sense that collective change is possible, even individual change then begins to seem ineffectual. "It seems like such a big problem," explained an Indianapolis woman, "how's one person going to be able to do it?" Thus, some conclude, it is pointless to act at all.

Yet others are hopeful that change is possible, and insist that changing our priorities is necessary - that we must try. "We can do it," declared a Frederick woman, "because so many of us have.... Some people have come to the realization that it's serious." A Los Angeles man agreed: "As an individual, I have the ability to change my behavior, the way I'm approaching something or doing something today and to make a difference." The question is whether people can find a way to reach out and work through these issues together. For now, people are skeptical of that. A Frederick man lamented, "You can't get everybody around the table. They can say it, but to get them to do that...."

Need to Work Through Ambivalence

The other crucial obstacle to moving ahead with new priorities is simple but profound: Americans are deeply ambivalent about wealth and material gain. While they decry the crass materialism of our society and its consequences, they also want "success" for themselves and their children.

Most believe in upward mobility as part of the American Dream. "Making money is very important to me," declared a Dallas woman, explaining: "That's probably our number one goal, to be honest, so that we will have enough money so that we can have children." An Indianapolis man also stressed the importance of providing for our children: "Most people know that they help their family succeed.... I graduated from college; I want my daughter to go to graduate school." So she can have more money and more things? "Yes. That's what she wants."

When people think about changing priorities, they become nervous - afraid that changing priorities means giving up their standard of living. For example, when survey respondents were asked about the idea of making the trade-off between money and time - spending less time working and making less money than they do now - 56% did not think it was a good idea (Figure 10). Only 18% were ready to move ahead with it (another 21% thought it was a good idea, but were not ready to do it). As a Frederick woman noted, many people feel they cannot cut back: "It depends on how much money you have whether you can slow down or not."

People seem to be caught in a paradox: they believe in the American Dream, but it keeps expanding - so that even as they gain more possessions and higher levels of wealth, they feel like they are losing ground. A woman in Dallas explained: "The American Dream has - I think it's expanding.... Twenty to 30 years ago...a married couple would settle on a certain price range of house, and I think you take that same couple today and you're going to up it $50,000, $100,000 just to fit in with the city that you're living in.... But to get the house, the family, the education, it all takes money." As the American Dream expands, people feel squeezed, constantly running harder to keep up with their neighbors - and to help their kids keep up. "I've got to get all the extra overtime I can get," said an Indianapolis woman, "because I want to have this for my children.... Somebody down the block got the new Jordans [sneakers] and my kids want the Jordans too, and I want them to have them."

According to the survey, most Americans feel squeezed: 53% said they "spend nearly all of [their] money on the basic necessities of life," while 69% believe nearly all of their money is spent on "things that are necessary to live comfortably" (Figure 12). Those results are difficult to square with the response to other questions: 77% of these same respondents agreed that "If I wanted to, I could choose to buy and consume less than I do." (Also, as noted earlier, 70% declared themselves "satisfied" with their economic situation.) As the definition of "living comfortably" expands, the squeeze tightens - even as people recognize that they could live with less.

There is a real tension embedded here - rooted in a sense of ambivalence about how much we want and how much we need. As a Frederick woman said, "I don't need it all and I know I don't need it, but it's so hard to let go of it." People will need to discuss and resolve that ambivalence before most will consider major changes in the way they work, buy and consume.

Freedom and Responsibility

Another obstacle to change is rooted in the very strong American belief in freedom and choice; people are strongly opposed to impinging upon the freedom of themselves and others to live as they choose. Furthermore, many are reluctant even to -uestion the choices made by their fellow Americans, even when those choices offend their own values. "It sounds greedy, but if it's your money and you can afford it, I guess that's all," shrugged an Indianapolis woman. A Frederick woman agreed: "If you have the money, you're entitled to [spend it]."

Yet people also worry about where this laissez-faire attitude is leading us. "As the years have gone by, now that there's so much available...people don't know when to stop and draw the line," said a Dallas woman. People's love of freedom clashes with their yearning for a more responsible and balanced society.

