A time for Citizens

And then it all went wrong.

I remember a particular conversation with my first boss. He defined my job like this: “The average consumer sees somewhere between 1500 and 3000 commercial messages a day. You have to cut through that. Your job is to make yours the best.”

What are we doing to ourselves, to our ideas of what is possible, and to our relations with one other, when we tell ourselves we’re Consumers 3000 times a day?

I’ve been asking that question now for 10 years and more. It’s been a difficult journey, challenging emotionally as well as intellectually. Along the way I’ve gathered three Masters degrees and delved into every academic discipline from animal behaviour to history to social psychology to moral philosophy.

But the Consumer story has flaws as fatal as those of the Subject.

The field of social psychology provides perhaps the most compelling evidence. A range of studies suggest that the introduction of even the single word “Consumer” in the framing of a survey questionnaire can undermine motivation for everything from caring for your neighbours, to being active in your local community, to protecting the environment.

I don’t work in advertising any more.

Nor am I an academic. A few years ago, my old friend Irenie Ekkeshis, a brilliant woman who embodies the power of action over words, dragged me out of academia, and together we set up the New Citizenship Project.

We live in dangerous and uncertain times.

The story of the Consumer is dying, but it is still dominant. The Citizen is emerging, but it is not fully formed. There is no guarantee that it will happen — indeed, our daily news can make a step back to the Subject story seem more likely than a step forward into the Citizen.



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Jon Alexander

Jon Alexander


Co-Founder, New Citizenship Project and Author, CITIZENS: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us