There is a lot of talk these days about the difference between thinking of ourselves as consumers vs. citizens.
And while we may sense that this difference is a pretty big deal, no one I know is able to immediately put their finger on what that difference actually means. What would change in how we live our day-to-day lives if we were to see ourselves as citizens first and foremost? What would change if our view of being a consumer was seen through the lens of being a citizen?
What’s the Difference?
Growing up in an economy so dependent upon personal consumption, most people I know have little difficulty describing what it means to relate to the world as a consumer. People talk about expectations of exchange and quid pro quo. They talk about transactional relationships, a sense of entitlement and WIIFM.
Almost every time I ask about what it means to be a citizen, though, my friends become quiet. They take a moment or two to collect their thoughts. (This alone is interesting – my friends skew towards the socially conscious and articulate end of the spectrum. When such individuals can far more easily define what it means to be a consumer than what it means to be a citizen, that is telling, in and of itself.)
The word “citizen” has its roots in the word “city” – an inhabitant of a city, a member of a community. Being a citizen isn’t about doing something (consuming); it is about being something. We don’t “do” citizen; we BE citizens.
As a member of a community, being a citizen means being part of something bigger than oneself. We may have a choice about whether or not we consume, but we have no choice about affected by the communities that surround us. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, everything and everyone is interconnected, interdependent.*
Through the lens of the consumer, there is only one way to participate – to buy stuff.
As citizens, there are infinite ways to participate. And while one of those ways is indeed to buy stuff, we can participate as citizens not just with our money, but with all that we have – our money, our time, our possessions, our relationships.
As citizens, we can also participate with what we do – our work, our play, our interactions with others. And we can participate simply in how we be – open or closed, kind or miserly, judgmental or tolerant.
When we are participating as citizens, we are not “buying healthcare,” but making sure everyone in our community is healthy, because if there is sickness, it is bad for everyone, including me.
When we are participating as citizens, we are not “giving back by donating / volunteering” (i.e. I get, therefore I give), but participating in how our community functions, in all the critical ways required of a 21st century community.
When we are participating as citizens, we are not demanding that others be actively engaged while we slack off. Participating as a member of my community means being the community I want to see, to the best of my ability, in everything I do.
The difference between choosing to see ourselves as citizens first vs. consumers first – the choice between participating and engaging vs. consuming – will make the difference in creating a healthy, vibrant community.
But perhaps even more applicable to how we live our day-to-day lives is the fact that one of those lenses will fill up each day with a bit more joy, while the other will fill those days with a sense of scarcity and longing. And that’s because participating and engaging with family and neighbors and friends is not something to do while we’re waiting for the big reward. It is what makes life itself the reward, right here now.
And you can’t buy that.
* “Everything and everyone is interconnected and interdependent, whether we acknowledge that or not” is Principle #3 from The Pollyanna Principles.