The Common Good

The New Consumer: Has the Recession Changed Us?

As young kids, my sister and I always loved to rummage through my grandmother's basement. Creaky wooden steps that my dad once scampered across led to a rectangle with smooth concrete walls, warmed by piles of discarded clothing and linens. The room was lit only by naked light bulbs that screwed directly into the socket with only those dangling strings to pull. We had to jump in order to reach.

We'd sit around the table upstairs with Grandma and our parents, for as long as we could stand the smell of their coffee and banter about all the trappings of their adult lives. We were waiting for the perfect pause in conversation, "Hey Grandma, can we go down into the basement?" To which Grandma would always roll her eyes and say, "Oh, you kids, it is such a mess down there! I'm going to clean it someday, then you can go down and play." To which we whined, "pleeeeeaaasssseeee," like any seasoned child will do until Grandma relented and granted access to her land of treasure.

Boxes that held my father's school books and homework from his elementary school years. A black case filled with Barbies from my aunt in the 50's. Heaps of clothing that were taller than us. Baby food jars filled with nails and tiny springs. A stack of newspapers well over 20 years old. The original paint from the house. A closet that held barbwire and odd Tupperware that we rarely opened as spiders flowed freely from the gap under the door. My sister once found a ruby ring down in Grandma's basement.

My grandmother was not a hoarder, but she was close. A woman born and raised in the Depression who knew the value of her belongings and the fear that it all might happen again. And a woman who lost her husband, when my dad was just 16 years old, and who held on to every memory of those days that she could. And who held tightly to every smile or sadness provoking moment that followed until Adeline herself left this world, ushered out a bit early by lung cancer.

Today our economic climate is often likened to that of the Great Depression. "It's almost as bad" -- we are told -- as my Grandmother's early days. So this has folks musing, in a good way, about the behavioral changes that will emerge as a result of our economic debacle. For the Depression fueled strong ethics and a penchant for preserving, saving, and understanding "the value of a dollar." It launched women like my Grandmother into an inability to take a single solitary thing for granted. She kept unused butter pads that would have been thrown away with the stale bread from restaurant tables.

After the gluttony of recent decades, we are thrust into what many are speculating is a new era, that the average consumer, once she/he emerges from this recession will look and act differently than the McMansion, enormous car driving, season ticket holding, in debt up to their eyeballs consumer of just five-years-ago. That perhaps modesty and moderation will reign and that even if we can buy all the space in the world, we may choose not to, just for sanity's sake.

David Brooks noted recently: "The United States once had a Gospel of Wealth: a code of restraint shaped by everybody from Jonathan Edwards to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Carnegie. The code was designed to help the nation cope with its own affluence. It eroded, and over the next few years, it will be redefined." So let's chat a bit shall we? Will there be a new consumer? And how indeed will our "Gospel of Affluence" be redefined?

portrait-tracey-bianchiTracey Bianchi blogs about finding a saner, greener life from the heart of the Chicago suburbs. She wrote Green Mama: The Guilt-Free Guide to Helping You and Your Kids Save the Planet (Zondervan 2009) and blogs at traceybianchi.com.

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