As the financial crisis snowballed this year, retail sales fell sharply, and government figures showed the first across-the-board decline in consumer spending since 1991. Curiously, many assessments of this development treated it as an exciting new trend — and maybe even an overnight realignment of where and how Americans find meaning and satisfaction in life. The lower-spending shopper of 2008 was promptly cited as evidence of a “new frugality” or a “saving is cool” mentality. “It’s a whole new reassessment of values,” one commentator suggested, while another posited that “America’s love affair with shopping” may be over.
Yeah? That seems like a lot to infer from data points in a government report, particularly when it suggests that yesterday we were vacuous shopping-bots and today we are virtuously sober citizens. Yes, household-debt loads have contracted a bit, but it’s probably not a coincidence that access to debt has contracted, too. And although there is news that some of us are going without luxury goods, there is also news that others are going without fulfilling our doctors’ prescriptions. At this stage, the evident hesitation to spend seems more like a function of fear than of frugality. Consumers, spooked by reports of declining spending, are deciding not to spend.
The truth is that we have long had mixed, even contradictory, feelings about consumption. A few years ago — pretty much at the height of our most recent nationwide spending binge — a nonprofit group called the Center for a New American Dream released a poll in which 81 percent of those surveyed agreed that Americans are “too focused on shopping and spending,” and 88 percent said our society is “too materialistic.” Not long after, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans about various consumer goods we say we “can’t live without.” Between 1996 and 2006 the number of material necessities in our lives grew substantially. Aside from new entries — 49 percent can’t live without a cellphone, and 29 percent said the same of high-speed Internet access — our need for more familiar items spiked, too. The number of people who considered the microwave oven a necessity, for instance, nearly doubled. Some respondents added iPods and flat-screen TVs to the list. Uneasy as we may be about “materialistic” purchases, they remain a tangible proxy for progress.
Second thoughts about that paradigm are nothing new. “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” Jimmy Carter declared in 1979 in his “crisis of confidence” speech. “We’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.” It’s hard to imagine anyone, then or now, arguing otherwise. But who, at the end of the 1970s, would have predicted the emergence of a new normal that included gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s and McMansions?
Somehow the normal of hyperconsumption persisted despite the collapse of the Internet bubble, the vulnerability exposed on 9/11, two wars and stagnant wages. Through it all, consumer spending hardly wavered, the personal savings rate plummeted and personal debt mounted. We were told our willingness to spend more — on fair-trade coffee, eco-friendly totes, organic dog food — demonstrated a fresh consumer sophistication that would change the marketplace. Now, suddenly, our values are reflected in cheap shirts from Costco.
A new normal that revolves around buying lots of stuff while bragging about our bargain-hunting skills doesn’t seem to reflect changed values. There are other possibilities that seem more considered and less reactionary: an organization called the Institute for American Values recently issued a report offering serious suggestions for cultivating a new thrift, like endorsing a public-education campaign; making the Thrift Savings Plan, which lets federal workers regularly sock a portion of their income into diversified investment funds, available to all working Americans; and even a revival of National Thrift Week.
But so far, nobody has quite reconciled the vision of a sober and repentant new shopper with the substantial government efforts to reignite consumer spending. This year’s Black Friday big-box mobs hint that perhaps bargain binges and postmaterialist values aren’t the same thing. If there’s a deeper shift in our thinking, it’s still to come. And maybe it will. After all, the mere fact that we have managed to characterize consumer shock as frugality chic offers a perverse form of hope: That whatever happens, we’ll never lose our tendency toward optimism — even, it turns out, about our pessimism.
This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, December 12, 2008.