Keeping Up Appearances

Sharon November 10th, 2009

With U3 unemployment at 10.2 and U6 at above 17%, I think that claims that the worst is over are insanely premature.  But depending on where you live and how you live, it may be hard to see.  I think particularly among affluent communities, there’s a tendency to conceal the strain of the economy – leaving everyone to feel as though it is just them.

Yes, I know the problems of the rich are pale in comparison to the poor, but what I think is enlightening about this is the degree that even those who seem most insulated are involved, and unable to fully hide.  Yes, some of them are self-centered and greedy, and apparently too dim to grasp that when you run out of money, you should give up your gym and expensive haircuts and upper east side apartment, rather than taking out loans for an MA.  But then, that’s something we’ve encouraged over the years – the rich aren’t brighter than average, just richer.  And the very fact that the things that have worked for so long no longer do is worth looking at.

As a society, we’re keeping up appearances hard – we’re keeping up the mythos that things aren’t that bad, keeping up the idea that we can go back to what it was.  Here is a fascinating look under one layer of the appearances.

It is definitely worth a watch:

19 Responses to “Keeping Up Appearances”

  1. [email protected]on 10 Nov 2009 at 9:52 am

    I get that there’s a recession on and that rich and poor alike are feeling the pinch. But you know what always seems to be missing from these sorts of news stories? The price of a haircut/color/styling in a NYC salon that offers the clientele coffee, tea, or a glass of wine. If times for these clients (nearing age 40 and still taking money from mom, $200k in credit card debt from a failed business, etc.) are so tough, why aren’t they getting their ‘dos from Supercuts, or cutting their own hair?

    This sort of blindness to common sense alternatives really makes me worry for the future of the US. That we can be so close to the brink and people refuse to change just that little bit, even when it is so obviously in their own interest to do so – what hope is there?

    I think there’s plenty of blame for a bad economy to go around. I don’t think these people are entirely to blame for everything that happens to them. But I cannot understand people who don’t conserve their resources as well as they can. We can’t control everything or perhaps even most things. But there are things we control, yet we don’t seem to control them.

  2. Danielon 10 Nov 2009 at 10:53 am

    Well, I’m (having lived in the U.S. but now being back in Sweden) writing a series of texts about my take of the U.S. economic meltdown and effects on buying habits and the absurdity of it all:

    “Suddenly they notice that the habit of buying whatever you want whenever you want it – a habit that was taken for granted until recently – is no longer an alternative. In order to be able to give her daughter all the gifts she wanted for Christmas (and these gifts were neither small nor few), the young mother Kristen realized that she had to abstain from the designer jeans she wanted for herself. Personally I struggle to see this as the “sacrifice” it was described as in the article in question. But you get some clues to the perceived importance of belongings when mommy Kristen says: “I want her to be able to look back, and say, ‘Even though they were tough times, my mom was still able to give me stuff.’ ” One can easily get the impression that Kristen confuses “stuff” with “love”. Whatever the reasons, this translates into problems for shopping malls and the retail business in the USA.”

    Now, I’m already at part 5 (out of 7) on my Swedish-language blog but “my translator” is quite slow at whipping them out in English but I expect part 3 to be up “any day now”.

  3. Kristion 10 Nov 2009 at 11:24 am

    I know that there are people in real need out there, but…

    I dropped off a load of food at our local food bank at the same time that people were picking up. Out walks a woman carrying bags of food, talking on her iPhone, getting into her new(er) car that cost $20,000 more than mine. Am I selfish if I don’t want to help someone like that? I don’t have an iPhone (in fact the salesguy at Radio Shack laughed at my six-year-old phone). I don’t have a $35,000 car, and my husband’s has 230,000 miles on it. I feel like she’s stealing from people who really need the help.

    My sister-in-law is another prime example of what Kate was talking about. She’s constantly complaining about money, her husband is in and out of work, yet she goes on scrapbooking weekends, has cable and dvr with all the bells and whistles, carries an iPhone and credit card debt. She was raised in the same live-within-your-means family as my husband, so it boggles my mind.

    So I ask, when you see this going all around you, the formerly (and still, in my mind’s eye) rich taking from the food banks, how do you rationalize donations? Do you feel that at least some of it will get to the right people? Does it bother you that richer-than-you or the have-more-than-you people are taking your donations just so they don’t have to sell the car?

