Finnish youth consumer identity

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Finnish youth consumer identity

  1. 1. Blackwell Science, LtdOxford, UKIJCInternational Journal of Consumer Studies1470-6423Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 200428Original Article Finnish young people’s consumer identityM. Autio Finnish young people’s narrative construction of consumer identity Minna Autio University of Helsinki, Department of Economics and Management, Consumer Economics, Helsinki, Finland Abstract This article examines how young Finns represent their consumer identity through narratives. Young consumers are easily seen as careless spenders and selfish hedonists in the contemporary consumer society. However, an empirical approach is required in order to find out whether this generation of young Finnish consumers is one of ‘raving hedonists’ or ‘ultimate materialists’, as their peers are often presented in public discussion in many western societies. The empirical data was collected in five upper secondary schools between the end of November 2001 and the beginning of January 2002. These schools are located in five different districts in Finland, varying from metropolitan to rural areas. The study focused on students aged 16–19 years and used essay writing as the method for collecting qualitative data. The data thus consists of 159 life stories as a consumer written by young Finnish people. Qualitative research methods, such as narrative analysis, were used in this study. It is argued that Finnish young people are representing their identities as consumers through a combination of various levels of consumer discourses besides hedonism and squandering: rationality and economizing are an essential part of their consumer identities. Some youngsters also present themselves as responsible consumers including ecological and ethical choices as part of their narrative. The way these youngsters combine discourses gives evidence of the various features of the present-day young consumer. It is also suggested that their consumer identity develops and changes with age. Young people describe their identity changing through a hedonist/squanderer discourse to a rational and economical one or vice versa. They also combine hedonist, rational, economical and responsible discourses simultaneously. Correspondence Minna Autio, University of Helsinki, Department of Economics and Management, Consumer Economics, PO Box 27, 00014 University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland. Tel. +358 9 191 58090; E-mail: minna.autio@helsinki.fi 388 Keywords Young consumers, consumer identity, Finnish consumer culture, narrative analysis. Introduction In the contemporary consumer society, young people are generally seen as careless spenders and self-seeking hedonists.1–3 Besides hedonism, according to Wilska4 visibility and open-mindedness are also regarded as typical of the consumption of young people. Tapscott5 has criticized this emphasis of hedonistic lifestyle among youth: Today’s youth are described in ways that make the ‘me’ generation look like a generation of philanthropists and social activists. They are said to be selfcentred and obsessed with short-term gratification. However, the concern of young people’s values and consuming habits is a current issue. Journalist Alissa Quart6 has recently claimed that the world of advertising is playing an increasingly important part in shaping the way in which teenagers and younger children identify themselves. Children are introduced earlier and earlier to the branded world of goods and services. Growing up as a consumer is one of the essential roles in contemporary society. As Miles2 has argued, young people are socialized into treating money and consumption as a doorway to life. It is arguable that especially young people – and perhaps children too – base their identity and lifestyle on consuming more than other age groups. Young people are still in the process of developing their consumer identities. As an 18-year-old female respondent commented ‘. . . especially at such a sensitive stage of your life, when your appearance and clothes constitute your entire identity, you may spend a lot more money than you ought to’. Miles2 has suggested that consumption represents the main arena within which young people play out their relationship with International Journal of Consumer Studies, 28, 4, September 2004, pp388–398 © 2004 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  2. 2. M. Autio • Finnish young people’s consumer identity structure and agency, while negotiating their role and position in an ever-changing world. He argues that consumption is a valuable tool and resource in asserting aspects of young people’s identities. This article examines the assumption that young consumers in Finland are as portrayed in studies as those from other cultures,1,2 and questions whether we can accept even within western-style economies that age is more important to understanding consumer aspirations and behaviour than national culture. On the basis of the qualitative data, it is argued that young Finnish people are representing their identity as consumers through a combination of various levels of consumer discourses besides hedonism and squandering: rationality and economizing are essential parts of their process of forming identities as consumers. Some youngsters present themselves as responsible consumers including ecological and ethical choices as part of their narrative. The way these youngsters combine discourses gives evidence of the various features of the present-day young consumer. The present study also suggests that their consumer identity develops and changes with age. Young people describe their identity changing through a hedonist/squanderer discourse to a rational and economical one or vice versa. They also combine hedonist, rational, economical and responsible discourses simultaneously. This article discusses whether Finnish young consumers are ‘raving hedonists’ as their peers are easily presented in other western cultures; describes the research design and empirical data used in this study as well as method of the analysis; presents the results of an empirical analysis together with previous studies and inspiring theoretical frameworks; and considers the importance of studying how young people see themselves as consumers. Young Finnish consumers: raving hedonists? Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a thing about breaking things apart and putting them back together. Because of this, I used to be fond of Legos and have spent a fair amount of money on them. When I was a bit older, and the hockey card fad began, money got spent on collecting hockey cards in addition to other hobbies. Then at age 12, I got the snowboard I’d © 2004 Blackwell Publishing Ltd wished for ages as a Christmas present, and I still consider it the best present I’ve ever had. After I got the board, my money spending’s gone down the hill. Later on, when I was about 13, I got into listening to music and went and bought myself a decent hi-fi. That pretty much emptied my account, but I’ve not had any regrets about my purchase. Most of my money still gets spent on these two hobbies. My greatest investment so far has been the all-inclusive snowboarding equipment set, that I funded with a summer job (A Prodigal Son – 17 years old). Prodigal Son’s consumer narrative reinforces the common image of young peoples’ money management and consumption habits. This young man describes the pleasures of consumption throughout his life with no regrets; nor does he indicate that he would have financial problems. Spending money is fun, especially when you are living with your parents and spending their money as well. Thus, the Prodigal Son is an illustration of a juvenile in Finnish society in the 21st century. As Autio and Heinonen7 have argued, the current youth is the first generation accustomed to the affluent society from childhood. They have not suffered from shortages caused by wars nor from the puritan peasant culture with its strong propensity to save, like the earlier generations.8 They have not been made to feel guilty by demanding careful consideration or economizing. The current youth, born in the 1980s, has been able to enjoy the pleasures of consumption freely. Only the deep depression during the early 1990s slowed down the steadily increasing material well-being. However, according to Wilska,9 Finland is still behind the United States and Western Europe in terms of the development of consumerism and the consumer society. In Finland, the breakthrough of the consumer society took place in the post-war decades, and it was not until the 1980s that Finland could be thought of as a so-called affluent society, as Heinonen10 has argued. However, current Finnish youth is a branded generation,6 in the sense that their childhood toys were Barbies, My Little Ponies and Turtles figures. Now they are buying Diesel jeans, Calvin Klein shirts and portable Sony minidisc players as are other middle class teenagers in western societies.11 Has the Finnish youth really thrown off the shackles of ‘the puritan ghost’, as International Journal of Consumer Studies, 28, 4, September 2004, pp388–398 389
  3. 3. Finnish young people’s consumer identity • M. Autio Scitovsky12 described the Joyless Economy of the western world, and turned into true hedonists? If we look at the young man cited above, it seems that the puritan ghost is not disturbing his enjoyment. However, there is a need for an empirical study in order to find out whether this generation of young Finnish consumers are ‘raving hedonists’ or ‘ultimate materialists’.1,2,5 It is potentially misleading to assume that all young consumers are hedonists or that any diversity is minimal. Perhaps adults’ moralizing perceptions of youngsters’ economic behaviour is based on a generalized fear that young people do not grow up as rational and reflective consumers. Research design The focus of this study is how young Finnish people represent their consumer identities in the light of qualitative empirical data. According to Fornäs13 identity is the keyword for both the youth themselves and for youth culture research. In youth studies, cultural identity has been classified in terms of, how young individuals – often radicals such as those in hippie, punk, environmentalist or straight edge movements – identify themselves.14 This article examines the phenomenon of being a consumer among ‘mainstream’ young people in Finland, not in distinctive subcultures, such as antiglobalization activists or hiphoppers. Consumer identity is understood in the context of consumer discourses and ideologies that Finnish consumer society provides for young people, and how these youngsters assimilate available discourses as part of their personal narrative. The study discusses the phenomena of being a consumer in terms of the meaning that young Finnish people give it. Empirical data used in this study were collected as part of a research project ‘Consumer Cultures of Young People in the Changing Information Society’.a A survey had been carried out in the spring of 2001 in a The project was part of Information Society and Sustainable Development, a programme financed by the Finnish Ministry of the Environment. The main themes of the survey (2001) were the consumption and economic situation of young people, their use of mobile phones, their attitude to technology and the information society and towards environmental and ethical issues in Finland (n = 637). 