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Is This a New Age for American Consumers?

By Daniel Horowitz

Daniel Horowitz. Photo by Jim Gipe.

Families are responding to the current economic crisis in ways that have restored balance to their lives, according to a recent article in The Boston Globe with the headline "Unexpected Benefits." "Shrunken budgets," wrote columnist Maggie Jackson, "are prompting more homemade entertainment, home–cooked meals, and pioneer–type survival strategies for families—all changes that slow down the pace of family life and the recent emphasis on materialism."

This report is not an isolated instance of seeing a silver lining in these perilous economic times.

In November an op–ed in The New York Times heralded a "bright spot" in the recession: Americans were cutting back on consumption and increasing their rate of savings—a trend noted by economists and others as well.

In spring 2009 a number of national magazines—including Time and Newsweek—featured cover stories that focused on the positive side of an enforced turn away from extravagance and indulgence. The April 2009 issue of the liberal American Prospect sported the cover headline "Less Is the New More: Why post–consumer America could be a better place."

Rising unemployment, dramatic reductions in the values of stock portfolios and an increased sense of personal insecurity are, to be sure, painful. However, it is not surprising that many commentators work to find an optimistic side of what often seems an unrelentingly dismal picture. It is reasonable to hope that a less heated and more balanced economy will produce a greener world, strengthen families and restore more traditional values of thrift, saving and reducing.

This is not the first time Americans have seen in adversity the possibility of positive gains. During the Depression of the 1930s, the government promoted a back–to–the–land movement to restore balance between city and country. At the same time, public figures and ordinary Americans embraced a simpler life—out of both economic necessity and moral conviction.

During World War II, government officials and molders of public opinion called on citizens to curtail their expenditures so the nation could dedicate its full effort to winning the war. At Smith, students considered the value of personal sacrifice in order to help the soldiers and the war effort. The college appointed "heat cops" and "light cops" in every house to make sure energy resources were conserved. Nationally, some influential social critics hoped that the nation would learn from wartime conditions to turn away permanently from the chase after materialistic satisfactions. Lewis Mumford, an American cultural and social critic, for example, led the fight for curtailed consumption. He called on his fellow citizens to sacrifice their standard of living, not only for the sake of wartime exigencies but also for the health of postwar democracy.

Similarly, in a 1979 address to the nation, President Jimmy Carter remarked that Americans had "discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose."

At some point in the future, the United States will be on the other side of this economic crisis. The American economic system will develop in new ways—just as the economy of 1936 was different from that of 1926, the nature of capitalism in 1953 distinguished in important ways from that of 1943. As a historian, using the past as prologue, I am certain that the current economic crisis will reshape our beliefs and behavior—in ways that are promising and painful, predictable and unexpected. For some, simplicity will recede as the GDP (gross domestic product) grows, and many will embrace the possibility of returning to patterns of greater consumption underwritten by a robust economy. Others would see any shift back toward a sense of excess as being immoral. In the meantime, it will be helpful to remember that at the heart of America's complicated relationship with consumption is a historical tension between saving and spending, between pleasure and restraint. And the balance between those will continue to shift over time.

Daniel Horowitz, Mary Huggins Gamble Professor of American Studies at Smith College, is the author of The Morality of Spending: Attitudes Toward the Consumer Society in America, 1875–1940 and The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939–1979.

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