A long time ago, in the 1970s, my grandmother and I were chatting about kitchens. My husband and I had just purchased our first home, a tiny terraced house that was cheap because no work had been done on it since it was built about eighty years before. It had packed earth floors downstairs, no electricity, and the only water supply was a cold tap outside the back door. Because of this, we had qualified for a government improvement grant, which covered half the cost of bringing the property up to modern standards. This meant that our savings stretched further than we had anticipated, so we were trying to choose a kitchen that was within our budget: hence the discussion with my grandmother.
During the course of that discussion, I mentioned that I would ideally like a small gas cooker, like hers, as the big sleek modern ones, all shiny steel and toughened glass, would look out of place in our little kitchen, but that I hadn’t found any yet. She told me that hers had been a wedding present, back in 1927, and that it had accompanied her and my grandfather on each house move since. We got to talking about other household goods, and it turned out that most of the appliances that they’d been given then or bought in the early years of their marriage were still working.
Fifty years! Who would expect household appliances to last that long nowadays?
We live in a throw-away world. My first laptop is still going strong after twelve years (although it isn’t internet-capable, being so old), whereas my latest one has only just outlasted its three years extended warranty. The old mono record player that I grew up with was only reluctantly scrapped when all my father’s records had been recorded onto CDs, whereas I’ve lost count of how many cassette-, CD- and mp3 players we as a family have bought, used and taken to the recycling centre. My husband has a T Ford that is still a reliable and regularly-used form of transport, more than ninety years after it rolled off that early production line, whereas my ten-year-old little runabout will soon have so much rust that there won’t be enough solid metal to weld new plates to!
Now, if you thought that this was going to be a lament about the good old days, with a Victor Meldrew-style disgust for the degenerate times we live in, I’m going to disappoint you. True, I regret that things are no longer built to last. And it pains me to see how profligate we are with the earth’s precious and limited resources. But I do see that this trend is almost inevitable. With increased mechanisation and easy transport, manufactured goods cost less in real terms. And with better working conditions and the increasing complexity of modern products, repairing goods is sure to cost more in real terms than fifty or a hundred years ago. When you add in the iniquitous practice – surely also only to be expected in a capitalist society – of building in obsolescence, so that goods are designed to outlive their guarantee, but only just, forcing the consumer to replace them regularly; well, it’s no wonder that manufactured goods don’t last very long. Even if they did, one of the consequences of a society that aims for economic growth, year on year, for ever and ever, is that this year’s model is always faster, sleeker, smaller, bigger, or a more fashionable colour than last year’s, and the marketing maestros will make sure we know just how far down the pecking order we belong if we don’t upgrade.
And so, my question is this: what does the acceptance that everything is transitory do to us? How does it affect us, when it’s driven home to us, day after day, that nothing lasts very long, but that it doesn’t matter because we can always get another one? When adverts on the television, articles in magazines, trend-setters on social media, all hammer into us, from the time that we are old enough to understand, that last year’s toy, game, car, laptop, or phone – you know, the one we thought we couldn’t do without – has mysteriously been metamorphosed into something considerably less desirable now that a newer must-have item is out, what kind of belief system does that set up in us?
Our subconscious is a shadowy entity, and much of its territory is unmapped, but we do know that it sets up very tenacious generalisations, even with less than comprehensive data, as part of our mind’s attempt to make sense of the world that we live in. When it learns that things don’t last, that they break down quite soon, that they’re usually not worth repairing, and that it’s easiest and best just to replace them, do you suppose that our subconscious limits these generalisations to manufactured goods? Or is there a tendency to apply the same tenets to other facets of our life; to our friendships and relationships? Do we, in the twenty-first century, put less effort into keeping our marriages or partnerships sweet, into maintaining contact with our friends, into setting down roots in our community, because there’s a hidden belief that these relationships won’t last, that it’s better to give up at the first sign that we and they have grown away from each other, that things can’t be fixed nearly as easily as they can be replaced? And is there perhaps a subtle expectation that it will be easy to find another best friend, or partner, or spouse, and that the new model is sure to have all the features and advantages that were lacking in the old one?
These are my questions. Does anyone have any answers?