Coping With The Crisis

Gucci bags and iPhones may gather dust in the upcoming months due to the current financial crisis. Many of us will now have to change our lifestyles considerably. Thoughtless consuming will no longer be an option. We will be forced to cut out luxuries that we previously took for granted. But what we think will kill us may actually save us. A few weeks ago, renowned economist Dr. Juliet Schor came to speak to the Andover community about why Americans consume so much. For the most part, it was the typical Powerpoint presentation: graphs, pictures and accompanying written explanations. But there was also one underlying message—how the need to consume affects communities. During her presentation, Schor discussed a topic that I had never heard of before. It was called “Keeping up with the Gates.” This concept describes the working class’s need to expand their material wealth relative to those who are socioeconomically well-off. Schor used the example of Bill and Melinda Gates. She contrasted this idea to the concept of “Keeping up with the Jones.” During the 50s and continuing through the 70s, the working class felt a need to expand their material wealth “horizontally.” This meant that they were trying to maintain their material wealth within their socioeconomic limits. Then came the 80s and, of course, the “yuppies.” With the economic boom of that decade, many people aspired to live the lifestyle of the rich and famous. But this desire fueled only one thing: the need for more. But consumers didn’t just want more within their socioeconomic limits. They wanted bigger cars and houses, more designer clothing and other apparel. This desire for more material wealth also fueled the middle class’s desire to work harder. The more people worked, the more income they could bring in. The more income they could bring in, the more they could consume. As the decade of the yuppies progressed, the divide between rich and poor became greater, and gated communities sprouted up all around the United States. The rich became more sheltered from the problems of the poor, and their prior interest in helping the less fortunate decreased. This trend of working and consuming goes on today. Our generation faces challenges confronted by adolescents worldwide. Many of us have not yet had to work a full-time job, and therefore we never really know how much our parents work to give us the luxuries that we often take for granted. Those of us who depend on our parents for everything are in for quite a shock. We are going through some of the worst economic times since the Great Depression. Stories of disappointed children whose parents are cutting back are already running in the New York Times. Children who are used to getting what they want without question are now being forced to prioritize. A lot of children who grew up in sheltered, privileged communities are now being forced to see the stark reality of relative economic hardship. But even if some of these families aren’t “impoverished” per se, they are being forced to change their lifestyles drastically. Yet even as people of all socioeconomic strata reel from the recent market crash, the divide between rich and poor continues to grow. Those who do not swim will sink and vice versa. This only makes the lifestyle switch even greater. A great example of sinking or swimming came from my brother Max. He works at JPMorgan Chase (one of the only surviving major financial institutions) in San Francisco. Recently, half of the people at his branch were laid off. He, however, was fortunate enough to retain his job. But think of all of those workers who were not so lucky. Think of their families. They sank, and they sank badly. Now think of your own father or mother. Maybe your parents have lost their jobs, or maybe they haven’t. But consider this: would you be able to change your lifestyle tomorrow if your parents lost their jobs? The biggest problem with our privileged generation is that our parents are always working, always enriching our lifestyles to the point where we feel (or felt) that none of it could be taken away from us, that the only way to go was up. We even began to make an emotional investment in our material possessions. So if those things were to be taken away from us, we would feel as if a piece of ourselves would be taken away as well. Those among us who may pore through Apple’s latest products or go shopping every weekend know well this love of material possessions. Now imagine your family selling their home and going to a public school. A new era is dawning, one in which those who are used to living a sheltered lifestyle must come face to face with the harsher realities of other parts of the United States and of the world. We need to stop depending on material things that could be taken away from us in an instant. We need to educate ourselves about the economy and figure out a way to solve this economic mess. We need to become the solution generation. Ben Talarico is a two-year Lower from Suquamish, Wash.