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The Recession Chic Lie

In the mainstream media, unemployment has falsely mutated into a hot new trend. Stories of happy, laid-off hipsters have obscured the true tragedy of post-9/11 poverty.
 
 
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When hipsters find themselves without lots of money, it's only natural that poverty be deemed hip. And it has -- witness the recent flood of articles about formerly craven yuppies re-evaluating their lives and deciding that wealth doesn't matter, the pronouncements that conspicuous consumption is out and cocooning in, the 180-degree turnabout of a workaholic culture that's suddenly awake to the joys of empty afternoons.

"Why Its Chic to Be Cheap" proclaims the cover of December's "Details."

"A Time for Reflection and Perfecting the Chicken Fricassee," announces an article in the Oct. 7 New York Times.

An article in the Dec. 28 San Francisco Chronicle introduces Brian Chechoway, a 27-old corporate guy who lost his $95,000 a year job but found self-actualization as a club DJ. "Unemployment has its rewards," the article said. "'I partied my ass off,' he admitted. 'It was very liberating, not having to wake up for work.'"

The sentiment is echoed by an unemployed art director quoted in New York Magazine saying, "I feel the possibility of it being much better. I won't have to work my butt off. I don't need to dress to impress anyone. I'll be able to take advantage of galleries and concerts ... And I won't have to get on that damned subway every morning."

Ah, freedom! Liberation from the straightjacketing schedules of the boom years, from the siren temptations of filthy lucre! Bohemia, it seems, is back.

For people who lamented the demise of boho ideal in the 1990s (and the corporate perversion of its memory), this sudden resurrection is welcome. Surely it's a good thing if talking fervently through the night becomes more popular than coding maniacally till dawn. If chatter about stock options and IPOs vanishes from art openings and theater lobbies, if $800 boots begin to seem grotesque instead of insouciant, if work assumes its place as a part of life instead of the absolute aim of existence, of course that's all to the best.

The coffee house has resumed its rightful place before the boardroom as the scintillating center of twentysomething culture. The Dec. 23 New York Times reports on the new jobless demimonde, "A stream of customers lined up for lattes and bagels. Men with rumpled hair flipped through magazines, and young women in yoga pants and sneakers caught up over coffee, some sitting at tables by the fireplace, others on the benches outside." The story goes on to explain this "midweek tea party" -- "With the economy in recession, and 97,600 jobs lost in New York City in October and November alone, a peculiar kind of café society has emerged, at least in one thin substratum of the suddenly unemployed -- college educated young people without dependents, and whose only previous association with hard times was a grandmother who reused tinfoil because that's what she did during World War II."

Alternatives to rabid careerism are socially acceptable again, and that's very nice. But as the articles pile up, as talk of the new simplicity becomes a locust-like drone (and subscriptions to Simplicity Magazine spike along with Soldier of Fortune), all these sanguine tales of slackerdom start seeming like a smoke screen. The thing is, those who welcome joblessness for the chance it gives them to reassess their lives are a very thin substratum indeed, and the disproportionate play they're getting in the news gives an increasingly distorted picture of what it really means to see your income disappear. In the mainstream media, unemployment has mutated into a hot new trend. Welcome to the world's first lifestyle recession.

That's not to say that the big papers haven't been covering ordinary people's pain. Two weeks ago the Associated Press offered a good piece on out-of-work East Chicago Steelworkers, the Washington Post ran an excellent story in December called "Unions Step Up Their Services After Layoffs," and the New York Times' Louis Uchitelle has made a consistent effort to include a wide variety of workers in his reporting on the recession. But such journalism is dwarfed by mountains of copy about the recession's impact on fashion, leisure and the meaning of life, a tide of stories whose utter detachment from the circumstances of most people's lives can only be called surreal. "In Rough Times, the Rich Go Yachting," ran on the front page of the New York Times Business Section last Thursday.

Indeed, if your only source of information about the outside world were mainstream newspapers and magazines, you'd think the biggest issue raised by mounting unemployment was its likely effect on the cachet of status brands. Forget bosses and unions -- it seems that the most crucial standoff these days is between what Details calls the "new sobriety" and the old indulgence. It's economics reduced to aesthetics.

The New York Times Magazine gave over its Dec. 2 cover to a Lynn Hirschberg exploration of Gucci's new search for relevance, a story entitled "Luxury In Hard Times." On Nov. 17, the Washington Post gave us, "Burst Baubles: Judith Leiber Bags Define Luxury. But in 9-11's Wake, Is Luxury Out of Fashion?" (The story about $2000 purses concluded, "One could argue that at a time of consumer uncertainty, the luxury tag is more of a burden than a lure. Luxuries, after all, are unnecessary. But perhaps stability and tradition are even more essential now.") The Dec. 16 Times offered a 2,500-word feature about Neiman Marcus called "Luxury's Old Guard, Battered by New Realities." Two days later, there was "Prada: Luxury Brand With World-Class Anxiety."

But as the Nov. 4 Times assures us, not all indulgence is taking a hit -- splurging on Manolos may be out, but other ways of flaunting wealth are in. "Comfort Shopping, Premium Pricing," is a puff piece about Tommy Hilfiger's estranged wife, a seller of "$540 cashmere bunting bags for babies" and $5,000 toy giraffes. A consultant explains that people are spending more on their kids -- "they've recognized that our children are important because we may not come home tomorrow." Carpe diem. Seize your Amex.

When recession chic first blossomed at the end of 2000, focusing on the trivial tribulations and epiphanies of laid-off dot-commers made sense -- they made up a large number of the newly out-of-work, and the rapid deflation of the culture of excess they created was a real story. Back then, it was hard to be bothered when the now-defunct Industry Standard chirped that "The recent wave of layoffs is the perfect opportunity to reinvent yourself -- or just goof off," because most of that magazine's readers probably agreed.

By now, though, the recession has spread far beyond technology and media, hitting factory and service workers particularly hard -- according to the AFL-CIO, there were 287,000 layoffs in manufacturing between Sept. 12 and Nov. 19 last year -- and more than 135,000 people in hospitality and tourism lost their jobs.

Real poverty -- as opposed to temporary slumming -- is surging. A U.S. Conference of Mayors survey of 27 cities found requests for emergency food assistance up an average of 23 percent this year. Homelessness is soaring all around the country -- according to the Times, its at "record levels" in big cites, up 25 percent from last year in Kansas City, 22 percent in Chicago and 20 percent in Denver. There was a shameful 55 percent rise in the number of people living on the streets in San Francisco.

In such a climate, prattling about the pleasures of endless free time has a Marie Antionettish ring. So far, though, the newly homeless haven't merited the same kind of humanizing feature stories as the jobless-and-loving-it crowd, the type of pieces that give shape and texture to their subjects. The poor, as always, are just numbers, without reporters following them around, asking how they're feeling about their long vacations.

Michelle Goldberg is a Brooklyn-based freelancer whose work has appeared in Salon, The Industry Standard, Shift, Speak, the National Post and newspapers nationwide.