390 eight upper secondary schools, four vocational schools and other middle-level educational institutes in Finland.4,15 While conducting the survey, the researcher had an opportunity to discuss with teachers the possibility of collecting qualitative data in the same schools. Some of these teachers immediately expressed their willingness to participate. After the summer of 2001, consultation started with the teachers, and at the end of the year, the study was performed in five upper secondary schools in five different locations. These varied from metropolitan to rural areas and the qualitative data were collected between November 2001 and January 2002. The focus is on upper secondary pupils aged 16– 19 years, because essay writing was used as the method for collecting qualitative data. Upper secondary pupils were considered to be more capable of expressing themselves in writing compared to students in other types of institutions, such as vocational schools. Writing essays is an essential part of Finnish language studies in upper secondary schools and therefore the young people were experienced in using the essay format for expression of their opinion and recounting their experiences. The teachers participated in the process of formulating the essay topics, which were then given to the pupils and were written during their Finnish language classes. This meant that the written instructions were formulated for both teachers and pupils with the teachers giving my instructions to the pupils and collecting the essays in the classroom. The teachers did not read or evaluate the essays. The pupils were given the choice of writing essays either on ‘a life story as a consumer’ or on their definitions for ‘environmentally oriented consumer behaviour’. In consumer life stories, the pupils were asked to sum up their consumer behaviour with one or two words. Altogether, the data consisted of 203 essays which were divided as follows: 152 pupils wrote about their life story as a consumer, 44 pupils wrote about environmentally oriented consumer behaviour, and 7 pupils combined these topics. The focus of the analysis in this article is on consumer life stories (n = 152 + 7). It is notable that Finland changed its currency from markka to euro at the beginning of 2002. So, young people were using old currency in their essays but the International Journal of Consumer Studies, 28, 4, September 2004, pp388–398 © 2004 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  4. 4. M. Autio • Finnish young people’s consumer identity old currency is converted to euros for this article (1 euro = approximately 5.9 markka). Narrative and discourse analysis Focusing on the main structure of the consumer stories, that is, concentrating on the dominant discourses found in the material, there were several interesting themes – such as emotions in consuming, or gender differences – which were visible in the text samples presented in this article. As mentioned above, the pupils had been asked to describe their consumerism in a few words. These expressions, which were found in the titles of the stories or the texts themselves, were the key to constructing the main discourses of the 159 stories written. There were a variety of descriptions, but some culturally shared terms were repeated in the stories, especially expressions traditionally found in Finnish consumer discussion, such as ‘rational’, ‘economical’ and ‘wasteful’. The youngsters also described the pleasure of consumption, although this was less apparent than traditional expressions. One reason for this is that there is no common term in the Finnish language for hedonistic consumption. Instead, responsible consumer discourse, which includes ecological and ethical consumer choices, was evident in the stories. Based on the descriptions used by the youngsters, five discourses were established: • • • • • rational/reflective – self-control; economical – saving; hedonist – pleasures of consumption; squanderer – wasting; responsible – green and ethical choices. These discourses are grounded on the definitions of consumption of young people themselves, and my own interpretations as a researcher. This interpretational framework, based on the five discourses, was applied to the whole data, although parts of the texts were not entirely compatible with the analysis based on manners of speech. It is notable that 12 of the essays were neutral or incompetently written, and they could not be categorized into any one of the five discourse types. The way in which various discourses were used in the stories was then analysed. Considerations included, for example, whether a young person writes a consistent story of either rational or wasteful consumerism, or © 2004 Blackwell Publishing Ltd combines several discourses in her/his story. Fifty-two consumer narratives displayed a single type of speech, which in the majority of cases was a rational and reflective one but most of the narratives were combinations of two, three or four discourses. A young person’s description of him/herself can, for example, be as an economical and reflective – or a wasteful and hedonistic – young consumer. Sixty-five narratives were combinations of different – and to some extent opposite – discourses. For example, a young person could write a story describing him/herself simultaneously as green, economical and hedonist, or discourse changes took place according to age. The latter type of narrative is called multifaceted consumer narratives. Thus, it is taken into account that people are not unidimensionally rational.16 On the contrary, this study follows the arguments of postmodern theorists, such as Bauman17 and Hall18 that the identity is fleeting and fragmented. As Moisander19 has pointed out, consumer researchers have typically conceptualized people as fairly rational or at least cognitively guided, disembodied decision makers, making choices among available alternatives.20 Perhaps Prodigal Son’s consumerism, although he represented himself mainly through a pleasure discourse, also comprised fragments of reflective, economical or green consumer discourses. In any case, he wanted to emphasize the enjoyable side of being a consumer while he was writing his essay in the classroom. The story would have been different, if his brand new snowboard had been broken a few days earlier. It is also possible that the story is fictional. Finding the ‘truth’ in stories is irrelevant in narrative tradition. Consumer life stories are reconstructions of the past. As Lewis and Susan Hinchman21 have asked . . . ‘to what extent is memory itself a reliable guide?’ According to Finnegan,22 in spite of the many controversies involved in studying narrative, one essential theme recurs. This is the view that human beings are story-telling animals.23,24 Personal narratives are at the same time idiosyncratic, unpredictable, diverse and deeply cultural.22 Thus, young people express something about their own way of thinking as well as the cultural norms of society through storytelling. Culture ‘speaks itself’ through an individual’s story.25 Interpretations of linguistic qualitative material are always cultural. For that reason, the discourses are International Journal of Consumer Studies, 28, 4, September 2004, pp388–398 391
  5. 5. Finnish young people’s consumer identity • M. Autio firstly presented through consistent stories, even though these might give an excessively simplified image of young people’s consumerism. Then, multifaceted consumer narratives reveal a rather more diverse and reflective young consumer identity. At the end of each quotation is the title, which each young person has given to her/his own story (e.g. Consumer Maniac, Prodigal Son, Eco-Friendly Consumer, Fickle Consumer). Rational or reflective narrative Rational or reflective narrative becomes evident from the way in which young people display their ability to recognize and control their own needs. They contemplate – often for a long time – whether or not they need to make a particular purchase. When or if they decide to buy something, the purchase must be gratifying, durable and beneficial. Concerning this latter characteristic young people intend that money be spent on, for example, hobbies, CDs, clothes – everything that can be seen – will provide long-lasting benefit. Moralizing becomes easily directed at eating out, or the use of alcohol, as these only bring momentary satisfaction. Although low cost can be one criterion for making a choice (e.g. through price comparison), price alone is not sufficient for making a decision. Young people are prepared to pay for quality goods. A story by one 17-year-old female epitomizes the thematic of benefit, price and satisfaction. Nowadays I think I am a careful consumer. I count my money carefully and imagine how I can get the most benefit from it by buying something useful. The goods and clothes I buy should definitely bring satisfaction and the price must be suitable. Or, not too dear or cheap, inferior quality. What I hate most is spending money on goods or clothes that fall to pieces the first time they are used or that disappoint me (A Rational Consumer). Both a general review of consumption, and monitoring of expenditure with the understanding that one can not live beyond one’s means, are characteristics of rationality. Expressed most simply, rationality in this context means consuming when there is money and not consuming when there is none. The dominance of rational/ reflective consumer narrative is surprising, considering 392 that there has been a desire to connect impulsiveness, momentary enjoyment, and the unbridled use of money to young people’s consumption habits.1–3 On the other hand, according to Wilska’s26 study, many Finnish consumers do not consciously think of consumption as a very important part of their identities. Most of the consumption styles or lifestyles that were found in her study were rather modest, although hedonist and materialist lifestyles were also found. Against this background, the dominance of rational/reflective narrative is understandable. Economical narrative The basic dimension of the economical narrative is, naturally, saving money: in childhood money was put into a piggy bank and as a teenager into a bank account. Young people relate in their stories how money accrues when one is not buying something all the time and when one is ‘reluctant to waste money’. Young people also save for some purpose or event, such as a car or a rock festival. In fact, for a thrifty person, there is a certain pleasure in the accumulation of money in a bank account, as shown by the following statement by a 16year-old female: When I was little, there was no money left for socalled unnecessary things. According to my parents’ instructions, I put every mark I owned into the bank for my future needs. Later on I began to use money to go to the cinema and on clothes. The sums of money I spent were never ever sky high . . . I still haven’t stopped saving my money in a bank account, even if I do put less money in now than before. Perhaps this is all that prevents me from becoming a serious spender. Every time I decide to buy something, something in my head tells me that I might need the money later for something more important and that it would be best saved up (Money in the Bank). To be an economical consumer means nonconsumption and the denial of needs, or the deferral of their satisfaction. According to Mackay,27 in Protestant tradition, in which Finland also belongs to, consumption and leisure are commonly conceived as less worthy, friv- International Journal of Consumer Studies, 28, 4, September 2004, pp388–398 © 2004 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  6. 