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Growing Up Absurd


Eighteenth Century Enlightenment philosopher Jean – Jacques Rousseau first introduced the idea of false needs.  He showed how the systems we live in work against our growing up. They dazzle us with toys and bewilder us with so many trivial products we are too busy making silly choices to remember that others make the adult ones.

American novelist Paul Goodman described part of the problem more than fifty years ago. He noted that what troubles adolescents is the fact that there is no decent work to grow up for. Grown up work should be useful, and need energy, spirit and the use of our best capacities. Work that has honour and dignity.

Fewer jobs than ever meet these criteria. Most involve doing things that are useless, harmful, wasteful, and demeaning and dumb to boot.




And Goodman was writing in era of full employment. These days millions of qualified young people are glad to find any job at all. Their choices are likely to be worse than those available to young people in Goodman’s day. And he described those choices in the grimmest of terms.

Those who choose manual labour are likely to find themselves making products designed to fail. Those with verbal skills may go into teaching and find themselves ground down by educational institutions that undermine the goals they claim to serve. The rest are likely to end up as salespeople, business managers or advertisers. Goodman’s scorn for the later is especially chilling. 

His focus is not on the economic and political problems of the synthetic demand created by advertisements. It is the human problem that those involved are human beings working as clowns. That the workers and designers of it are human beings thinking like idiots, and the broadcasters and underwriters know and abet what goes on. Or, they are liars, confidence men, smooth talkers, obsequious or indolent.

Advertising has become so much more subtle and ubiquitous since Goodman wrote that we are less aware of its impact, and liable to forget that it was not always part of the landscape. We no longer perceive the ways in which advertisements invade our lives.


edge of consciousness


Perhaps the only way to do so is to spend time in a place, like Cuba, where it’s still absent – as of this writing. Landing in Havana you notice the absence of billboards. And you become aware of the questions you ask yourself elsewhere:

Is it better than what I’ve got? Will it look like that on me? Make him happy? Make her envious? Can I get there before the sale ends? Those are the questions that arise on the edge of consciousness. Somewhere underneath it, advertising entangles emotion. The models they show are sleek and attractive. They’re designed to make your self-assurance crumble. If I had one of those, could I ever look as stunning? If I had one of that could I snag another heart?

Economic production is no longer a means to good lives. Instead our lives have become means to the smooth functioning of production, sales and consumption.




American political scientist Benjamin Barber argues that we live “…in an ethos of induced childishness: an infantilization tied to the demands of consumer capitalism in a global market economy.” 

All concealed behind a reference to values like hard work, discipline, individual responsibility and deferred gratification. Yet in an economy where the manufacture of needs replaces the production of goods, these values have eroded.

“Inequality leaves capitalism with a dilemma,” writes Barber. “The over producing capitalist market must either grow or expire. The poor are not rich enough to be consumers, so the grown ups of the First World are enticed into shopping. Those who are currently responsible for 60% of the world’s consumption and with vast disposable incomes but few needs must have new needs created for them. Inducing them to remain childish and impetuous in their taste helps to insure they will buy the goods designed for indolent prosperous youth.”




The numbers are telling. In 2013, while $134 billion was spent on development aid, over $500 billion was spent on advertising. 

Goodman asked us to be astonished at facts we’ve come to take for guaranteed. That during my productive years I will spend eight hours a day doing what is no good. That I will spend the money I earn on things I don’t really need. Satisfying needs I don’t really have.

Why Grow up

This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Why Grow Up: Subversive thoughts for an infantile age. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

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