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I didn’t even realize I’d lost my desire to shop until one day, about six weeks into isolation, I absentmindedly clicked on a Madewell email offering an additional sale on a sale. I don’t even have anywhere to wear the jumpsuits I already own, let alone one that would require heels. Every work trip, every speaking gig, every quick vacation had already been canceled, even as my calendar still had reminders of the life I had planned in advance, on a different timeline, for myself. But in a matter of weeks, those, too, would be gone. I feel very lucky to spend my days walking my dog on the same loop I always take. But that walk, for the foreseeable future, requires no new purchases.
I don’t need new makeup, because I’ve stopped wearing it. I have Zoom calls with my friends after they’ve put their kids to bed, and everyone’s hair is just as wild, their faces just as makeup-less, as mine. I’m still lucky enough to be working. Others have been furloughed or laid off. Those changes may shape the tenor of our shared but separate isolation, but not its fundamental character. The aperture of my world feels very small, its rhythms incredibly repetitive. Sometimes, it’s almost calming. Other times, it’s incredibly claustrophobic. Either way, there are only so many pairs of leggings I need to navigate this new life.
Not wanting to buy things feels as bizarre as not wanting to sleep or not wanting to eat. It’s been ingrained in us, as Americans, as an unspoken component of residency. Before the coronavirus pandemic, I’d find myself clicking on the emails that overflowed the Promotions tab in Gmail, seemingly from every store I’d ever patronized. I’d online shop while I was traveling for work, while stressed, while avoiding a seemingly insurmountable number of other emails in my inbox. Buying things, especially things on sale, provided a momentary sense of comfort: I was fixing some problem, completing some task, simply by clicking “Buy Now.”
We’re trained to buy often, buy cheap, and buy a lot. And I’m not just talking about food, which everyone has to acquire in some capacity, or clothes. I mean all the other small purchases of daily life: a new face lotion, a houseplant holder, a wine glass name trinket, an office supply organizer, a vegetable spiralizer, a cute set of hand towels, a pair of nicer sunglasses, a pair of sports sunglasses, a pair of throwaway sunglasses. The stuff, in other words, that you don’t even know that you want until it somehow finds its way to your cart at Target or T.J. Maxx.
We’re trained to buy often, buy cheap, and buy a lot.
In post–World War II America, the vast majority of things we buy are often not what we actually need. But they’re indisputably things we want: manifestations of personal and collective abundance. We buy because we’re bored, or because planned obsolescence forces us to replace items we can’t fix. We buy to accumulate objects meant to communicate our class and what sort of person we are. We buy because we want to feel something or change something, and purchasing something is the quickest way to do so. When that doesn’t work, we buy “an experience,” whether it’s a night at Color Me Mine or a weekend bachelorette trip to Nashville. We buy because, from the Great Depression onward, how we consume has become deeply intertwined with how we think of ourselves as citizens.
The US didn’t become a nation of consumers because everyone has ample amounts of discretionary cash. Before the pandemic, income inequality had reached its highest levels since the Depression. Most Americans’ wages, when adjusted for inflation and purchasing power, have barely risen in four decades. In 2018, with the economy at its most robust in years, 61% of Americans said they could not cover a surprise expense of $400. In 2019, a study by the AARP found that 53% of American households did not have an emergency savings account — including a quarter of those who earn more than $150,000 a year.
So how do Americans buy so much when we have so little discretionary money? Massive amounts of credit. Payday loans, credit cards, quick and easy car loans, and the newly common “Afterpay” function in online checkouts incentivize spending beyond our means. The average American has a startling $6,194 in credit card debt, with an average interest rate of 16.88%. Over the last decade, auto debt has gone up 40%, and the average auto loan for a new car is a whopping $32,199. In April 2019, Americans reported borrowing $88 billion over the previous year just to cover medical costs. The middle class is going deeper and deeper into debt to maintain the expenditures of middle-class identity. The working class has done the same — borrowing for cars, for tuition, for everyday expenditures — only often at much higher interest rates.
