Consumerism on display at the University of B.C.

Millennial students are materialistic and proud


Fora do Eixo/Flickr

In a famous scene from the 1995 film Clueless, protagonist Cher Horowitz is robbed but, though scared out of her wits, refuses to get on the dirty ground. “Oh, no. You don’t understand. This is Alaïa,” she says of her dress to the gunman. “It’s, like, a totally important designer.”

In the mid-1990s, Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz was comedic relief, an exception to the rule. Today, many of us are Cher Horowitz.

A staggering 34 percent of American Millennials grew up wealthy, according to Forbes, and the figures are likely similar in Canada.

Luxury items, previously reserved for the one percent, are now more accessible than ever and much of the student population at the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver where I study seems swept up in luxury consumerism.

Darren Dahl, who specializes in consumer behavior at UBC, views abundance as the primary ethos of our society. “Previous generations like the Baby Boomers didn’t have the discretionary income some of the kids today have,” he says. “Because there’s a higher level of discretionary income, there’s an ability to spend in this cohort that wasn’t in existence in previous cohorts.”

A casual stroll through the UBC campus reveals as much. Audis and BMWs line the parkade and designer purses hang from the arms of one smug-looking girl after the other. Heads are perpetually lowered and absorbed in the fascinating world of the iPhone.

Although this is not representative of the entire student population, it far outweighs the influence of the nonconformists and those who are simply not as privileged.

Alex Mascott, a 19-year-old commerce student, sees this blatant embrace of materialism as positive. “Money brings the ability to do what you want,” he says. “Getting new stuff is always cool.”

He also says there are material differences among the faculties at UBC, pointing out that the students of the Sauder School of Business have a reputation for being well-dressed and that arts students say they feel out of place when they venture into the building. “There’s a certain need to dress well when you’re in business,” he says, “so having the right apparel matters.”

While Mascott sees clothing as his entry ticket into the business world, there are others who view it as a form of self-expression. Michael Yang, who is graduating with a history degree this year, is among them. Big on expressing himself through flashy attire, the 21-year-old says he is a reformed compulsive shopper who now does his research before buying.

Since his move to Vancouver from Taiwan more than three years ago, Yang’s fixation on appearances has led to a shift in his perception of the opposite sex as well. “It takes a lot to admit this, but I think I’m getting a little more judgmental and materialistic in the way that I view girls,” he says, adding that “fashion is a very conscious thing here in Vancouver.”

Vancouver attracts many wealthy foreigners drawn to the city’s mild climate and picturesque landscapes. This shift has made the city a consumerist mecca on the West Coast where casual luxe, oxymoronic as it is, is manifested in the multi-billion-dollar yoga empire of Lululemon.

“There’s no question people in Vancouver spend money,” Dahl says. “If you look at luxury cars per capita, for example, this is the center of North America for some of these luxury car sales. Why does that happen? There’s a strong culture here that really values those brands as symbols of success.”

Yang agrees with this assessment. “I feel like people want to enjoy the good life here. They want to eat the good food, they want to drive the nice cars, they want to look the part.”

Lianne Wong, who moved from suburban Connecticut to Vancouver in 2009 for university, experienced culture shock upon her arrival. She attributes the city’s material culture to its metropolitan nature and she admits to being a victim of its material exclusivity.

“I really want a Michael Kors purse because all my friends have one but I can’t afford it because they’re a few hundred dollars,” the 21-year-old English major says. “It’s unfair.”

Wong’s parents pay her tuition and are against her spending excessively. “They think it’s more important that I have a career,” she says. While she is bitter, she concedes money doesn’t buy happiness.

Of course, it’s not just in Vancouver that students are becoming more materialistic, even though it’s particularly visible here. Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, conducted a study last year that reveals the troubling reality about Millennials. The results, based on an analysis of nine million high school and university students, found Millennials more materialistic and self-centered than both Baby Boomers and Generation Xers before them.

“The trend is more of an emphasis on extrinsic values such as money, fame, and image, and less emphasis on intrinsic values such as self-acceptance, group affiliation and community,” she writes.

