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An Identity Theft Like No Other

June 1, 2019

Identity theft has become a common crime, impacting millions of people each year. As bad as the problem is, about a hundred years ago, an identity theft took place on a far grander scale.

Everyone’s identity was stolen.

I’m referring to the time in our history when people stopped being referred to as citizens and started being referred to as consumers. Ever since, the consumer identity has been affecting our self-worth, our finances, and so much more.

A short history

According to Historian William Leach, author of Land of Desire, the foundation of our consumer culture was built roughly between the 1880s and 1920s when people moved in mass from the country to the city. This marked far more than a change of address; it marked a change in people’s way of life. They went from farm work to factory work, from making things to buying things. Before that time, people usually bought raw materials in bulk; there were no branded packages of ready-to-eat cereal and not much in the way of ready-to-wear clothing.

Soon enough, consumption became tied to people’s very identity.

During the Industrial Revolution department stores emerged, and in turn, merchandising. The expansion of railway lines helped create national markets. The spread of telegraph and telephone lines helped create national advertising. With more goods to sell and more markets to reach, more sophisticated techniques for driving desire were developed—psychological techniques.

Boston College Sociology Professor Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American, said the 1920s marked a clear turning point in the ad industry: “Of course, ads had been around for a long time. But something new was afoot, in terms of both scale and strategy… Ads developed an association between the product and one’s very identity. Eventually advertisements came to promise everything and anything—from self-esteem, to status, friendship, and love.”

A modest proposal

Today, the use of the word consumer has become so common that most of us don’t even notice. But consider this: To consume literally means to use up, squander, or spend wastefully. It’s right there in the dictionary. The acceptance of the consumer identity goes a long way toward explaining why so many people have too much debt, too little savings, too much financial stress, and too little contentment.

While there’s much to be said for all the practical aspects of wise money management, how we see ourselves is just as important. My recommendation is to consciously reject the consumer label. Every time you hear the word in the news, remind yourself that you are not a machine whose main purpose is to use stuff up. In church circles, the alternative descriptor of choice is steward.

The Kingdom of Heaven can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. He called together his servants and entrusted his money to them while he was gone. ~ Matthew 25:14 NLT

We were designed to manage God’s resources for God’s purposes. We are not consumers, we are stewards, entrusted with the Master’s money. When life is viewed through that filter, it’s much easier to make wise financial decisions, no matter how uncommon in our culture.

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