And yet we keep spending: As of 2018, the average household expenditure was $61,224. That’s rent and groceries, but also nonessential items: entertainment, vacation, clothes, plus all that other random stuff that ends up in your shopping cart.
That kind of spending is what our current economic model is based on: Americans of all class levels buying things and always wanting to buy more, regardless of their actual means. But when a society-throttling, economy-decimating pandemic comes along, what happens when that ability — and, just importantly, that desire — goes away? In April, retail sales fell an astonishing 16.4%, far more than the 12.3% economists had predicted. Clothing store purchases went down by 78.8%; furniture and home furnishings plummeted 58.7%. If you feel like you’re buying far less than at any point in recent history, you’re very much not alone. But will American identities and habits actually change, or will we just figure out a new and COVID-19–compatible way to consume at the same rate as before?
In many ways, the pandemic has functioned as a great clarifier, making it impossible to ignore the dilapidated state of so many American systems. It’s highlighted whose work is actually essential, which leaders actually care about people who aren’t like them, and whose lives are considered expendable. The supply chain is broken; the social safety net is in shambles. And a whole lot of things we thought of as needs have revealed themselves to be pretty deeply unnecessary.
Any attempt to suggest otherwise — as various clothing shops have attempted to do (“Perfect Tops for Zoom Calls!”) — feels desperate or obtuse. “I’ve cut back on some of the beauty products I was using,” Jordan, who’s 40, works in tech, and still has her job, told me. “I realized just how many promises those products were making: I’ll look refreshed! Or My skin won’t look like the Cryptkeeper’s! But I don’t need all that shit if I hydrate and look after myself. I find myself wanting to be sold to less.” In the early weeks of the pandemic, Els, who’s 29 and lives in Houston, found herself sucked into the sales offers in her inbox. “But when I put the clothes in my cart, I kept thinking: When am I really going to wear these? Jeans? In this economy?”
“I find myself wanting to be sold to less.”
As unemployment numbers continue to rise and most of the country is still in some sort of lockdown, any marketing that frames a new shirt as a “quarantine necessity” feels like a con. Especially when you factor in a newfound awareness (and attention to) the human cost of each purchase: For everything you buy online, there are people in factories packaging it, others in warehouses distributing it, and still more in trucks delivering it. Some companies have taken steps to provide adequate personal protective equipment and paid sick leave. But many, including Amazon, have been slow to act — and assurances from workplaces concerning worker and warehouse safety have been refuted by employees. (A spokesperson for Amazon said they expect to invest approximately $4 billion from April to June on COVID-related initiatives to get products to customers and keep employees safe.)
Tania, who’s 34 and works for a nonprofit, is telecommuting and collecting her usual salary, as is her husband. With significant guilt and consternation, they’ve made the decision to leave their small apartment and move in, after 14 days of isolation, with her parents in another state. They’ve been living out of the three suitcases they brought for themselves and their two young children for several months and plan to keep doing so for the foreseeable future.
“Everything I’ve bought has been for my kids, who are growing out of their clothes,” Tania told me. “And I have agonized over every purchase. The calculus for every decision is: Do I need to put an essential worker in harm’s way to get this? Can I do without it? Can I afford it? Do we have anything that could work in its place? Can I wait 10 days for it, since that’s the average shipping time? And if I can’t have something immediately, do I really want it?”
Ann, 56, lives outside of Torrey, Utah, 50 miles from the closest Walmart. For her, bulk shopping has been a way of life: Apart from a monthly trip to the city, she and her family get everything from friends or online. “Let’s put it this way: Our UPS driver has a personal relationship with not just us, but our dogs and farm critters,” she told me.
Now they’re just trying to make do with less, generally — but they still have to go to the feed store for their animals. (“There’s no such thing as UberFeed,” Ann said.) They drive 17 miles into town for contactless grocery orders. “I just did a meal plan for four weeks instead of one,” Ann explained. They got a CSA share for a quarter of a cow and a year’s worth of poultry. Cutting out trips to the big city (Salt Lake) means cutting out a significant number of expenses. “I am so grateful that where we live, at least in our circle, dressing up means clean denim and fleece,” she said.
