Published on: May 28, 2009Now available on iTunes…
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“The “new normal,” I’m afraid, is well on its way to becoming one of the catch phrases that we’re all going to get sick of.
It’s in headlines everywhere, especially as pundits and consultants try to figure out ways to market their services around a phrase that has more alliteration than meaning.
There have been a number of stories and columns here on the site since the beginning of the recession that have referenced this phrase. And, I confess, I’ve used the phrase myself, both here in my commentaries and various rants and in the speeches that I give around the country. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
The phrase popped up again this week in a story that ran on Bloomberg, where it was reported that Americans “may have to get used to unemployment greater than eight percent for the first time since 1983 and an economy that won’t grow much beyond two percent as a consequence of the lost confidence in consumer credit that shattered financial markets.”
One analyst even suggested to Bloomberg that the nation could be returning to an era like the 1950’s, and that families will resemble the Cleavers from “Leave It To Beaver” … which wouldn’t be so bad since the Cleavers weren't up to their eyeballs in debt and seemed perfectly happy.
Analysts refer to the situation as a “new frugality,” and suggest that this is “a secular change in household attitudes.” In other words, a “new normal.”
At the risk of contradicting analysts who almost certainly are a lot smarter than me, I think this is nonsense.
For lots of reasons.
The notion that we are returning to a Cleaver-like existence is just silly. Except on TV Land, that world doesn’t exist anymore. In fact, I’m not sure it ever did, except on television sitcoms.
There are a lot of reasons that the economy tanked. You can certainly rank greed as being somewhere near the top of the list, but the more I think about it, it seems to me that “greed” is an overly simplistic word to use. Sure, there was plenty of naked greed – people who wanted money and toys for the sake of having them.
Did it get way, way out of hand in some cases? Sure. I know a family where they have a tennis court in the backyard, a full-sized pool in the side yard, a pool house that is bigger than my entire house, and a full basketball court in the basement…and still the mom whines about not being particularly happy.
But there also were some basic human aspirations at work that had something to do with providing more for one’s family, for doing better than one’s parents, for achieving a certain level of achievement that stood as a marker for success. That got out of hand, too…but a lot of these people had good hearts and nothing but honorable intentions.
Will the current recession cause a fundamental change in attitudes across the demographic board? I’m not sure the answer is a cut-and-dried yes. For some people it will, and some people will lapse into old habits. And, I think, a lot of people will continue to have aspirations for themselves and their families…and it would be silly to suggest that these have vanished because of a year or two or three of tough economic times.
Another reason that it is a mistake to paint with such a broad brush – and I include myself in the group that needs to be admonished – is that we have no idea where the bottom is and how long the recession will last. Things have been looking up lately, but let’s face it – in the words of the great William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.”
Finally, it is dangerous to think about the American consumer as part of a homogeneous group with predictive behavior. Really, really dangerous. Especially because we have no idea how the younger generation of consumers – you know, the ones who don't remember a world without Google and Amazon and iPods, and whose behavior reflects easy access to information and a sense of entitlement to a life that lives up to their expectations and ideals – we have no idea how this younger generation will react to the economic tumult they see around them. So we cannot predict their behavior. There simply is no blueprint from which to draw judgments.
Which is why we all should be careful about making pronouncements about the “new normal,” and spent a lot more time listening, especially to the words and cadences of a younger generation that has much to teach us.
I will suggest one thing, though. I don’t see the whole Ward and June Cleaver thing making a comeback. And I’m guessing that the analyst who suggested that it might has some sort of weird Barbara Billingsley fixation.
For MorningNewsBeat Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.
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