LONGMONT, Colo. — Columnists ranging from Dave Barry to Fareed Zakaria agree that 2010 was a bust and, surely, 2011 will be better. The mood of Americans confirmed pundits’ consensus that 2010 was one of the worst in memory. Gallup tracking polls reveal that the number of Americans’ satisfied with the direction of the country dipped to a meager 17% in late December.
We all agree that we’ve been through some tough times. Now, many people are trying to figure out what the “new normal” will be as the Great Recession ebbs. In what ways, if at all, have Americans and American life been permanently changed?
I suggest the new normal will look a lot like the old though in a very different context.
People seek the same qualities of life now that they have for generations: security, control (or a sense of freedom), meaning and balance. (Balance is, perhaps, the newbie among these four qualities. Natural limits of time, space and resources used to force balance upon us. More about this below.) There was a moment in the 1990s in which many people felt that we had permanently achieved these goals. What’s frustrating for so many, now, is that moment in time appears to have been an illusion.
The first three qualities – security, control and meaning – tend to develop as a package. As a person establishes personal and financial security, she also gains a sense of control over her life. We have expression to reinforce the importance people place on security and control – for instance, “Everyone is a king in his own home.” Public policy often reinforces these values, too. Owning a home has long been a central element of the American Dream.
Achieving security and control, creates meaning in many people’s lives. In past generations, before homes became ATM machines, people celebrated their last house payment with mortgage burning parties. When I talk with older Americans, many talk with pride about the money they saved for their children’s education and their own retirement. Their greatest fear is that they will one day be a burden to their children or spouse, which would erode the legacy of security and control they worked a lifetime to achieve.
Americans, over the past couple of decades, took short cuts to achieve what our parents and grand parents worked years to accomplish. Our path has been made easier by the declining costs of many of life’s basics. Food, clothing and transportation are a fraction of the price they once were and the quality and selection of goods is better. (Some of us are old enough to remember $500 microwaves and $100 simple calculators. And, our family had canteloup on New Year’s Day.)
We have also bought homes, cars and sundry consumer goods on easy credit, swelling home equity and rising household incomes. This part of the shortcut was not stainable and we knew it. In my interviews over the past decade, people talked often about the house of cards they had built for themselves. In speeches, I described people’s feelings as the “Age of Anxiety” – long before the illusion faded.
Wages have been stagnant for many years. People increased their household incomes by working more hours – either a second person entered the work force or individuals took on a second job. This certainly made consumption of luxury goods and experiences far easier to justify. Indeed, we embraced consumerism to such an extent that new industries have been born to deal with the excess – second hand retail and self-storage (who knew both industries have trade associaions), despite a doubling of average house size and a halving of house occupants over the past few generations.
Our embrace of consumerism also left families wondering what would happen if there was a dip in their precarious revenue stream. Over the past two-plus years, we’ve found out.
People not only feel financially stretched but also time starved. We have filled our growing abundance of leisure time with activities. Family calendars are crowded with an excess of activities that often add more stress than satisfaction to people’s lives. Mothers and fathers feel more like logistics coordinators and chauffeurs than parents. Parents relish the opportunities their children have to participate in any conceivable activity but are tired just getting through a normal day.
What have we learned from several decades of gluttony? Consumption does not create lasting meaning in our lives. In fact, it can erode the very qualities of life that help give us a sense of meaning. As we’ve embraced the consumer approach to every aspect of life – including education, marriage and religion – we’ve lost our sense of security and control.
In many ways, Americans have come full circle since World War II. We have enjoyed riches and opportunities unprecedented in history. Yet, at the end of a long run, we crave the same things people have always wanted: security, control (freedom) and meaning, now, leavened with a healthy dose of balance.
What’s different is that we must learn to achieve these lifestyle aspirations in a context unknown to our parents and grandparents. The structures of work, learning, socializing and many other aspects of daily life that defined the lives of generations of Americans are quickly fading away.
Time, geography, and social norms, for instance, once forced healthy limits upon our consumption. Now it is possible to instantly satisfy nearly any legitimate need and frivolous whim at any time – 24/7/365 (a set of numbers seldom if ever used in this way until the rise of the internet). The ability to gain instant gratification will not go away. Instead, we must learn to strike balance in our lives with temptation lurking on our shoulder, incessantly whispering in our ear.
How will we define personal and economic security in a world in which the marketplace and productivity puts a constant downward pressure on wages?
How will we maintain control of our lives in a world in which temptation and distraction are more easily accessible than ever?
How will we discover meaning in a world in which many of life’s basics are so inexpensive that they take little effort to acquire?
What does it mean to achieve balance in a world without any defined limits?
These are among the many questions we must answer. We want the same things people have always aspired to have: security, control, meaning and balance. But, we are the first generation in many that must redefine their meaning.
That’s the new normal.
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