6. M. Autio • Finnish young people’s consumer identity olous, even wasteful, indulgent and decadent.8 Thus, we have a long tradition of being economical and careful consumers in Finland. Heinonen8 describes this tradition through the ethos of peasant culture, where frugality and self-sufficiency were important elements. However, this discourse also exists in today’s youth consumer culture, even if this generation has not been tormented by the puritan peasant culture. Mentalities are changing slowly. As Wilska4 has argued, the ‘ideal’ consumer for Finnish young people is still someone who aims to save money and consumes frugally.26 This ideal is something that older generations are glad to see younger ones adopting.4 Rational, reflective and economical narratives can also be interpreted in the context of ‘self-control’ and ‘self-discipline’, as Campbell28 has argued by means of modern hedonism. However, the discourse of selfcontrol can be interpreted through the tradition of household economics,29 which is based on the assumption of rational behaviour. Control is a necessity of life in order to cope with money management. As Schor30 has argued, ‘needs’ are upscaling in western societies. In America, ‘the good life’ includes a vacation home, a swimming pool, a colour TV, a second colour TV, travel abroad, nice clothes, a car, a second car, a home of one’s own, a job that pays much more than average, and a lot of money.30 Many consumers, including children and young people, face the problem of consumer choice surrounded by the affluence. of consuming but also the changes in the objects of consumption according to age: Buying something has always been my great passion. I was a big spender even as a podgy little girl. Money was spent on Barbies, dolls and My Little Ponies. There were nearly 20 Barbies, about 10 dolls and at least a dozen ponies. There was no shortage of toys. When I grew a little older the money got spent on other things. Exchanges of all sorts of small items were made with my classmates: pens, erasers, writing paper and stickers. The more there were of them and the more variety there was, the better. . . . Again, as the number of candles on the cake increased, the objects that were shopped for changed. Now it became pets. I had an aquarium and a cat, and every time I went to the shop I brought something back for them. . . . Even nowadays I am an enthusiastic shopper . . . (Consumer Maniac). After childhood, the objects of consumption change to become equipment for sports or hobbies, and also mobile phones, computers and CD players. Young people take a positive attitude to consumer services, too, such as sitting with friends in cafés and restaurants and going to the movies. The main difference between the hedonistic, and rational and economic consumers in the stories lies in their refusal to take on a moral burden for the indulgence of consuming. The basic tone of the narratives is pro-consumption. Hedonistic narrative Hedonistic narrative represents the opposite to rational/ reflective and economical indulgence in using money without restraint. Descriptions of gratification contain a multitude of nuances with almost half of the young subjects relating their own story of what kind of consumption – from Astanga yoga to snowboarding – brought them happiness. Certain common features could be found, such as pocket money received as a child which was immediately spent on sweets, cola or ice cream. These stories exude pleasure and happiness as the young describe how they bought, for example, My Little Pony or Turtles figures, Barbie dolls, remote-controlled motor vehicles, or collectible cards. The narration of a 16-year-old female illustrates not only the gratification © 2004 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Squanderer narrative Likewise, the squanderer narrative is connected to gratification, because the squanderer uses money for ‘everything that is nice’. The difference is that these young people express themselves as squanderers or as wasters. The style with which they start their stories is ‘everything was spent immediately’ or ‘as soon as it came, it went’. Two of the writers expressed a doubt that because the money vanished so quickly, there must have been a hole in the bottom of their purse. These narratives do not exhibit a spirit of moralizing or resentment, even though the young call themselves squanderers. Money can been ‘burnt’ by spending 250 euros a day on clothes, for example. Correspondingly, there is no wish to spend International Journal of Consumer Studies, 28, 4, September 2004, pp388–398 393
  7. 7. Finnish young people’s consumer identity • M. Autio it on necessities such as food, school books or even a battery for a watch. One 17-year-old male describes himself as follows: What kind of consumer am I? I can describe it in one word: A SQUANDERER. My way is to throw my money away as soon as I get it. Of course, more money gets burnt up in the summer, because the motorbike devours petrol and there’s more to do when there’s no school. In the summer I make money by having a summer job (A Squanderer). It seems that hedonistic and squanderer narrative involve the ‘pleasures’ of Campbell’s28 traditional hedonism: all human beings in all cultures seem to agree on a basic list of activities, such as eating, drinking, sexual intercourse, socializing, singing, dancing and playing games. All of these activities are essential parts of youth culture in western societies. It would have been surprising if young Finnish people in the 21st century had not have offered such a pleasure-oriented discourse. After all, they were children of an affluent consumer culture, although young people did not have equal economic