Yang, for one, is unapologetic about his spending. “If I am being very materialistic, I often will just say, ‘you know what, I’m going to be materialistic. I’m going to give in to it,’” he says, “why not?”

Vivien Chang studies English Literature and History at the University of British Columbia.


Consumerism on display at the University of B.C.

  1. Money and image has become a way to be accepted into a group and community of sorts. What you buy says something about how you want to represent your self as a person to the outside world. Even those that try to make an alternative statement are still representing this idea of themselves to the world.
    I think it would’ve been interesting to find arts students expressing the sentiments of the business kids since they are often dressing to impress as well.

    • Another fine example of the success of our society in producing consumers instead of contributors. Long term we are doomed to fail.

  2. What an insightful and accurate article. Having studied for four years at UBC I can agree that “self-expression” on campus seems to be more an expression of “self-as-capital” than anything else. Very well written.

  3. I just graduated from University and am sad to say I noticed a similar shocking trend. A lot of the time it occurred with kids who’s needs were paid for my their parents, which meant that any money they earned was for play. One friend earned $3,000 a month during the summer and spent every penny on fun because her parents covered the bills. If “life” is only suppose to be 25% of your budget my friend would have to earn $144,000 NET a year straight out of University to maintain her lifestyle. Even worse, despite her summer earnings she used credit to pay her tuition. I feel that my generation is going to go straight off a financial cliff after University when they try to fill their wants with credit.

  4. The premise of this article is wrong. The suggestion that 34% of millennials grew up “wealthy” is based on a Forbes article that defines wealth as a family income of $100,000+. This is certainly comfortable in 2013 but hardly wealth.

  5. I would like to see this article rewritten to include a larger variety of student opinion. The author neglects to interview any students who are not inherently materialistic, as such, this article lacks depth. The author also seems to lump students into two categories, materialistic or non-materialistic. By turning the matter into a black and white issue, she cuts out the majority of the student population who are not ignorant of brands and yet they are not obessesed with carrying label items. Perhaps if the author interviewed more than one group of friends for this article, she could actually call herself a reporter as she is currently unworthly of that moniker.

    • Thank you – my thoughts exactly.

    • Firstly, the author clearly states that she recognizes that this is not the full picture. Read it again, maybe?

      “By turning the matter into a black and white issue, she cuts out the majority of the student population who are not ignorant of brands and yet they are not obessesed with carrying label items.”

      Simply because the author interviews UBC kids that are affected by materialism does not invalidate her argument that there is a rising trend of luxury consumerism among university students. It gives the article a focus, and by insisting that there needs be a proponent of the student population not obsessed with luxury spending to be interviewed, aren’t you turning the issue black and white?

  6. I think it’s inevitable to be able to see people’s representations of themselves without monetary value. So I agree with Wei that even when people try to make alternative statements with their image, they are still representing some kind of class signifier. It’s just become so naturalized in society to dress in terms of levels of worth, and who wouldn’t want to look well in front of others? Of course if you dress poorly and your image is not well put together, you will be regarded as poorly dressed and unable to meet the monetary standards of someone who is dressed in luxury attire and has sufficient means to access these high-end items. It’s unfortunate that it has become such a deeply-ingrained way of seeing, to have to label others according to dress in society, but I think we just have to keep in mind what’s most important–that as long as you are comfortable with yourself and can accept the image you produce, whether you have a michael kors bag in hand or just a second hand purse from a thrift store–you are happy, and no one else’s opinions or judgments should matter. Looks may shine but personality shines brighter anyways :)

  7. Many or most of these students will shortly reap the whirlwind of their superficial, self-centred profligacy… unless sugar-daddy and sugar-mommy cover the tab – thus enabling their extravagance. They are living as though they have matured and have real jobs.

    Eventually… financial reality will out. Prepare for legions of counselling sessions, depression, stress illnesses, and erratic behaviour.

    Get some skills, get a job; then worry about your personal education.

  8. Remember also that a brief stroll around UBC will reveal it to be the Macbook capital of the world.

  9. this “article” is so redundant and absent-minded.

    thanks for no entertainment (that is what you wrote it for right?)

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