  4. Debon 10 Nov 2009 at 11:53 am

    Kristi, I dont think it’s selfish. It’s natural. However, and this is my own personal opinion, I do think that giving is just as important to the giver as it is to the recipient. Maybe more.

    I was raised by two parents who went thru the Depression. Both have memories of not having new shoes or new clothes or enough money for presents at Christmas. My father in particular was adamant about giving to those in need because he felt he got more satisfaction from the act of giving than he could ever get from having things. We never gave away anything we wouldnt use ourselves–usually we bought new for the needy and kept the stuff that could be repaired for ourselves.

    I have seen something similiar to what you have seen… doesnt stop me from donating because I really think that it’s more important for me to donate than it is for me to judge who is worthy.

    It does irritate me tho.

    And MEA, I havent forgotten you!!

    Deb in WI

  5. Mike Cagleon 10 Nov 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Kristi, Good questions. Hopefully people like the woman you saw at the food bank are in the minority. Of course, it’s also possible that her car was bought used or is a loaner from a friend or relative. Or that her dad died recently and she got his car (which will soon start looking less impressive because she can’t afford to take care of it). She might have bought the iPhone before she lost her job. Appearances can be deceiving.

  6. Cornish_K8on 10 Nov 2009 at 2:41 pm

    I loved that word mythos – thinking that it was a ego-centric version of ethos; then I googled it. I think I perhaps I read more into it than was intended….

  7. Gabrielleon 10 Nov 2009 at 3:26 pm

    I run our church’s food pantry. We are serving more and more “middle class” individuals. Many arrive requesting food because they’ve had to make a decision about eating or taking medications or paying their electrical bill. Looks can be deceiving. When you know someone’s business and issues it also hard not to judge, not to go to that “if only you did this differently” place. I like a saying that a friend shared with me a while back “without condemming, without condoning”. We are offering assistance because we benefit, because we feel it is good to do so.

    I think that in the next months we will see more and more people in middle to upper classes struggling and requesting assistance. This time of the year is often difficult. People might go to the food pantries so that they have a little extra money for gifts and presents. Others visit the food banks because they have higher utility bills because of colder weather. Still others overspend for the holidays and end up with huge bills in January. Most people, though, are just struggling to make ends meet and need some assistance.

    Some food pantries have eligibility requirements, and if it is important to you to know that the food goes to the most needy, you might check your community to find one. It is my experience, though, that only a small percentage of people actually abuse the system in regards to food pantries. We have only a few people who return for additional help, and often they are so apologetic about needing assistance again.

  8. Wendyon 10 Nov 2009 at 3:31 pm

    As soon as I started reading your second paragraph, I knew that you’d seen the same PBS special I saw. Good grief! The whole time I was watching, I was thinking, “If you have no job and no money, why are you in an expensive, upper-crust hair salon getting a hair cut?”

    And then, the shear number of the patrons who were living on credit cards. Oh, my. So sad.

  9. Lynneon 10 Nov 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Thanks for this link, Sharon,

    I had a bit of a different reaction to this, it made my heart ache. These are human beings who have had their lives turned upside down, and they are at the beginning of a huge transition. They are being confronted with a reality that many of us who read this blog were fortunate enough to see coming because we read about and are interested in things like resource constraints and self-sufficiency. Sure, it seems irrational to keep on with expensive haircuts when you are out of a job, but it takes time to accept that your life has changed so profoundly that you can’t even get that haircut that you used to think nothing of paying for. How many of us here have never made an emotional purchase? Or clung to something we can no longer have?

    There is a lot in the blogosphere about “extend and pretend” right now as a government and corporate policy. This clip made me feel like maybe extend and pretend is sort of human nature, these folks are continuing on as they were, getting worse into debt, in the hope that it will all be ok in the end. Maybe those of us who can think rationally (once in a while) are the lucky, unusual ones.

    I feel very grateful for this blog, for my knowledge and interest in peak oil, for the preparations that I’ve been able to make to prepare for a different future. Part of this has been me behaving “responsibly”, and part of it is sheer dumb luck. Anyway, folks going through this transition have my compassion whether they live in the “upper east side” or not.

  10. Barbaraon 10 Nov 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Lynne: that was the most beautiful post I have read in a long, long time. Thank you!

  11. Janineon 10 Nov 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Lynne – you are so right and you eloquently expressed my own reactions to this program.

