In The New York Times Magazine: Deconstructing the “New Thrift”

Posted by Rob Walker on December 13, 2008
Posted Under: America,Consumed,The Trend Industry

Consumer spending finally falters — can it be good news?

This week in Consumed, as part of the Times Magazine‘s annual “Year In Ideas” issue, I look at the repackaging of falling consumer spending as frugality chic. Is this truly a sea change in values?

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?

Read the whole column here, or in the December 14, 2008 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

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Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

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