Ann misses musicians coming through the area; she’s worried about how dips in tourism will affect everyone she knows. But she also refuses to participate in a plan to revive the economy that places the burden on the consumer. “After 9/11, and again after the 2008 recession, there was the idea that consumers should somehow patriotically spend to revive the economy,” she said. “And who benefited disproportionately? Billionaires. This time, the billionaires can do the heavy lifting, not me.”
“After 9/11, and again after the 2008 recession, there was the idea that consumers should somehow patriotically spend to revive the economy. And who benefited disproportionately? Billionaires.”
What Ann’s referring to is the larger idea of citizenship — Americanness, patriotism, loyalty — through consumerism. In A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, historian Lizabeth Cohen traces the origins of this ideology to the 1930s, as the needs, protection, and veneration of the consumer began to supersede those of the worker. The consumer could do their American duty (and preserve the food chain) by not buying during World War II — and funneling any excess money into war bonds. But once the war was over, Americanism was expressed by engagement in mass consumption. The more Americans bought, the more American factories produced — and the more America could assert its status as a new global superpower.
This idea was ingrained in the American psyche, sometimes quite explicitly. Cohen points to a Life magazine photo spread from 1947, published under the headline “Family Status Must Improve: It Should Buy More for Itself to Better the Living of Others.” The piece argued that “a health and decency standard for everyone” meant every American family buying, well, a whole lot of stuff: a washing machine, a suit for Dad, a high chair, new cabinets, a new telephone.
In this figuration, mass consumption wasn’t indulgent or selfish but a way of creating “full employment and improved living standards for the rest of the nation.”
At the time, many American families were going from deprivation to abundance, transitioning from living with their parents or military service to marriage and new homes — at least for white families — purchased with the help of the GI Bill. War bonds were cashed out; new construction in the suburbs was plentiful; American manufacturing recentered its ambition from wartime production to domestic goods and automobiles. And buying all this stuff did make life better for a much larger swath of the population: The growth in manufacturing, combined with robust unions, allowed blue-collar workers to enter the rapidly expanding middle class.
During this so-called golden age of American capitalism, real per capita income rose 2.25% a year. That period only lasted 20 years — from around 1950 to 1970 — but it has cast a long shadow over Americans’ understanding of themselves: what’s possible, what’s necessary, what each of us deserves, and what conditions make America “great.” The enduring myths of the white picket fence, “working your way through college,” the sustainability of a single-income household, the superiority of the single-family home, the car as essential, the primacy of the nuclear family, the family vacation, even the widespread commercialization of holidays — these all grew in the fertile economic soil of the time.
But even as that economy began to sour — for various, tangled reasons, first in the ’70s, and again with rolling mini recessions through the ’80s and ’90s — those myths continued to endure. As did the idea that buying things was a form of civic responsibility, even as the rolling deregulatory actions of the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, coupled with nationwide union busting and the gradual “tempification” of the workplace, meant fewer and fewer Americans were actually benefiting much at all from those purchases. Before, the idea went: You bought a washing machine so that everyone else could buy a washing machine. Now, you bought one so the men in charge of the washing machine company could buy a new jet.
Two weeks after 9/11, President George W. Bush famously called upon Americans to soothe their grief by shopping. “Get down to Disney World in Florida,” he said. “Take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.” The country had already been in a mini recession since the previous March, and the sharp decrease in travel and entertainment that followed 9/11 threatened to deepen it. However laughable that messaging seems today, it was effective at the time: After declining sharply in September 2001, personal consumer spending rose sharply just a month later. The recession ended shortly thereafter.
“The president’s political message was also clear,” Charles F. McGovern writes about Bush in Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890–1945. “The citizen’s duty was not mandatory military service to combat terrorism (although the rate of volunteers rose), or civic engagement to strengthen social bonds in the wake of national disaster and shock. The citizen’s duty certainly did not include sincere questioning or reexamination of national security and diplomacy, although millions of Americans did just that. Instead, the president urged everyone to resume business as usual: individual, atomized consumption was best for the nation as a whole. Americans faced trauma, doubt, and fear; the White House directed them to the nearest mall.”
