Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Boomers, Frugality and the Revolt against Consumerism

by James A. Bacon

Only in New York: Reeling from the financial catastrophe on Wall Street and fearing a collapse of the Sex in the City-style conspicuous consumption, fashion mavens have conjured up a new phrase, “recessionista,” to describe free spenders who are going down-market. Instead of buying $1,235 patent-leather satchels with golden accoutrements designed by Anya Hindmarch, reports the New York Times, these trendy young women are heading to Target (as in, tar-jay) to purchase similar purses by the same designer, but made of polyvinyl chloride, for $49.99.

Mass over consumption dies hard in the United States.

But New York may be not be typical. The rest of the country seems to be responding at a more profound level to hard times. In New Hope, Pa., the Ingram-Behre family overhauled a year ago its profligate lifestyle – dining out, shopping for entertainment, expensive cruises and trips to Disney World – with the goal of paying down debt and building its net worth. Predicting a “new age of frugality,” BusinessWeek described how the Ingram-Behres household now buys clothes at consignment shops, turns out the lights and often walks places instead of driving there. Earlier this year, the family saved enough money to pay off one of its auto loans.

The question is whether the new-found frugality is a temporary response to the shock of plummeting real estate and stock values, or does it foreshadow a fundamental shift in values and priorities? Are Americans going the “recessionista” route, in which extravagant spending will likely rebound as soon as the economy does, or are they following the Ingram-Behres by eschewing the ethic of “he who dies with the most stuff wins”?

Clearly, financial turmoil has filled Americans with a fear that impacts the here and now. The Consumer Confidence Index, updated Tuesday, stands at the lowest level since its inception in 1967. The Index plummeted to 38 in October from a reading of 61.4 in September.

But at the Boomer Project, we sense that there’s more to the story: Americans from all generations are turning their backs on the materialist, consumer-driven culture of the past. Read more.

("Viva the Vital" column republished from the Oct. 30, 2008, edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Photo credit: The Great Dickens Christmas Fair.)

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