Lent for rent

  • By Yvette Kantrow
  • Published March 2009

Lent for rent

Please, make them stop. Maybe it's just us, but if we read one more story telling us how frugal we now are - and will probably forever be - we're going to take that pair of scissors that we are supposedly using to clip coupons and cut our wrists instead.

You just can't open a newspaper or magazine these days without being bombarded with tales of our newfound thriftiness - and related godliness - which, we are told, signals the end of conspicuous consumption as we know it. According to the media, the recession has changed us all, deeply, profoundly and forever. The New York Times, for one, has gone so far as to dub the young adults who are graduating into the crisis "Generation Recession." Its members will "most likely be shaped by a return to things that matter, a re-definition of values," the paper intones.

Oh, please.

To be sure, it's hard to find anyone who hasn't curtailed his or her consumption in some way or another. And for people who have been out of their jobs or out of their homes for months, the recession is apt be a life-altering experience. But what about the 91 percent of the population that is still gainfully employed? They may have given up, at least for now, spa vacations, $200 jeans and daily lattes, but have their "many decadent impulses" really been "chastened," as a recent story in the Denver Post declared? Is it really "a sign of the times"

when an Atlanta socialite "digs out a 10-year-old dress to wear to a recent society party," as the lead of a page one story in The New York Times surmised?

Well, maybe. But maybe not. Exhibit A for most of the-recession-is-changing-us-all pieces is, of course, the Great Depression and the tremendous affect it had on those born into it. They were a "generally drab lot," The Times' Generation Recession story explains, citing as its source Time magazine's "Silent Generation" essay from 1951.

"Cautious and resigned, uninterested in striking out in new directions or shaping the great issues of the day."

Ergo, the piece reasons, our current recession will also leave a mark on its youth, albeit a different, more positive one. And the Times is anxious to define that mark for us. Generation Recession will be "more civic-minded" and "might feel bolder striking out in more creative directions." The reason: The "assumptions of the past decade," we are told, have been "popped."

The problem with all of this is that the recession is about seven to 18 months old, depending on whom you ask, while the Great Depression hung around for more than a decade and was followed directly by World War II. Viewed through that lens, isn't it a bit early to round up a bunch of women swearing off shopping and declare ourselves forever changed? If the economy bounces back next year, will that Atlanta socialite still be parading around in an old dress? Will graduates still be shunning Wall Street?

Think about it. The Depression had been over for about a decade when Time produced its Silent Generation cover essay in 1951. But here we are, just a few months into our current crisis, and our media is already chomping at the bit to make sweeping, generational generalizations of its own. It should proceed with caution. Days after Sept. 11, Time magazine called the death of irony the "one good thing" that could come from the tragedy.

As we all know, irony came roaring back, quickly, strongly and blog- enabled. But now we find ourselves in another crisis, and it's the end of conspicuous consumption that the media has identified as the "one good thing" that could come of it. Indeed, the stories about our new frugality talk not just about how we're saving our money, but also about how our values and morality are improving as a result. It's thriftiness as godliness.

The Denver Post story, for example, claims that due to the economy, Lent is "more real" this year. "We're all in tune with suffering, with Christ's suffering," one woman tells the paper. Another woman tells the Times that cutting spending is "the moral thing to do."

"Before, extravagance and opulence was the aspiration, and if we can replace that with a desire to live more simply - replace that with time with family, or time for spirituality - what a positive outcome to a very negative situation," she says. Maybe the Times can check back with her in another 10 years.

For a printable pdf version of this article as it was published in the March April 2009 edition, click here.