resources and opportunities as consumers. However, during the deep recession in the 1990s, parents were cutting back their own consumption in favour of their children.31 On the basis of these narratives, it seems that the current youth has thrown off the shackles of ‘the puritan ghost’12 and engaged in the Joyful Economy. However, this generation has also faced the problems of environmental degradation. They are socialized into a society of high consumption, typical of which is to want, to get and to own a number of goods, and in which attempts are made to solve environmental problems at the same time. Responsible narrative Responsible narratives were reflected in the adoption of green values, such as recycling, composting, and visits to second-hand shops and flea markets. The latter is a particularly significant part of the lifestyle of youth, because second-hand shops are places where clothes, furniture and other practical utensils can be acquired. This is also a useful place for recycling one’s own goods. Green values also encompass attempts to economize on 394 the use of electricity and water and on consumption in general, such as avoiding unnecessary consuming. Responsible consumption was also linked to organic foods and fair trade products, as well as buying locally produced foodstuffs and environment-friendly products. In what follows, a 17-year-old young male offers his narrative perception of his rather deep green consumer habits. As someone who enjoys the great outdoors, I have done various things in order to preserve our environment. Our family’s dedication to composting calls for the selection of biodegradable and otherwise ecological products when shopping for groceries – starting from carrier bags. Hence, I usually buy paper bags instead of their plastic substitutes, mainly for their biodegradability. As meat production consumes vast amounts of energy and environmental resources, I aim to reduce the burden caused to the environment by the production and consumption of meat through vegetarianism. Therefore eco-friendly vegetables have replaced the old packet of sliced ham on my daily trip to the grocer’s. I doubt anyone could deny the harm caused to the environment by private car use . . . In our family, I have tried to recommend using public transports instead of a private car for commuting (Eco-Friendly Consumer). Although the previous narrative is written by a male, it can be argued on the basis of the research data, that these ‘soft values’ seem to better fit female perspectives. The gender division was distinguishable in the data: the majority of green stories were written by young women. Many studies have shown a distinction between the genders: girls and women appear to be more environmentally focused than boys and men.19,32,33 There were differences between green narratives as well. According to Autio and Heinonen,3 young people’s dedication to green practices varied from relatively easy choices such as recycling to rather devoted sustainable lifestyles like being a vegan. Thus, a green lifestyle can be ‘just a style’. The responsible consumer narrative is a minor one compared to other discourses. The responsible narrative is interpreted as a part of the ‘self-control’ and ‘selfdiscipline’ discourse. The difference compared to the rational, reflective and economical narratives, is that International Journal of Consumer Studies, 28, 4, September 2004, pp388–398 © 2004 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  8. 8. M. Autio • Finnish young people’s consumer identity responsible narrative is more ideological and requires even more knowledge and self-discipline than being, for example, economical. Responsible consumerism requires a consciousness of environmental problems and social injustice (e.g. child labour). Multifaceted consumer narratives These consumer discourses and text samples depict ideal narrative types in which the essential dimensions of the speech style were expressed through a fairly logically constructed narration. Nevertheless, the majority of young people combine more than one discourse type in self-descriptions, as mentioned earlier. In these multifaceted consumer narratives, changing from one discourse to another can take place logically according to age, or there can be swift and surprising developments as shown by the following description from a 17-yearold female. In her story, she combines a critical attitude towards the western consumer culture (responsible discourse), which can be seen as part of green discourse, with pleasures of consumption and economical discourse: . . . I own too many things. My room is always a hopeless mess because of all the stuff in it. The problem is that I’m unable to throw anything away . . . I hate shopping for clothes. I never find clothes that’d suit me. I have no interest in services for beauty care. Does the world really need facial steam treatments or acrylic nails? Some of us are starving! . . . I like to spend money on music, because it provides a long-term value for your money and great pleasure. It’s also nice to buy a new item of clothing, if for once you’re able to find something suitable. . . . I try to use as little electricity as possible. Whenever I leave a room I switch off the lights and any electrical equipment . . . I follow the same principle with my use of water. I shower every couple of days. No point hanging around in there (I Consume Everything). The following description of a 19-year-old male shows how an attitude change takes place according to age. A thrifty boy grows into a consumerist teenager, who still tries to control his expenditure. However, he does not hold high expectations for improving his self-control, as © 2004 Blackwell Publishing Ltd the pleasures of consumerism and spending seem to be taking