by Brandon Vaidyanathan, Associate Professor of Sociology
We live in consumeristic societies today in which we’re encouraged to formulate life-goals and identities by perpetually acquiring goods we don’t need for subsistence. The consumerism enshrined in all our institutions today—educational, medical, commercial, political, scientific, and even religious—leaves us mired in a kind of social adolescence, a short-termism that jeopardizes the well-being of future generations.
Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have equally lambasted such consumerism. The various economic, social, and environmental crises of our times underscore the urgent need to envision a future beyond consumer society.
What might a future beyond consumer society look like?
In a new book, edited by Prof. Mauro Magatti at the Catholic University of Milan, my colleagues and I propose an answer this question, which we call “Social Generativity.”
Psychologist Erik Erikson coined the term “generativity” to describe the stage of maturity in psycho-social development. In contrast to adolescence, when the personality is focused on identity and is incapable of caring for those around oneself, generativity denotes the stage of maturity in which one can make commitments even to future generations. The answer to the problem of consumer society requires looking for how this capacity might be institutionally cultivated.
Since 2012, the project team has been studying organizations in Italy that suggest a way out of the mess we’re in. This has produced a video archive of more than 100 case studies of organizations. Analyzing these data, we have identified three dimensions of socially generative action:
Preaching “thou shalt not consume” isn’t going to solve the problem of consumerism. Our hope is that highlighting such mechanisms and examples of Social Generativity will harness our desire to generate or ex-corporate—which is as natural as our desire to consume or in-coporate.
It simply needs to be activated.