Despite their criticism of others' materialism and greed, people are reluctant to say anything about it, to hold one another responsible. "We have a social responsibility to do certain things to help move things along," said a Frederick man. Yet they have difficulty applying this principle beyond the doors of their own households; they don't know how to hold one another responsible anymore. "People have either lost interest [or] their community doesn't help," said a Dallas woman. Another Dallas woman explained what seems to have changed: "You used to feel responsible for your neighbors and friends. We don't anymore...people are...afraid. They just don't want to get involved." A critical challenge for moving ahead on this issue will be to find a way for people to come out of their houses and talk about what is going on - about the values they want their communities to live by.


This research and other recent work by The Harwood Group indicates that engaging the American public in a productive dialogue about this set of issues will not be a simple task. People are upset about the course we are on, but find it difficult to imagine how that course could be altered. Beset by a whirlwind of change - economic, technological, cultural, political - people feel increasingly disconnected and atomized from one another. They have lost their bearings; they feel cast adrift. Racing around, frazzled, exhausted, people feel they barely have time to stop and think about their own priorities, much less discuss them with others. The easiest thing is to turn on the T.V., close the blinds, and hope that things are different in the morning.

Yet this research identified some openings as well - some opportunities for moving forward. The degree of consensus uncovered by the survey and focus groups about the nature of the problem we face is an essential ingredient for creating broadly-supported, meaningful, and sustainable change. People from all walks of life share similar concerns about our culture of materialism and excess, and the conse-uences for future generations. Fundamentally, they agree that "we overdo it and buy too much," as a Dallas woman said. Many are surprised and excited to find that others share their views.

The challenge now is to find ways for people to move forward together - to create a public conversation around the issues of consumption, materialism, and the environment that can lead to real change. Here are five principles that emerge from this research for creating that conversation:

People want to talk about values. Americans told us in the survey and focus groups that they share a deep and abiding concern about the core values driving our society; they believe that materialism, greed, and excess characterize the way we live and underlie many of our worst social ills. Citizens are not ready to be lectured on consumption, but they are ready to be engaged. They can be engaged by framing the issue in terms of their fundamental concerns.

Children and future generations are a crucial entry point. Every time children or future generations were mentioned in the focus groups, interest and engagement in the conversation perked up; every time they were mentioned in the survey, huge majorities registered strong views. Children are ground zero on this issue - their values and their future are at stake, and people are trying, unsuccessfully, to envision a better world for their kids. This issue offers an opportunity to help people create such a vision and to act on it.

Tap the yearning for balance. The frenzied, excessive quality of American life today has left people yearning for balance in their lives and in our society. They feel that an essential side of life centered on family, friends and community has been pushed aside by the dominant ethic of "more, more, more," and they are looking for ways to restore some e-uilibrium. A successful public engagement effort will find a way to tap this desire for balance.

People need to work through their ambivalence. People feel strongly ambivalent about our society's preoccupation with material goods. Yet while condemning greed and excess, they admit to a little greed of their own; understandably, they prefer wealth to poverty and wish to live in some degree of material comfort. The third point in this triangle of ambivalence is a strong belief in freedom of choice and an aversion to tell or be told how to live. If people are forced to take sides before they are ready, this ambivalence will lead inevitably to polarized debate and then paralysis. Instead, any public effort must offer people room to explore what they think and what they are willing to do. Only then will people be able to tap their desire for balance and creating a brighter future for their children.

People are looking for a sense of possibility. People associate the public discourse today with acrimony, divisiveness, and gridlock; most do not want any part of that. This issue offers an opportunity to move out of that paradigm by uncovering people's latent sense that a better way is possible. When they hear each other describe common concerns about misplaced values, children, and the environment, and have a chance to explain their longing for a more balanced life, a spark appears - people begin to imagine the possibility of change. Blowing that spark into a significant flame will re-uire demonstrating a sense of movement - celebrating small successes, telling stories about where and how the ground is shifting on consumption and materialism, and helping people to discover a role for themselves in making it happen.


The research for this report was conducted in two stages: a series of focus group discussions held with a cross-section of Americans in January 1995; and a national telephone survey conducted in February 1995.