Because the recession was so brief — and because the “forever wars” that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq only directly affected a portion of Americans — few would look back at the period following 9/11 and think of any substantial changes in their consumption. Some lost money on the stock market over the course of the dot-com boom; others boycotted french fries. Ideas about Muslims and torture, about “the axis of evil” and America’s place in the world, all changed. But not our shopping — at least not until 2008.
The popular understanding of the financial crisis — largely gleaned, at this point, from The Big Short, Margin Call, and the “Giant Pool of Money” podcast — is that Wall Street, through a series of complicated machinations, screwed itself over by pretending that bad debt was good debt. But that “bad” debt, in the form of subprime mortgages, was the result of hundreds of thousands of Americans being convinced, and then convincing themselves, that they could afford to take on massive debt for massive homes they couldn’t actually afford. The most shocking stories of the crisis focused on the people who didn’t have jobs, didn’t have any form of savings, and still managed to buy a home that would require a $2,000-a-month mortgage. But many of those stories were also about people who were convinced they could afford a second home, either as an investment or vacation property: Between 2000 and 2007, the percentage of Americans with second homes rose from 20% to 35%.
We weren’t just spending more than we had. We were normalizing it.
But what does “afford” really mean, anyway? Few people can “afford” the full price tag of a college education, but we go anyway. Someone might be able to cover the cost of a mortgage or rent, but they might need to use credit cards to cover the cost of incidentals. The availability of credit makes nearly anything seem affordable. Between 1990 and 2007, consumer (e.g., everything from credit card balances to car loans) and mortgage debt went from 77% to 127% of disposable income. That sort of increase means we weren’t just spending more than we had. We were normalizing it.
But the particularities of the 2008 recession meant that people all over the United States starting losing their homes — an estimated 10 million in all. And that, to many Americans, burst a foundational understanding of self. People and businesses — including the current president’s — go bankrupt all the time in America. But going from being a homeowner back to being a renter suggested something fundamentally broken at the core of the American project. Experts, lenders, banks — they all said that you qualified for this loan. You qualified for homeownership. What you dreamed of could be yours. People said it was the housing “bubble” that burst, but it was actually one of those original postwar myths of what it meant to be an American that overinflated to the point of collapse. And when that happened, there was so little left of the rest of the American dream to assuage them: so few good jobs, no robust social safety net, nothing to buoy you financially when you can no longer work. Just more debt on top of existing debt, a mirage of success hiding at the bottom of a well.
The grief and disillusionment following that collapse translated, briefly, into consumer frugality. Consumer spending in 2008 dropped sharply; in the Economist, an analyst for Morgan Stanley predicted that “the golden age of spending for the American consumer has ended and a new age of thrift likely has begun.” The New York Times ran a piece in 2009 about consumers reveling in the new, miserly normal, describing how “the gleefully frugal happily seek new ways to economize and take pride in outsaving the Joneses.” In 2011, the paper profiled the movement to repair and recycle older items, pointing to early data that consumers were holding on to items — like cars — longer than before. Personal savings rates, which had plummeted to as low as 2.2% amid the massive influx of consumer credit in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, climbed to 12% in December 2012.
But within a year, those personal savings rates were nearly cut in half. Then-president Barack Obama was elected to a second term, and the Occupy Wall Street movement — sparked by anger over the growing income inequality — fizzled. Sure, the jobs added back to the economy were low-paying and, in the vast number of cases, part of the precarious new gig economy; sure, healthcare costs continued to rise and millennials gradually began to internalize the fact that milestones of adulthood might remain permanently outside their reach. But the economy was in “recovery” — which meant a return to spending (and saving) norms.
