"Excuse me," an elegant young tourist clad in jet-black waved at me. Clutching her boyfriend's arm with one hand and extending a wad of cash in the other, she politely inquired if I would be willing to purchase her a Prada handbag – apparently, the store would only allow her to buy three bags due to high demand. I was dumbstruck by her request: what was this woman doing on a clear summer day, collecting handbags instead of seeing the myriad sights in the City of Light? Was there really nothing better for her to do on holidays than to shop?
Whether at home or abroad, shopping seems to become the national pastime in regions around world. In his article "Shopping or Nothing" (The New Statesman), British columnist Neil Boorman grimly lists, then scratches out activities that might pose a challenge to the "hegemony of leisure-shopping." Visiting art galleries? Only in larger cities. Sports centers? The good ones are often private and require membership. In the 2007 Make Space Youth Review, 80 percent of the 16,000 UK youth surveyed said that they had nowhere to go and nothing to do after school. With the increasing lack of free, clean spaces open to the public, shopping malls have become the one venue where people of all ages and income levels can congregate.
Reasons for the dominance of shopping as leisure are manifold. Some have blamed the closure of spaces such as skate parks and recreation centers: CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, complains that the British, who "invented the park," have cut £1.3 billion from government spending on public parks since 1979. Backed by youth icons like Lily Allen, the London-based advocacy group 4Children has managed to persuade the government to invest £100 million over ten years to create youth-oriented buildings and services.
But could it really just be a lack of free space that drives millions of people to wander aimlessly in shopping districts on their off-time? The boredom reported by British teens is echoed by youth around the world, who have little to do in their off-time but to wander the streets and shop. China has seen the emergence of a "moonlight clan" of young people who binge-spend their paychecks, leaving almost nothing in their savings account. In parts of the Middle East, department stores are starting to rival the mosque and the home as the venue of choice for social interaction. Mona Abaza, an associate professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo, observes that the malls in urban Egypt have become a "pivotal meeting place for young people," and that even during economic recession, kids from the ashwaiyat (slums) flocked to malls to enjoy a "world of simulated social promotion."
It's not just the paucity of imagination or lack of physical space that has elevated shopping from a practical activity into a form of mass-entertainment: the causes are social as well as political. Each day, we are swamped by images of celebrities and role models promoting cars, cosmetics, shoes, and credit cards. When the economy slumps or when terror strikes, governments encourage their people to "go shopping more," as George Bush told the press last winter.
Shopping for pleasure is not a new phenomenon: the trouble with it today is that our generation cannot afford the financial and environmental costs that come with it. Already, the erosion of the middle-class has forced millions into debt to cover their purchases, while the production and waste of one trillion plastic bags each year choking the planet with toxins. Perhaps the future survival of humanity will depend not so much on scientific revelations or on political breakthroughs, but on whether we can find better ways for our children to spend their free time.