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The PoMa paradox

By Don Arthur - posted Friday, 19 June 2009

Are you appalled by McMansions, $4000 barbeques and luxury 4WDs that never leave the bitumen? Does Clive Hamilton’s book Affluenza strike a chord with you? Do you dream of downshifting to simpler lifestyle but feel you can’t afford it? If so, you could be a “PoMa” - a post materialist consumer.

PoMas are appalled by consumerism and overconsumption. They believe that happiness comes from relationships with friends and family rather than relationships with things. And they can’t understand why other people get so excited about big screen televisions, luxury cars or huge houses with ensuites and games rooms. PoMas place more value on experiences than on things. They try to live simply and get anxious about the impact their lifestyle has on the environment.

But at the same time, PoMas never seem to have enough money. It’s not that they’re low paid - PoMas are often senior public servants, teachers or professionals - it’s that the money just doesn’t go far enough. Despite living in modest houses, dressing cheaply, cycling to work and avoiding big televisions and home entertainment systems, PoMas are never able to feel financially relaxed.


Three things help explain this apparent paradox - the cost of housing, the cost of services and the cost of “moral necessities”.

PoMas want to live near the city so that they can be near family and friends, cycle to work and walk to the library. They don’t want to waste time sitting in traffic emitting greenhouse gases. The ideal place to live is close to an area with cafes, restaurants and the kind of book shop where authors go to launch their latest works.

This usually means living in a run down terrace house or a poky apartment. As a result it doesn’t feel materialistic. Often there’s no clothes dryer or dishwasher. The television and stereo are basic and the lounge room is dominated by books and children’s toys. But in the most sought after PoMa suburbs, even a house that’s falling down costs as much as an outer-suburban four bedroom home with double garage and ensuite. The mortgage can be crippling.

Materialism is about wanting things. But aside from their home, what PoMas are really interested in are services and experiences. Education, health and fitness form a big part of the lifestyle. Working life begins with HECS debt and full-time work is often combined with further study. Children need to go to decent schools and this often means private schools. And if a child is struggling, then there needs to money for coaching or a psychologist.

In a PoMa household there’s almost always someone with a food allergy or intolerance. Getting to the bottom of physical or behavioural problems is a priority and this often means seeing specialists - naturopaths, Feldenkrais practitioners, Pilates instructors or dieticians. Unexplained rashes, poor posture or sleeplessness are all likely to stimulate spending. Treatments are never one-off.

While flat screen televisions, surround sound home entertainment systems and stainless steel barbeques all seem to be getting cheaper, services just get more and more expensive. It’s not uncommon for a child’s visits to the orthodontist to cost more than a house full of widescreen TVs.


Much of a PoMa household’s spending on consumer goods is about caring for people and caring for the planet. A new car is often an unexpected expense. Although a PoMa couple might start out with a cheap second-hand hatch, the arrival of children changes things. Small cars without air bags and crumple zones aren’t safe enough for babies. So the question is now: should we buy a Prius? In the end it’s more likely to be Subaru Outback or something with a bit more space or style. But inevitably it’s something a lot more expensive than a $14,990 Korean hatch.

Naturally, whitegoods like washing machines need to be environmentally friendly. If buying the cheapest top-loader and refrigerator from Harvey Norman means consuming more water and coal than necessary, then it’s not an acceptable choice.

Food costs are also higher in a PoMa household. Who wants to feel like they’re exploiting third world peasants every time they drink a cup of coffee? And who wants to be morally implicated in the torture of chickens? In a PoMa home coffee is likely to be fair trade and eggs free range. Unfortunately, documentary makers are constantly finding more and more examples of exploitation and environmental degradation. It started with coffee but soon spread to chocolate. And for every food atrocity there’s an expensive anxiety-free alternative available at the local markets.

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First published in Club Troppo on June 17, 2009.

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About the Author

Don Arthur lives Canberra where he is employed as a researcher with a non-profit social services agency. He has written for Policy magazine and the Evatt Foundation. He currently writes for the group blog Club Troppo. The views expressed here are his own and are not necessarily shared by his employers - past or present.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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