As Sheldon Garon, author of Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends While the World Saves, explained back in 2012, most Americans weren’t actually able to substantively change their saving habits: “Those in the middle- and lower-income strata have made efforts to reduce debt, but they are so indebted and have so little savings that it’s been difficult for them to significantly increase savings.” You might not be able to save, but with readily available home equity loans and credit cards, at least you could still buy — and that felt like you were doing something.
But that feeling, for many, has soured. Stephanie is 36, unemployed, and “swimming in debt” — but her husband’s job is secure, so they’re “okay on monthly expenses,” at least for the time being. Like many others I’ve heard from, she’s cautious about predicting any sort of long-term shift in spending behaviors — in part because buying things has become so central to our understanding of recovery from economic trauma.
“The consumption-as-civic-duty, billionaires-as-job-creators ethos is toxic for so many things,” she said. “I feel like a lot of rich folks I know genuinely think they’re ‘doing good’ when they get a manicure or go shopping because they’re stimulating the economy. And it’s hard to disagree when the American economy really is built on consumer spending and confidence.”
The “economy” is technically all of the resources of a given area: all of its production, all of its consumption. But many people — including a whole lot of politicians — use the word “economy” in situations when they really mean “the stock market.” The economy is built on consumer spending; the stock market is built on projections. Or, as I like to think about it, a bunch of guys (and they’re almost entirely guys) sitting around, making periodically educated yet often irrational and emotional bets about the future. The economy and the stock market are not disarticulated from each other, but they are also far from the same thing; it’s no coincidence, after all, that the highest levels of income inequality have coincided with record-breaking numbers on the stock market.
But the stock market signals economic health. It’s what gets broadcast, it’s what Trump talks about at his rallies, it determines politicians’ polling numbers. It doesn’t matter if you, yourself, don’t feel that financial security and everyone else you know is barely keeping above water.
If the “economy” is thriving, everyone else must be, too, right? Hence the growing indebtedness necessary to maintain middle-class status: It takes a lot of debt to keep up with the illusion that the entire country is doing great.
And this is where the pandemic, and the economic collapse that’s accompanied it, comes in. Its wreckage is so vast, so all-encompassing, that no amount of presidential rhetoric, no calls for patriotic mass consumption, can conceal it. The illusion has been shattered. We’re buying less because we’re scared for the economic future and concerned for the workers who make buying things possible, but we’re also buying less because the actual act of purchasing — at least in person — is a risk.
The amount of new “revolving” credit extended to individuals (in most cases: credit cards) went down 31% between February and March, the most extreme drop since 1989. According to Visa, credit card spending collapsed in all categories except food and drugstores, while savings rates grew from 8% in February to 13.1% in March — the highest since 1981. No one knows when or how long COVID-19 measures will be in place (or if they will be reimplemented). Very few people feel secure in their economic futures. “People have seriously reined in their spending,” one analyst told CNN. “You have to wonder when they will feel comfortable splurging.” It won’t be for some time — regardless of when states begin to open. “The current pandemic mood of consumers cannot be easily or quickly reversed,” Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan’s Surveys of Consumers, wrote earlier this month. “Moods are remarkably independent of conscious control.”
But what if…we don’t ever go back? People are still buying things right now, but the things many people are seeking out, apart from necessities, offer an experience: a way to create something or otherwise distract themselves. Cooking and bartending implements, craft supplies, mini trampolines, gardening tools, Pelotons. An employee at my local bike store said they’ve had their busiest three-month period on record. Home improvement stores are as packed as a store can be at this point. Shopping still creates a momentary feeling of control — something all of us are lacking right now. But so, too, does making something, growing something, mastering something, or weeding something.
“I’ve also seen an amazing trade economy emerge: trading yeast for flour, toys for sourdough bread, passing clothes from one family to the next.”
Natalie, 29, lives in St. Paul with her husband and is currently on unemployment. “I have been going nuts, needing projects to keep me busy, so I’m spending more than I did before on home improvement–type things, like gardening and pantry organization,” she said. “I spend a lot of time trying to find things I can afford from ‘cool independent retailers’ that I would like to support, but most of that is too expensive for me. But I just say no to Amazon and only shop at places where they have made a concrete statement about what they are actively doing for their workers.”