the upper hand. As a child, I was able to save up. Out of a measly allowance of 1.8 euros, I saved a half. The other half I bought sweets with. Out of extra money from, for example, my nan and grandad, I saved 100%. When the piggy bank was full and would take no more, it was taken to the bank. I simply just felt bad for spending my money and for that ended up with a nice sum on my account. When I was 14, it all changed. I spent most of my money on a guitar and an amplifier, that I still don’t regret buying. Later I bought a snowboard. There wasn’t a lot of money remaining. . . . I’ve emphasised the pleasures of life, and have yet to change. My conscience has returned to haunt me, but hasn’t had much of an effect . . . When I was 19, I spent my 850 euro summer job wages in 2 weeks (Conscientious Consumer). A combination of several discourses in the same narrative provides some evidence showing that consumerism is built of different – to some extent opposite – ways of relating to consumption and use of money. It would appear, on the basis of the material, that the consumer identity of the young develops and changes with age, as illustrated by the narration above. For example, when we are children we save, on reaching puberty we awake to the enjoyment of consuming and as adulthood approaches we strive for more rationality. Some young people also begin to perceive the practices of responsible consumption. The process of growing up can also take place in the opposite direction. As a child, everything one wanted was there and as the age of puberty came along it was necessary to consider controlling one’s own desires. A rational discourse confirms that a life of one’s own is ahead and parental support is diminishing. The narration of 16-year-old female illustrates the change from hedonist and squanderer discourse to a rational and economical one: When I was 4–5 years old, and still didn’t have a little sister, I got anything I wanted with no more than a pleading look directed at my father. Everything I wanted was expensive and unnecessary, such as Barbies, that I already had two dozen of. When I was International Journal of Consumer Studies, 28, 4, September 2004, pp388–398 395
  9. 9. Finnish young people’s consumer identity • M. Autio about 9 and started going downtown, I bought myself clothes instead of more toys. Until the age of 9 I was something of a prodigal daughter, but then I got out of the whole toy habit, that had taken several, if not tens of thousands to finance. Then, in third grade, I realised money doesn’t grow on trees and started spending less on shopping. Since then I have only bought practical items and clothes when shopping in town. I’ve managed to maintain the economical principle nearly up to now, as I have made some silly purchases lately (Fickle Consumer). Combinations of several discourses, which concern the present time and are simultaneous, can occur in narratives according to age, providing evidence of multiple facets in the present consumer.17,18,34 Modern youth lives within the sphere of influence of many consumer discourses. Even as late as the 1970s, economy and prudence were the virtues of the Finnish consumer society. Since the 1980s, the enjoyment of consumption and green choices has also become integrated into Finnish consumer habits. The newest consumer ideology is the ideal of the ethical consumer,35 which reinforces the responsible consumer discourse. Against this background, it is no surprise that young people base their consumption on a combination of the various consumer orientations – rationality, hedonism, squandering, economy and responsibility. Thus, narratives are at the same time idiosyncratic and diverse, but above all deeply cultural. Conclusion This article illustrates contemporary Finnish young people’s narrative representation of their consumer identities. It is argued that present-day Finnish consumer culture provides adolescents with both traditional consumer ideologies – such as the ethos of thrift – and prevailing consumer ideologies – such as the pleasure of consumption, green and ethical consumerism – as components of consumer identity. The way these youngsters combine provided discourses gives evidence of the multiple facets of the present-day young consumer. Their consumer identity can also develop and change with age. As in the case of Prodigal Son, cited at the beginning of this article, he represents himself as an extravagant consumer today, but might 396 well start to spend money more rationally and economically after moving out from his parents’ home – although not forgetting how enjoyable spending money can be. However, the results of this empirical study should be critically examined. First of all, the respondents were upper secondary students, who were capable of expressing themselves in writing. Irony, fiction and exaggeration are perceivable elements in their stories. Secondly, the data were collected in schools and this may have influenced how the pupils wrote in a different way. Consuming mostly takes place during leisure time, not in school. If the material had been collected in another environment, such as shopping malls or youth centres, the results may have been different. Thus, it might be that the pupils emphasized the rational and reflective side of their consumer identity. Some may have felt – in spite of the essay instructions – that they had to write of themselves in an idealized way. According to empirical data, young Finnish people construct their consumer identity mainly on the basis of rational, reflective and economical discourse, which signifies that traditional consumer ideologies are still influential in the Finnish consumer culture. As Wilska4 has stated, saving money and consuming frugally is something that older generations wilfully