Recently the John Tesh radio show did a segment on teens and tweens influenced family buying habits, how today’s kids are watching TV at 3 on the computer by 5, if they are 8 they want to act 10, 12 they want to act 14. Also, because they are adolescents they haven’t learned that they don’t need 14 kinds of lip-gloss, the latest fashion trend or the latest electronic gadget. In the course of handing out advice to parents such as monitoring your own spending and gadget craving habits, as your kids will model themselves after the behavior you exhibit, he mentioned dontbuyit.com a site dedicated to this curbing of so called consumerism. While this may all sound well and good as greed seems to have taken over the country, there is more to this than meets the eye; likewise, this may have been a 3 minute radio spot but it speaks to larger trends across the nation. And this trend has some inherent flaws, the biggest being that a majority of American spending and over spending is due to a focus on material goods rather than things with intrinsic value like character and relationships; when in actuality, the bulk of American spending on such items is made in the constant battle to keep up with the technology we need to live and function.
Example, how many people had to buy cable after the digital transition in the summer of 2009, even persons who purchased a digital television, converter box, outdoor antenna or some combination of the above, often found cable was the only way to view all of the channels they had previously or to get any TV at all. For those who think people can live without it, what about basic news and weather in a home with no internet and no newspaper subscription. Many working in public relations, television or writing commentary for any number of blogs from fashion, to entertainment to politics may be using their TV along with web sources to do their jobs. How about the forward thinking Americans who saw buying a digital TV not only as an investment in their viewing pleasure but as an investment in the next 20 years of TV, buying something that would be well worth the hundreds of dollars for the decades of use? Lets break it down even further, how many people with a broken TV will walk into an electronics store or that department of a retail chain like Wal-Mart and be greeted with this overpriced technology, analogs almost nowhere to be found?
Unfortunately for the technology shy among us that is just the tip of a very big iceberg. The show segment posed a rhetorical question to parents out there asking if they were the type to always need the newest electronic gadget or phone upgrade, and that if so, their kids were likely to be that way too. That may very well be true, but the fact is that many people have cell phones because they have to either for work or to use in an emergency. Most people that own a cell phone own it out of necessity, because the payphone has all but gone the way of the dodo. Without a cell phone people can’t call for cabs from laundry mats, call a tow truck for an older car with a flat or some other issue and doesn’t have an onboard system like On-Star, persons who cannot afford AAA.
Cell phones become vital for those without a vehicle who walk potentially dangerous streets in order to run basic errands, vital for those with disabilities who must depend on cabs or prearranged special bus services designed to meet their needs that may need to be contacted in order to find out where their ride is. Having a kid, tween or teen without a cell phone is the social equivalent of still being without a home phone in the 70’s 80’s or 90’s. As to the continuous upgrades, people may be provided with them courtesy of their employer as part of a promotion or for use on a special project; others feel compelled to get the latest communication tools to be effective in the workplace, to keep up, to stay ahead, even in an effort to insure they still have a job.
In addition what the segment and those who support the current trend portrays is somewhat misleading, not only in terms of them being seen as unnecessary but too expensive for most Americans. Pay as you go phones like the Trac-phone and the go-phone provide inexpensive ways to get common features such as voicemail, texting, even internet access without a monthly bill; you simply pay so many dollars for so many minutes of talk time. Purchase of other applications such as internet access and downloads of news, weather or ringtones is done for a specified amount of minutes. Persons going with traditional phone carriers can use phones and plans designed for kids and tweens where parents can add or subtract phone minutes and when there gone there gone, most plans today come with unlimited texting thus eliminating the bill that costs hundreds of dollars and takes up a ream of paper. For younger kids there are phones that you can preprogram up to 5 numbers mom, dad, the police, for example, ideal for bigger cities and greater chance of emergency; wherever you are many of these kid friendly phones come with GPS like tracking devices that allow parents to know where their kids are and where they have been. Sometimes what happens is person had a simple cell phone it broke ignorant of low cost options, thus walks out with the new smart phone because it was what was available to them. The wide variety of applications on things like the i-phone may become a necessity for a continuous business traveler who feels they must keep in touch or for those expected to do so by their boss or employees.
