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Jennifer Marks

The New Consumerism

May 6, 2009

Atlantic Monthly correspondent Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, has posted a meditation on evolving consumer habits.

The emergence of new consumption patterns takes time. The Great Depression began in 1929, and it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the new suburban lifestyle burst onto the scene fully formed. My dad was an eight-year-old in 1929; my mother just five at the time.  Both grew up in small apartments in Newark’s Italian district, packed with nine or so family members. My father’s family had no refrigerator and even lacked full plumbing. They could scarcely imagine how dramatically their lives would change by the late fifties, when they bought their first suburban home (on what was farm when they were growing up), filled with all manner of modern conveniences, not to mention a shiny Chevy Impala that my dad used to commute to work in the garage.

I doubt  the wheel will take so long to turn in the 21st Century.

If we look closely it’s possible to discern some emergent threads of a new consumption pattern. We’re already experiencing the fall of some of the biggest symbols of post-war consumption - big cars and SUVs, oversized suburban McMansions, and conspicuous consumption of various sorts. There’s a shift toward smaller cars and smaller dwellings, toward walkable neighborhoods; toward more authentic, organic and energy-efficient products; and from material goods to experiences generally.

It would probably be a good thing if that were true — and maybe "smaller" will be the kind of lifestyle environment and consumerism today’s kids will pursue as they grow into adulthood. But I think it’s going to take an even sharper jolt to the system before Americans abandon big cars and big houses.

There’s an argument to be made that people won’t be buying as many cars going forward. And the country’s overabundance of housing stock suggests no return to the fevered building pace of the past decade.

Anyway, it’s an interesting piece and worth a quick read.