Some of these home improvements can be done with items on hand. Some require purchases. And some can be facilitated by newly vibrant bartering communities. Tania (the one living out of three suitcases) is still getting emails from the parents group she was a part of back in the city. Usually, it’s filled with parents selling and giving away baby items; now, she said, “it’s in overdrive.”
“You don’t need to buy anything,” she said. “You just post to the listserv what you need, and someone will give it to you. I’ve also seen an amazing trade economy emerge: trading yeast for flour, toys for sourdough bread, passing clothes from one family to the next.”
I’ve seen a similar activity in my local “Buy Nothing Sell Nothing” Facebook Groups here in Montana: people making and giving away masks, using 3D printers to manufacture dupe N95 masks, giving away children’s toys and electronics in a “contactless exchange.” Just because you’re not buying anything (or buying less) doesn’t mean you’re not experiencing new things, doing new things, figuring out new things.
I know a lot of people — especially those who live in small apartments — have become fatigued with their spaces. Being with your stuff all the time can make you resent it. There’s a reason, after all, that those “Buy Nothing” Facebook Groups and parenting listservs are flooded with people trying to give things away right now. But I also know people who have found a deep appreciation for all that they do have — the marvelous comfort of a bed or a fuzzy blanket, a small and sunny corner with houseplants you check on every day, a pile of books arranged just so — that just feel right and yours. But the things you chose, instead of just accumulated, become all the more cherished.
Some of these practices can feel like the same sort of performative change in behavior that was featured in the New York Times trend piece on frugality after the 2008 recession: a real estate investor, married to a plastic surgeon, who’s gotten really into borrowing books from the library instead of buying them. Regrowing scallions on your windowsill — and posting photos of them to Instagram — is simply the latest version. But the extent of the crisis, and the nebulous but lingering physical and psychological barriers to buying, makes these behaviors feel different.
This might, of course, be a misguided proclamation coming from the inside of a pandemic. But in addition to the actual risk (to oneself, to others) of buying things, the pandemic has afforded many Americans, whether in isolation or out of work, with something they haven’t had in years: time and mental space to actually think about the way we spend and its effects on others.
Farrah, 33, lives in San Jose, where she works two part-time jobs and has $80,000 in student loan debt. She describes her current economic situation as “fairly precarious.” “I knew that Amazon was terrible before this, and I continued to buy from them,” she said. “But the plague has really laid all of this out in a way that I can’t ignore: people being fired for organizing for basic protection, the risk involved in getting people things (essential and very inessential alike) and Bezos/Amazon raking in money all the while. COVID-19 has made me realize how fragile and fucked our whole supply chain is.” (Amazon has disputed this in a previous story.)
Evan, 32, works in private education and described himself as “comfortable and stable upper-middle-class for New York.” Since going into quarantine, he’s bought a pair of painters overalls and a puzzle, both from Amazon, which he justified because he was using a gift card and didn’t buy on a Strike Day. He’s getting groceries once a week, but only at local stores; he’s been buying higher-quality foods via mail-order meat subscriptions or the neighborhood butcher shop. “Between the distancing rules and the cognizance of my privilege, I feel like there’s more impediments to me spending, both physically and mentally,” he said. “I’m spending less than half what I used to on a monthly basis, maybe even less.”
“The thing that’s staying with me is how many of these bad shit purchases are attempts to create control and satisfaction from circumstances where I (seem to) have little,” he continued. “I’m incredibly lucky that my isolation has brought me less stress and more time for myself. And it’s amazing how, in that state, I am better able to act on good ethics and self-care and just spend less. If our jobs and commutes weren’t wringing us emotionally dry on a daily basis, we’d be much more ethical consumers, maybe?”
And that’s the thing: If you do have time to think about your consumption choices right now, you have time free from stress, period. Beatrice, 26, is a “middle-class renter” in South Dakota with no kids and no debt. She lives an hour outside the nearest town; before COVID-19, she relied heavily on Amazon. She’s still ordering a few necessities online — just direct from retailers — but otherwise donating what she’s saved to organizations helping those in need. But she’s wary of making any pronouncements about how others should be internalizing the lessons of the pandemic.