Computers become another sticking point in the- what do we really need debate, but like it or not they have become a fixture in our lives. If you want to book a plane ticket for work or pleasure you almost have to do it online, want to look for work you must have internet access. More and more job applications require an e-mail address, and employers use it as a primary means of communication once hired. If you have a child past elementary school, you need a computer with both word processing and internet access for them to be able to complete their homework. You need word processing ability to update resumes, type letters of grievance, formal requests for information, because even if you have an old manual typewriter the quality will be too poor to look professional. Finding ribbon or cartages for the higher end electric models is next to impossible. Now it is even difficult to get a full newscast, national or local, without the internet access because they are constantly saying for more information go to a section our website. Plus due to the number of people who have computers in their home, more and more places are offering opportunities to file your taxes on-line, apply for social security and retirement benefits via the web, on-line shopping is ever growing, customer service for nearly every product is going to the internet. The green movement is also pushing this as more companies try to go paperless in order to better the environment.
They also show us truly just how fast technology is growing; some computer technology can become obsolete is as little as 6 months; new software rolls out on the average about every 2 years. In 3-5 years from the date you purchase your computer you lose compatibility between older versions of software and newer applications. Then if the physical hardware of your computer is still good you must pay for hundreds of dollars in upgrades; laptop computers are likely to simply give out and you need a new computer, at 1,200 to 1,800 to get something that will last as long as it possibly can. Currently, as dial up internet fades from existence, with newer computers no longer carrying the dial up port, people are forced to pay for the many times more expensive cable, DSL, or wireless service if they want or need internet access. For those determined to keep the cheaper dial up service, there is a USB port modem one can buy with the connections for dial up; however it becomes a game of how much longer will it be around and still means added expense.
Similar cases can be found with all of the gadgets we have come to believe are 21st century overindulgences; everyone saw the transition from VHS to DVD, then there was the off shoot of HD DVD, and now Blue Ray, all in less than a decade. Electronics retailers estimate it will be roughly two more years before Blue Ray eclipses DVD. Avid movie watchers will soon be forced to buy yet another gadget to continue their viewing pleasure. This may seem extravagant to some, but the pull is not just the ability to curl up at home and watch a movie, or not having to drag the kids out, not dealing with typical annoyances like a rude cellphone user or chronic movie talker. By the time people go to the theater, buy tickets, soda and popcorn, they have likely equaled the cost of a new Blue Ray movie that, once bought, they can watch over and over again. Plus not having to see the movie just as it comes out in the theater, people can wait for it to be available on the discount racks at places like Wal-Mart. Further, at the height of their cost, they are cheaper than a new PC with Blue Ray player or with the capability to download such movies. With the popularity of things like Netflix and their new DVD on demand services, it is reasonable to assume they will keep up with the technology and offer Blue Ray rentals in the future; likely offering both it and DVD for the next few years.
The i-pod did for music what DVD did for movies; however, with that came the closing of many stores selling CD’s. Again it isn’t just the convenience of buying only the songs you like rather than paying $13-20 for an entire CD with 2 or 3 songs maybe only one of interest; traveling the isles of said stores one is more likely to see cards for so many dollars to be spent at i-tunes. What does all of this mean; it means that if you want the newest music selections you need an mp3 device. Due to the overwhelming proliferation of the i-pod, the success of i-tunes the majority of new music can only be found on-line. CD’s are still widely popular and available but unless the desired album is grabbed off the shelves shortly after release, not so coincidently at its highest price, it becomes difficult to find. So music buffs are left with one choice buy the new gadget, which offers added convenience and may save money.
Bottom line this is not adolescent hedonism, consumption at its worst or gadget fever gone crazy, it’s about keeping hold of the small pleasures you have, replacing broken appliances and other necessities. And, more importantly, functioning in the technology age, we have the things we have because of the evolution of progress and growth, not because we are material goods obsessed. Chiding anyone who sees that does nothing for us in an ever-changing environment and pinning it all on kids and teens is simply a cop out to the bigger picture. Yes we do need this stuff to succeed in out lives at some point, maybe not today but tomorrow, maybe not in the future but for the moment.