Arguably at the peak of civilisation, our world today is a paradox: environmental imbalance and humanitarian crises coexist with cutting edge technology and monumental scientific advances, opening new social gaps, as they aimed to close old ones. Dominated by idealised notions of growth and progress, our present is characterised by a general valuing of expansion, gain, and acceleration, all regimented in social and cultural models that shape subjectivities.
Built on moral and axiological foundations of the past, the various processes of assigning value in social and cultural models today can be traced back to crucial periods in the history of the Western world. If ancient Greece produced a standard for life anchored in virtue, values, and purpose, but failed to offer a sustainable, truly equal and free democratic form, early Christianity elevated the notion of value to derive from universalised truths about mankind and divinity deeply rooted in church law.
Enlightenment overthrew the absolute power of the church and installed a vacuum of morality, returning to personal values and the individual´s right to determine their own life, not without historical moments such as the Cartesian method of reason and rationality, scientific method announced as the only way to attain truth, and the rise of private rights as a refuge for reason. The impasse of Enlightenment was that, despite its clearly liberating character, the scientific method could not create or recognise values, which led to a quest for truth to overshadow a quest for moral goodness. Consequently, values became a mere functionality, a matter of preference, not essential to the rational, cold search for truth. This need for certainty marked the beginning of modernity, with the 20th century turning to appearance over substance, and valuing timeless results over temporary performances.
The rise of industry and consumerism in the 20th century defined society along the lines of valuing production and a normative view of success and competition. Social status is now gained through possession and accumulation, consuming in the form of having, and a winning attitude, which plays the role of a virtue and comes to inform personal worth. The high values placed on production and consumption are still at work in a contemporary context, only modified by the rise of new technologies as gates of access, visibility as currency, and attempts at re-evaluations of the very notion of value.
Millennials play a great role in understanding the new face of value in the current model of consumption. Entering adulthood at a time of less favourable economic conditions than other generations, millennials find themselves having to redefine ideas of gain, profit, and success, and they often weigh personal wealth against its social acceptability. For millennials, genuine richness might be found in creativity and simplicity, removed from the necessity of being expensive. This generation peaks at a time when marketers and brands juggle the concept of post-demographics, a disrupted view on demographic information which allows for a more inclusive, meaningful, and varied understanding of consumption. This essentially annuls the old format of status – it is no longer a matter of owning, of financially surpassing one´s origins. Instead, this shift from consuming products in the form of possession to consuming stories and experiences calls for a replacing of material possession as marker of status with a more fluid mode of self-presentation: being seen. Visibility becomes a significant dimension in establishing value and self-worth. Status symbols are now replaced with status stories – narratives often originated by brands, and eventually appropriated by consumers as life stories.
What, then, can we tell about the current models of producing, detecting and attaching value and values? Not coincidentally, in the face of economic adversity, we recognise a return to experience and performance as a valuable component of contemporary life. Doing and producing today still refer to virtues of the individual, but their object and scope differ, and so do the new symbols of status and value: authenticity, sustainability, experiences, sharing, connectivity, generosity, and, ideally, equality.
Words: Elena Stanciu