Greg Giraldo, another brilliant dead guy, from his final CC special (and album) "Midlife Vices":
The economy's been terrible, of course. But you know what? There's some good things about the economy being so bad. People are keeping things in perspective for the first time ever. It's unbelievable, people saying things like, "you know what? I hate my job, but in this economy, I'm happy just to have my job. A lot of people don't have their jobs, you know? I didn't get a raise this year, but in this economy, I'm happy just to have what I have. A lot of people don't have that. I have a shit car, But in this economy, I'm happy I still have my car. A lot of people don't even have cars in this economy.
This is the setup for, of all things, a buttsex joke. Giraldo was well above average at the "Let's get serious for a moment…" setup with a completely juvenile punchline. But the reason that the audience bites on this intro is that it is quite true. The Great Recession has prompted a noticeable downshift in the kind of out-of-control materialism that we all love to decry. For the first time in my lifetime, people seem to be unashamed of, you know, buying used things, or making things, or driving small cars, or specifically avoiding all of the usual American "Hey look at how much money I have!" behaviors (that usually signified little more than a high tolerance for borrowing money – but that's another story). Lazy journalists have told the story of "Downshifting" repeatedly since 2008, those endlessly derivative Sunday magazine features about Bonnie and Dale who used to make $250,000 per year, got laid off, and now understand the simple pleasures of used Volvos*, NPR, recycling, knitting sweaters, camping vacations, and planting an organic kale garden.
It's understandable why people think this is a good thing. Certainly the attitudes in our society toward wealth, consumption, and quality of life were (and remain) seriously out of whack in recent years. The kind of values these stock characters exemplify – thrift, simplicity, and so on – also happen to be in line with my own. I should be happy about people "keeping things in perspective for the first time ever." But every time I hear these stories I want to find the responsible six-figure-earning segment producers responsible for it and go on a choking spree. "Keeping things in perspective" is a good idea, except, as is the case in this great experiment in economic insecurity without social upheaval, when it is a more polite way of saying "Lower your expectations" and "Know your place."
It would be great if Americans decided to drive small cars because they realize "Hey, a three person household doesn't need a damn SUV!", but that suggests behaviors changing due to lessons learned. What these tales always imply, though, is that people are merely learning to (insert trite phrase like "make do with less" here). They traded the SUV for a small car because they can't afford the SUV anymore. People aren't "downshifting" because it struck them that working 60 hours per week is a waste of one's life; they're doing it because some guy in Indonesia is now doing their job.
Someone with a sunnier disposition might consider this a net positive regardless. Anything that makes Americans behave less like teen girls let loose in the mall with an unlimited credit card has to be good, right? The problem is that we have all seen the data repeatedly and we know that some Americans – not many, but some – are doing extraordinarily well these days. Far from downshifting their lifestyles, they're doing the exact opposite. If I was a cynic, I might think that all of this Luddite glorification of gardening and handcrafts and home cooked meals and bicycling and thrift was just a way for the people in control to streamline costs. And that's without even getting into the further shift in the employee-employer balance of power implied by lines of reasoning like, "My job sure does suck a lot of ass, but I should be happy just to have it!"
I want to buy used clothes and repair them with a sewing kit because I want to buy used clothes and repair them with a sewing kit – not because I work full time and can't afford a $15 pair of new jeans. There's a big difference between those two scenarios, a difference that journalists and social commentators – lovers of subtlety, one and all – have neglected to appreciate. Shocking, I know.
* This autocorrects to "vulvas." Be careful.