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:

  1. Authorization (the I-Other axis): Asymmetry in social life need not always lead to domination. Consider a model of parenting in which a child is brought into the world not as a project to control and dominate, but rather as a new life that one nurtures, so as to mature to generate and nurture life of his or her own. Generativity obtains under conditions of social asymmetry when something new is initiated, nurtured, empowered, and let go, so it can to thrive and even generate. This process is exemplified in organizations such as the Loccioni Group, a manufacturing firm that actively incentivizes employees to develop independent spin-offs.
  2. Inter-temporality (the Past-Future axis): The generative logic bridges past and future. To be generative, one has to recognize that one is always generated. Sustainable contributions to the world are aided by one’s history, tradition, and cultural identity. This means not simply learning from ongoing experiments and mistakes, but from our history and tradition. Brunello Cucinelli, spurred by the humiliations suffered by his father as a factory worker, strove to create a business that places human dignity and justice at its core. Today his successful clothing brand donates 20% of company profits to charity; pays workers 20% higher than the industry standard; and pays for the training of young local artisans in the local region. Cucinelli’s projects operate on various time horizons: some 5, others 20, still others 200 years.
  3. Exemplarity (the private-public axis): The generative initiative bridges private and public. It is a proposal to a community; it depends upon validation from and accountability to that community, which can assess whether their real needs are being met. A generative contribution isn’t necessarily a recipe or model to replicate, but can empower and inspire others to act. An example here is 24Bottles, a successful start-up from Bologna which produces multipurpose steel bottles for urban lifestyles. The firm invests heavily in the reduction of plastic bottles in schools, and has received significant recognition in national and international media.

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.

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