pass to the younger ones. However, as presented in this article, the current generation has also learnt to spend money and enjoy consumption. Thus, their consumption style arguably differs from earlier generations, where possession of items is highly valued. Besides having a lot of ‘stuff’, this generation also practices a mentality of ‘to be – not to have’. They are spending their money on hobbies and they are passing time with friends in cafés and restaurants. Thus, it is important to see that young people consume to express their sense of self and this is quite different from labelling their consuming practices as uniformly hedonistic. However, this lifestyle can be a phase of life, as a 16-year old male is reasoning below. . . . I think spending, for myself and probably the majority of young people, becomes more careful with age. Maybe it’s just that you don’t fully understand the value of money when you’re younger, because the objects of interest aren’t as expensive and hard to gain as when you’re older. When you’re older, your International Journal of Consumer Studies, 28, 4, September 2004, pp388–398 © 2004 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
  10. 10. M. Autio • Finnish young people’s consumer identity saving becomes more focused and better planned (A Careful Consumer). This article has demonstrated the problem of assuming homogeneity among the young. Within this sample of young Finns, there was considerable expressed diversity. Even if there are reasons to believe that economic integration in Europe, and the western world generally, produces a convergence in the aspirations and behaviour of specific types of consumers, there remains considerable heterogeneity. Not all young consumers are the same, nor do they see themselves as being the same. Their consumer identity seems to be fleeting and fragmented, although young consumers constructed their identities rather logically as well. This study was designed to show diversity among young Finnish consumers. The patterns of diversity need to be examined in other cultures so that we are able to better understand young consumers as they see themselves. Acknowledgements I am grateful to Anne Murcott, Visa Heinonen, Jaakko Autio, Mari Niva, Anu Raijas and anonymous referees for helpful comments. I will also thank the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation as well as the Research Funds of the University of Helsinki and the Ministry of the Environment for financing the project ‘Young People in the Vanguard of Modernisation’. Finally, I would like to thank Riina Autio for checking my English. References 1. Osbergy, B. (1998) Youth in Britain Since 1945. Blackwell Publisher Ltd, Oxford. 2. Miles, S. (2000) Youth Lifestyles in a Changing World. Open University Press, Buckingham. 3. Autio, M. & Heinonen, V. (2004) To consume or not to consume? Young people’s environmentalism in the affluent Finnish society. Young – Nordic Journal of Youth Research, 12, 137–153. 4. Wilska, T.-A. (2003) Mobile phone use as part of young people’s consumption styles. Journal of Consumer Policy, 26, 441–463. 5. Tapscott, D. (1998) Growing up Digital. The Rise of the Net Generation. The McGraw-Hill Companies, New York. © 2004 Blackwell Publishing Ltd 6. Quart, A. (2002) Branded. The Buying and Selling of Teenagers. Perseus Publishing, Cambridge. 7. Autio, M., Eresmaa, I., Heinonen, V., Koljonen, V., Paju, P. & Wilska, T.-A. (2002) Nuorten kulutuksen moraali ja moraalitalous. In Pakko riittää. Näkökulmia nuorten maksuhäiriöihin ja kulutukseen [It Has to be Enough. Viewpoints of Young People’s Consumption and Indebtedness], pp. 204–301. Nuorisotutkimusverkosto and Nuorisotutkimusseura, Helsinki. 8. Heinonen, V. (1998) Talonpoikainen etiikka ja kulutuksen henki. Kotitalousneuvonnasta kuluttajapolitiikkaan 1900luvun Suomessa [Peasant Ethic and the Spirit of Consumption: from Household Advising to Consumer Policy in the 20th Century Finland]. Bibliotheca Historica 33. Suomen Historiallinen Seura, Helsinki. 9. Wilska, T.-A. (1999) Survival with Dignity? The Consumption of Young Adults during Economic Depression: A Comparative Study of Finland and Britain, 1990–1994. Serie A-3: 1999. Publications of The Turku School of Economics and Business Administration, Turku. 10. Heinonen, V. (2000) Näin alkoi ‘kulutusjuhla’. Suomalaisen kulutusyhteiskunnan rakenteistuminen. In Hyvää elämää. 90 vuotta suomalaista kuluttajatutkimusta. [The Good Life – 90 Years of Finnish Consumer Research] (ed. by H. Kaarina, A. Juntto, P. Laaksonen & P. Timonen), pp. 8–22. Kuluttajatutkimuskeskus & Tilastokeskus, Helsinki. 11. Klein, N. (2001) No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs. Flamingo, London. 12. Scitovsky, T. (1976) The Joyless Economy – an Inquiry Into Human Satisfaction and Consumer Dissatisfaction. Oxford University Press, New York. 13. Fornäs, J. (1995) Youth, culture and modernity. In Youth Culture in Late Modernity (ed. by J. Fornäs & G. Bolin), pp. 1–11. Sage Publications, London. 14. Johansson, T. & Miegel, F. (1992) Do The Right Thing. Lifestyle and Identity In Comtemporary Youth Culture. Almqvist & Wiksell International, Stockholm. 15. Autio, M. & Wilska, T.-A. (2003) Vihertävät pojat ja vastuuttomat tytöt. Nuorten kuluttajien ympäristöasenteet. [Green girls and irresponsible boys. Environmental attitudes of young consumers]. Nuorisotutkimus, 21, 3–18. 16. Lutz, M. (1992) Humanistic economics: history and basic principles. In Real-Life Economics – Understanding Wealth Creation (ed. by P. Ekins & M. Max-Neef), pp. 90– 120. Routledge, London. 17. Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity. Polity Press, Cambridge. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 28, 4, September 2004, pp388–398 397
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