    On the other hand, with the scarcity of resources, we need to develop methods of making sure that we are able to take care of our neediest neighbors. For example, when handing out holiday baskets, we developed a list and cross checked with other agencies so everyone who needed help would receive something. In other years, they ran out because some folks signed up with more than one place and there simply wasn’t enough to go around twice.

  12. Kristion 10 Nov 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Gabrielle – Thank you. It was the first time I had been there and was truly shocked at the first woman I saw. It was pouring rain, and I didn’t look around me any further. The people to whom I imagined I was donating and the person that came out of the building were radically different. I think I need to re-evaluate my reasons for donating.

  13. Debon 11 Nov 2009 at 10:12 am

    Lynne, a friend of mine suggest I give classes for the wealthy feeling the pinch on “How to be poor.”

    It was intended as a joke. Sometimes I wonder tho.


  14. deweyon 11 Nov 2009 at 11:20 am

    I also think of the fact that many formerly-well-off unemployed women will believe that if they go to a job interview with a home haircut and no makeup and driving a rustbucket, they’ll be punished for it. Unfortunately, given the exacting status-display requirements in corporate America, they’re probably right. You might say well, then, they should give up on the idea of having a white-collar job again and look for a job that has lower standards of display. But they’ll know that without experience, they have no hope of winning a job that pays well enough to keep them in their house. It’s a problem of sunk costs; if your “investment” of decades’ worth of resume lines is all in office jobs, switching tracks means certain poverty, so your only hope is to fight tooth and nail to stay on the same track. I have a lot of sympathy; there’s fortunately no pressure for conspicuous consumption where I work, but having spent most of my adult life on one particular thing, if I lost my job I wouldn’t be considered highly qualified to do anything else, except flip burgers.

  15. Debon 12 Nov 2009 at 10:27 am

    dewey. I think you have a good point. I do however, beg to differ. It’s a matter of priorities. I spent 15 years in a well paying corporate job with great benefits, a retirement plan and all sorts of perks. It meant dressing everyday in a suit and heels, driving a new car and presenting myself in the corporate image. I’ve been there. When I quit and walked away, we didnt lose the house, we didnt live in abject poverty and I certainly didnt miss it a bit.

    I’ve spent the last 15 years working in a nursing home, working as a cashier, working for a non-profit and now working for a CSA–none of which my resume got me the job. We pulled in on spending, spent more time at home, didnt put the kids in daycare, make all our own meals, do most of our own repairs around the house and wear respectable but sturdy clothing. I homeschooled for a while and realized it’s much cheaper financially than sending the kids to school with all it’s concommitant fees and expenses. I put some cash into household items like canning equipment and tools. But we live comfortably if very frugally with no credit card debt. My comfortable living is poverty to many tho. My siblings think we are fools tho my mother understood.

    It can be done.

  16. MEAon 12 Nov 2009 at 11:23 am

    I don’t know how to get my brain around the ‘if they spend less, other people earn less’ problem. It’s partly becuase I don’t graps the dismal science.

    Is there an answer?

  17. Sharonon 12 Nov 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Dewey, I agree with you – but I also suspect that most of the people interviewed have quite a few ways to conserve they haven’t even explored. The things that actually offer visual markers are pretty small – you can, for example, spring for the haircut before the interview, rather than every 5 weeks, still keep in shape by running in Central Park, have an off-park address and still get a good job.

    What probably is needed, however, are cooperatives of unemployed people – places where you can borrow an “up to the minute” suit, or where you can collaborate to get someone to watch your kids to go to interviews.

    I think in this case, there are two things going on – one is the need to keep up the markers of the kind of person you are. The other is the assumption that you are destined to remain that person, and thus the last possible response should be “give some of it up.”


  18. Sharonon 12 Nov 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Almost certainly true, MEA. I don’t think there is an answer, just a reality.


  19. Danielon 14 Nov 2009 at 9:45 am

    Coping with changing life conditions is not just about coping with external events but also an “inner journey” towards accepting that things are Different now. Reading about an unemployed real estate agent, my question is how long you can consider yourself to be a real estate agent if you have been unemployed and not sold a house for two years? When do you accept that you no longer are a real estate agent and that you might never again be one?

    This “inner journey” perspective was one of the take-away points for me of reading Katherine Newmans’s book “Falling from grace: the experience of downward mobility in the american middle class” a decade ago.

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