One social fact which should make everyone of us in these United States thank his or her Maker, higher power, familiar, djinn or daemon for having been born American is that every so often we get to go on one helluva ride. This ride, complete with vertiginous ascents and precipitous drops, rivals the most advanced rides amusement parks have to offer. The name of this ride? “Job churn.” Once you get on, you never get off — nor would you want to when so many chills, thrills, and, most importantly, dollar bills await. Or so the decades-old story goes, anyway.
One marketing and management book, bearing the formidable title, Commoditization and Strategic Response, lets us in on what’s now more or less an open secret. Like most everything in contemporary life (and this includes amusement park rides), job churn has gone extreme, thanks in large part to the magic of globalized wage arbitrage, labor-union routing, sustained periods of easy credit (at ridiculously low interest rates for those with access to the Federal Reserve’s discount window, at usuriously high rates for those with access only to the window of the nearby bullet-proofed payday loan operation), and the like. The result? Well, as Andrew Holmes, author of said formidably titled text, puts it, “job churn is increasing at a much higher rate than in the past” by dint of the fact that “the massive layoffs [which] came with … downsizing projects” meant that as corporations “restabilized” they “continued much as before — just a bit leaner and meaner.”
I think the emphasis should definitely rest on “meaner.” For if the past 30 or so years have taught us anything, it’s that no profit is so ethically dubious as to discourage its pursuit, even if the pursuit visits the ravages of dislocation and anomie on nearly everyone. The current recession, now officially dubbed the Great Recession (Always the bridesmaid, never the bride!), has served us up liberal doses of both the former and the latter, to be sure — and with scads more to spare.
In a review appearing in the October 2009 issue of The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz assays to con the general shape and drift of existing conditions, using none other than our Great Recession’s big Sis, The Great Depression herself (Economic downturns, like ships, are to be referred to in the feminine. I decided!) “Today’s members of the middle and professional classes wonder daily what the new normal will be,” writes Schwarz:
They’re aware, some vaguely, others acutely, that during this period — the most chastening experience in their lives — their families’ habits and attitudes are changing both conspicuously and imperceptibly. They chew over what further adjustments are prudent; they worry over what additional ones may become necessary. And perhaps most disquietingly, they speculate whether the adjustments they’ve made in the face of unprecedented uncertainty — and whether that uncertainty itself — will become enduring features of their lives.
Causing the broad middle classes more concern than anything else these days is the possibility that austerity today means austerity tomorrow, as well as the next day, and the next day. Schwarz continues:
We have learned from the Depression that the country, eventually, recovers: the Second World War brought economic revival, and the postwar boom followed. End of story. But what’s true for the economy and the country in the broadest sense wasn’t true for the people who endured the Depression. College enrollments dropped … and careers were delayed and forsaken. For those starting out in the 1930s, opportunities were lost forever. The same may be true for those in the starting blocks now. And you in the midstretch — with your shrunken home values and denuded brokerage accounts, 401(k)s, and 529s — take heed: … Much of the upper-middle class never had the time to recover all the ground they had lost so quickly, a fact that bestowed on a generation an attenuated and seemingly premature sense of life’s doors closing.
The fear, I guess, is that with increasingly scarce consumer credit, rate and fee hikes on credit still available, and the disappearance of no-questions-asked jumbo mortgages, these classes fear they are destined never to return to the Big Rock Candy Mountain of consumerism.
Of course, this is not how these classes represent the problem to themselves. Their slant is, rather, that their children and their children’s children may not have it as good as they did. But this is the prettified way of putting it. In truth, they’re worried that their children and their children’s children will have snatched from them the exorbitant privilege of indulging their ephemeral pleasures with made-to-break trifles produced by sweated and immiserated workers throughout the developing world.
So how do Americans kick against the pricks of foreclosed opportunity and gloomy prospects? They do it only as Americans can — by making a virtue of necessity. (Well not a virtue really; more a frivolity.)
Yes, the Great Recession can strip us of just about everything, but it cannot touch our many-layered, flip-chapeau, self-consciously ironic identifications.
The March 15, 2009 edition of The Washington Post features a story on “recession chic.” Slumming has always been a favorite pastime of the beau monde, but it had heretofore been a sordid, shameful thing. Now, however, it bears the imprimaturs of trend spotters and taste makers, so young urban professionals can stand proudly with hipsters (always early adopters of dishabille modishness) and the truly poverty-stricken (the earliest adopters of them all), savoring all the downmarket delights the wrong side of the tracks has to offer. “Enter the ‘recessionista,’” the story reports, positioning its central meme for takeoff:
Whereas a year ago this person may have attended the gala du jour in a brand new designer frock, she’s now wearing one recycled from the back of her closet. She is learning to cook at home — maybe even from vintage Depression-era recipes! And she’s conspicuous about her non-conspicuous, discount-store, coupon-carrying consumption. She’s a cousin, perhaps, to the type of person who totes a “This is Not a Plastic Bag” bag, except that, rather than crusading sanctimoniously for the environment, she’s crusading for her own cultural relevance.
Yes, the Great Recession can strip us of just about everything, but it cannot touch our many-layered, flip-chapeau, self-consciously ironic identifications. It’s comforting to know that while economic crises make the prosperous poor, it makes the poor poorer still. At least structures of class relations remain in place, having only adjusted downward to accommodate prevailing conditions. By choosing ironically to emulate the truly poor, we fetishize the choice as eagerly as any commodity. The choice alone keeps absolute equivalence at bay; as poor as we are, we’re never so poor as that if for no other reason that the truly poor cannot choose their poverty, while we tarnished, knowing angels of postmodernity always can.
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