“I’m a middle-class white lady,” she said. “You can say, ‘We should focus on buying only high-quality goods that last’ — but for so many folks, fast fashion and particleboard furniture is all they can afford. Ideally we would stay the fuck out of other people’s business and ignore what others are buying, but I don’t think humans are wired that way. So maybe instead we tax the hell out of people who can afford to buy tons and tons of stuff and redistribute that so that everyone can have high-quality items if they want them.”
“I want just enough of an income and just enough health insurance that I don’t have to check my bank account on a daily basis. I just want to be comfortable and content.”
This is where pandemic-induced reductions in spending, decadelong resentment over income inequality, the resurgent progressive and labor movements, sustained millennial/Gen X burnout and precarity, and burgeoning Gen Z idealism collide. What if we decided that things didn’t have to be the way they were before all of this happened? Part of that shift would involve taxing the rich and disarticulating healthcare from employment; it would involve forming and protecting unions and focusing on reimplementing regulatory systems, decentralizing production, and restoring the supply chain. And it could also mean disabusing ourselves of the idea that buying things is a solution to our problems.
In this moment, the primary tension in America is how, and when, life is going to “return to normal.” But that “normal” was an economy that, even before COVID-19, was built on a form of consumption that felt compulsory, with household debt as normalized as the exploitative work conditions that make those daily consumption habits possible. A “normal” in which the vast majority of people still felt economically precarious, burned out, and swallowed by their student debt, and most still struggled to cobble together enough savings to protect them from medical or financial catastrophe. A “normal” in which the various manifestations of the gig economy — and the lack of healthcare, labor protections, or the general safety net that accompanies them — have been, well, normalized.
So what if we don’t actually want to go back to that? John is 37, single, and has no kids because, in his words, he can’t afford them. He told me he’s making minimum wage with a part-time job at Starbucks, where he works for the health insurance. Pre–COVID-19, he also worked the door at a local comedy club for some spending money. He has a very small amount of savings; like a lot of people his age, he feels like he’s stuck treading water. “Being part of the service class is really tough,” he said. “During this time, some eyes have been opened to how hard it can be. But I really hope more than a few of those eyes stay open once this is all part of the new normal.”
A New Normal. One that doesn’t just have to be socially distanced tables in restaurants or masks on airplanes. It could also be, as John puts it, “embracing slowness and focusing more on humaneness. We could put less emphasis on ‘now, I need it now!’ and more attention on ‘how are you feeling? Are you OK?’”
Part of the reticence to reopen the economy is rooted in the very real fear of widespread infection. And part, I’d argue, is a manifestation of a desire to reject that old way of living entirely. There are different ways of being with each other as a society, different ways of caring and knowing and growing. As cheesy as all of that sounds, it’s certainly better than being told to do your part to save the country by going to Disney World or trying to distract ourselves from our exhaustion and fear by buying skincare products.
As Richard Curtin, the director of the University of Michigan’s Surveys of Consumers, pointed out, “the pandemic highlighted the basic mismatch between the current economic policy dependence on growth and market efficiency, and the new emphasis on equity, not only of income and wealth, but also in the availability of health care, and educational opportunities.”
The old way wasn’t just unsustainable for millions of Americans. It was also deeply unsatisfying. Consumer sentiment — and behavior — suggests we’re hungry, even desperate, for something different.
“I don’t want to return to a choice of unemployment versus burnout,” Natalie, who’s 36 and has been searching for a job since January, told me. “I want just enough of an income and just enough health insurance that I don’t have to check my bank account on a daily basis. I just want to be comfortable and content.
“I don’t know that there are any answers to this,” she said. “I just don’t want to return to the world as it was.” ●
Correction: As of 2018, the average household expenditure was $61,224. A previous version of this post mislabeled overall household expenditures as discretionary spending.
This story has been updated to include a statement from an Amazon spokesperson.