Consumers? I don’t buy it

In the process of trying to put people first in policies and planning for aged care, we’ve ended up with a dry economic term that is impersonal, transactional and smacks of a Thatcheresque, reductionist view of the human condition, writes Stephen Judd.


This article appears in the September-October 2013 edition of Australian Ageing Agenda.

By Stephen Judd.

“The term ‘consumer’ is cold and impersonal; it’s hard; and it’s diametrically opposed to caring.”

I walked into the restaurant and sat down at a table. A waiter approached and, somewhat brusquely said, “We are serving ‘consumers’ from this menu. May I recommend the chef’s special?”

I am waiting at the airport for a flight when a voice comes over the PA:  “’Consumers’ of Flight 415 to Canberra can now begin boarding from Gate 10…”

Both these situations are ridiculous! We rarely think of ourselves as ‘consumers’. At a restaurant, we’re diners; on a plane or train, we’re passengers; and even at the supermarket, we’re shoppers or customers rather than ‘consumers’.

This ugly term has insidiously invaded the language of aged care and now it’s become part of the accepted linguistic landscape. It started some years ago when we first heard about the concept of ‘consumer-directed care’.

But it really began to take hold when it was used relentlessly throughout the Productivity Commission’s 2011 report and then in the federal government’s official response released last year:  the Living Longer Living Better reform package.  Should we really be happy to let a dry, economic Treasury commission determine how we henceforth refer to each other?

A transactional concept

If you want to be called a ‘consumer’, be my guest (or should that be my ‘consumer’?).  But personally, I don’t want to describe anyone on those terms. I particularly don’t want to use it to refer to older Australians receiving care and accessing much-needed services.

The term is cold and impersonal; it’s hard; and it’s diametrically opposed to caring. ‘Consumption’:  it’s an economic idea and at its core, it’s about transactions and contracts. It’s certainly not about relationship, let alone therapeutic relationships where there is care and support.

Apart from economists, the people most likely to use the term ‘consumers’ are those in the mass marketing and advertising game. For advertisers, consumers are the mugs who they want to buy more ‘stuff’. A successful advertising campaign makes mugs like us – their ‘consumers’ – feel like we constantly ‘need’ or ‘want’ more.

Another concern is that the relationship between ‘consumers’ and those who sell to them is one-dimensional. They sell: you buy.  Any relationship, by means of feedback, loyalty programs or even saying ‘have a nice day’, is superficial and a means to an end – it’s all about getting you to ‘consume’ even more.

At its most extreme, ‘consumers’ have no worth or value to providers of goods or services beyond their capacity to consume. People become little more than economic units.

Is that how we want to describe relationships in aged care? I certainly don’t. It’s actually antithetical to how I believe we should be providing care and services. Unless I’m totally clueless, our role is to respond effectively to needs, not to magnify them.

And we should be doing that by working in partnership with people – people who belong to families, to neighbourhoods and in communities where values like trust, belonging and commitment are intrinsically important. I believe that people are inherently valuable, simply because they are people. It’s about relationship, not consumption.

The flip side of consumption 

Some people will argue that talking about ‘consumers’ is a way of empowering older Australians by putting the spotlight on ‘choice’. They will say it had to be introduced because people who needed services and support were being denied that choice.

According to this viewpoint, the language of ‘consumers’ brings us closer to a level playing field, where buyers and sellers engage with each other openly and where ultimate power rests with ‘consumers’ through their capacity to exercise choice – not least, the choice to walk away from an unsatisfactory service. On the surface this claim has merit.  But is it true?

In so many cases, older Australians and their families make choices about care and services at a crisis point:  an unexpected hospitalisation or the loss of a partner or carer. These are hardly the type of circumstances that anyone would choose to go through and the cold terminology of the marketplace is misplaced when you are confronted by complex decision making.

And while it’s true that choice is empowering, poor choices by a ‘consumer’ can be very unforgiving. If an older ‘consumer’ errs and enters into a bad ‘transaction’, the flipside to a level playing field means it’s all too easy for the seller of the service to turn around and say: “Sorry Enid, you made the wrong choice! You’re on your own now”. While the language of the market may seem empowering, its values can be far from caring.

Choice puts the focus on individual independence but on its own, this can be a blunt instrument. I feel there’s another side to the equation. By all means empower people and emphasise choice, but we must not forget to include some other, non-economic values as well. Values like, oh I don’t know, relationship, support, community, responsibility, trust, and guidance.

The individual person, not the consumer

Margaret Thatcher once famously said: “There is no such thing as society”. This was a terrifying, shorthand expression of Thatcher’s assertion that the human experience can be reduced to merely two components – the individual and the market. Perhaps we should not be surprised that when Thatcher recently died she, sadly, died lonely and alone.

But the reductionist, economic view of the human condition that she espoused lives on and, almost virally, there are attempts to infect our very language and behaviours.

Because language is so powerful we should guard against such attempts. If we want to improve the quality of life for people in need then the language we choose to use is critical. Join my campaign to say, “no”, to using the word ‘consumer’ and instead, say a resounding “yes”, to engaging and trusting individuals and their choices, while building relationships that are respectful, therapeutic and enabling.

Dr Stephen Judd is chief executive of HammondCare.


Editor’s note

The term, ‘consumer’ has been questioned in a number of recent forums; so have words like ‘elderly’ and ‘senior’. At the COTA National Policy forum in Canberra in July there was a lot of talk about language and nomenclature but no clear consensus. I asked Dr Judd what term he prefers. “Same as everywhere else in life. You are a resident of a home, a client or customer of a particular service, a diner in a restaurant or café, a theatre goer, a subscriber, an addressee, a voter or whatever you are in that context,” he said.  And in a general service relationship sense, client might be preferable.

Keryn Curtis.



Tags: consumers, hammondcare, language, nomenclature, stephen-judd,

1 thought on “Consumers? I don’t buy it

  1. I could not agree more. I have fought against the term for so long. I am equally saddened by the term ‘service user’. Who wants to be called a user? When asked why I object to these official terms, I ask “what is wrong about being called a person?”. BPSD is another unfortunate ‘official’ term that cannot be questioned, but I do.

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