Focus groups provide citizens with the opportunity to think about various issues and topics over the course of a discussion, to talk about their views and feelings in their own words, and to describe the underlying assumptions behind their views. Moreover, this research techni-ue helps to identify the language that citizens use to talk about specific topics; and focus groups allow citizens to react to new information and ideas during the course of a discussion.

Each of the four focus group discussions conducted for this study comprised approximately twelve adults, representing a cross-section of demographic factors including race, age, gender, income, education, employment status, and presence of children at home. The breakdown of focus group participants by race/ethnicity, age, gender, and income was approximately: 71% white/Anglo, 23% African-American, 6% Latino; 19% aged 18-29, 29% aged 30-39, 15% aged 40-49, 17% aged 50-64, 21% aged 65 and over; 54% male, 46% female; 13% with annual household income under $20,000; 37% earning $20-35,000; 23% earning $35-50,000; and 27% earning over $50,000.

Focus group participants were recruited by a professional public opinion research firm in each location. Each group discussion lasted for about two hours and was led by a trained moderator from The Harwood Group. Participants were promised that their names would not appear in this report in order to protect their privacy. Focus groups were conducted in the following communities:

Frederick, Maryland January 10, 1995 Indianapolis, Indiana January 12, 1995 Dallas, Texas January 16, 1995 Los Angeles, California January 17, 1995

The nationwide random-sample survey of 800 adults aged 18 years and older was conducted by telephone from February 20 to March 1, 1995. The survey was designed by The Harwood Group in consultation with the Merck Family Fund, Dr. Juliet Schor of Harvard University, and other expert commentators. It was fielded by the Communications Center, Inc., of Washington, D.C. Two of the 34 survey -uestions were asked of only 763 out of 800 respondents due to a typographical error. The margin of sampling error for the entire survey, including those two -uestions, is plus or minus 4%. The margin of error for smaller subsamples within the study is higher; for example, the margin of error for women (N = 409) is plus or minus 5%. Each interview lasted an average of 24 minutes.

The responses to the survey were weighted by race, income, and age to more precisely mirror the actual proportions within the population according to 1993 data obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau. Complete copies of the survey results may be obtained from the Merck Family Fund at 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 500, Takoma Park, Maryland 20912.


The research was conducted and this report prepared by The HarHarwood Group, a public issues research and innovations firm located in Bethesda, Maryland. The firm works with private- and public-sector organizations to figure out the essence of complex public challenges and how to take effective action. The firm provides a range of research and consulting services as well as education, tools, and training.

The Harwood Group's clients include: Pew Global Stewardship Initiative; National Religious Partnership for the Environment; Great Plains Partnership; Minnesota Department of Natural Resources; Kettering Foundation; American Society of Newspaper Editors; U S WEST Foundation; Georgia Health Decisions; Pew Partnership for Civic Change; The Wichita Eagle; Joyce Foundation.


The Merck Family Fund commissioned this public opinion research through a charitable grant to the Tides Foundation. The goals of the Merck Family Fund are to:

  • maintain, restore, and enhance the natural environment and support programs that will sustain a healthy planet for future generations.
  • address the root causes of problems faced by socially and economically disadvantaged people in the United States.

During the past two years, the Fund has taken a leadership role in examining the ways in which Americans produce, distribute, and consume goods. This probing was stimulated by alarm at the international level about the disproportionate share of global resources consumed by the United States and other northern, industrialized nations. With less than five percent of the world's population, the United States consumes nearly 30 percent of the planet's resources. In many ways, our society has grown beyond acceptable environmental limits, and yet the American lifestyle is now the uncontested global model. This poses a paradox that technology alone will not resolve.

The work and spend cycle seems to be a prere-uisite for achieving a "satisfactory" lifestyle and takes a toll on family and community life. Recent reports of widespread exhaustion and depression among American workers reflect a growing concern that the American dream, as currently defined, may be increasingly unattainable. The Fund is supporting a variety of initiatives to promote sustainable production and consumption, thwart the commercialization of the culture, encourage balanced lifestyles, and rekindle a sense of community.

For more information contact:

Merck Family Fund
6930 Carroll Avenue Suite 500
Takoma Park, MD 20912
Fax: 301.270.2973
e-mail: [email protected]

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