See the pattern? It's as genuine as Grandma's quilt. After a 10-year bender of gaudy dreams and godless consumerism, Americans are starting to trade down. They want to reduce their attachments to status symbols, fast-track careers and great expectations of Having It All. Upscale is out; downscale is in. Yuppies are an ancient civilization. Flaunting money is considered gauche: if you've got it, please keep it to yourself -- or give some away!
In place of materialism, many Americans are embracing simpler pleasures and homier values. They've been thinking hard about what really matters in their lives, and they've decided to make some changes. What matters is having time for family and friends, rest and recreation, good deeds and spirituality. For some people that means a radical step: changing one's career, living on less, or packing up and moving to a quieter place. For others it can mean something as subtle as choosing a cheaper brand of running shoes or leaving work a little earlier to watch the kids in a soccer game.
The pursuit of a simpler life with deeper meaning is a major shift in America's private agenda. "This is a rapid and extremely powerful movement," says Ross Goldstein, a San Francisco psychologist and market researcher. "I'm impressed by how deep it goes into the fabric of this country." Says noted theologian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago: "We are all warned against thinking in terms of trends that correspond with decades, but this one is a cinch. I think that people are going to look back at today as a hinge period in the country's history." Some social observers have already dubbed the 1990s the "We decade."
The mood is palpable. In a TIME/CNN poll of 500 adults, 69% of the people surveyed said they would like to "slow down and live a more relaxed life," in contrast to only 19% who said they would like to "live a more exciting, faster-paced life." A majority of those polled, 61%, agreed that "earning a living today requires so much effort that it's difficult to find time to enjoy life." When asked about their priorities, 89% said it was more important these days to spend time with their families, and 56% felt strongly about finding time for personal interests and hobbies. But only 13% saw importance in keeping up with fashions and trends, and just 7% thought it was worth bothering to shop for status-symbol products.
Marsha Bristow Bostick of Columbus remembers noticing with alarm last summer that her three-year-old daughter Betsy had memorized an awful lot of TV commercials. The toddler announced that she planned to take ballet lessons, followed by bride lessons. That helped inspire her mother, then 37, to quit her $150,000-a-year job as a marketing executive. She and her husband, Brent, a bank officer, decided that Betsy and their infant son Andrew needed more parental attention if they were going to develop the right sort of values. Marsha explained, "I found myself wondering, How wealthy do we need to be? I don't care if I have a great car, or if people are impressed with what I'm doing for a living. We have everything we need."
The movement is pervasive. "This is not something simply happening to the burnouts from Wall Street," says sociologist Stephen Warner of the University of Illinois at Chicago. "There is an American phenomenon going on that crosses all social lines. It's true of immigrant groups too, as well as the underprivileged."
Yet the shift in priorities has a surface gloss of stylishness also. Call it thrifty chic. Penny pinching is back in vogue, even among the rich. Jackie O. shops at the Gap. Christie Brinkley wears plain white men's T shirts. Outside B.J.'s Wholesale Club in Medford, Mass., a white stretch limo waits at the curb while its passengers roam the cavernous discount warehouse. At Tom's Barber Shop in Jacksonville, lawyers and executives sit down next to truckers and shipyard workers for a $6 trim. At Deja Vu, a Palm Beach boutique that sells used designer clothes, women who once sent their maids and drivers to the back door with bundles of high-fashion castoffs to sell now bring them by in person and stick around to shop.
The beginnings of the new mind-set probably go back as far as the stock- market crash of 1987, which had little immediate effect on the overall economy but gave many people an uneasy feeling about the Roaring Eighties. The spectacular failures of such '80s heroes as Michael Milken and Donald Trump have discredited the era's role models as well. "The 1980s showed how ugly this country could be, like racism did," says April Gilbert, a Stanford M.B.A. and shipping executive who hopes to join a nonprofit company soon. "In the 1980s I was fed up and almost angry with the behavior of people in this country," says Stuart Winby, manager of Hewlett-Packard's Factory-of-the- Future program. "Those kinds of values are just empty. I'm really sated with gadgets, things, adornments and all that stuff." Many people were awakened by individual experience: the plight of a homeless neighbor, the collapse of a bank, a friend's job loss.
The recession and gulf war have cemented the trend. First, the economic downturn struck some people as a just punishment for a dizzy era of excessive borrowing and spending. Many consumers saw the recession as a warning that their behavior had to change. Cutting back and putting away the plastic seem only prudent. Unemployment, currently at 6.5%, has risen steadily for eight months. Some people who used to ride in limousines are now driving them for a living. Then the life-and-death reality of the war came along and made the pursuit of glitz and status seem even more trivial. Americans saw their country pulling together with a higher purpose and a can-do spirit, and many of them liked the feeling.
In scaling down their tastes, most Americans are making a virtue out of necessity. Contrary to perceptions, the past decade was an era of downward mobility for the majority of U.S. families, who kept up their spending by borrowing and relying on two incomes. Only the wealthiest 20% of Americans significantly increased their real income during the Reagan era, and the poor slipped further behind. After adjustment for inflation, the national standard of living has actually fallen since 1973; the real average hourly pay for U.S. workers has gone from $8.55 then to $7.54 today. Says Barry Bosworth, an economist at the Brookings Institution: "Americans are not becoming pessimistic. They are becoming realistic. It is right to think of cutting back."
At the same time, the baby-boom generation, which accounted for much of the spending binge of the '80s, is reaching middle age. Here come 75 million aching backs. A generation of reluctant grown-ups is raising children, caring for aging parents and beginning to think about retirement. Instead of pumping iron, preening and networking, they are worrying about orthodontists, skateboards and college tuitions. The backyard now has more appeal than the boardroom.
So forget those champagne wishes and caviar dreams, the right car, vodka, watch, cuisine and music system. Consumers no longer feel they absolutely must have the latest luxury product. Who would be impressed, anyway? "People don't think being square is synonymous with being a sucker anymore," says Dan Fox, marketing planning director of the Foote, Cone & Belding ad agency. Besides, they no longer seem to get a kick from spending borrowed money. Consumer installment credit dropped $342 million in December, or 0.6%, in what would ordinarily have been a busy shopping season, and a huge $2.4 billion in January.
Not everyone believes America has changed its stripes, however. "If the present generation has learned anything, it is that talk is cheap. But are they really doing anything different?" asks Stanford economist Victor Fuchs. "The baby boomers are just growing up and playing out a predictable life- cycle change." Elmer Johnson, a Chicago lawyer and former executive vice president of General Motors, sees "a hardness of heart that has not yet begun to be broken." John Kenneth Galbraith, the eminent liberal economist, dismisses the trend as a bicoastal fad among fast-trackers. Says he, with amused cynicism: "I just think it's pure horse."
Yet a lot of business people who stake their livelihood on shifts in consumer behavior see thousands of small changes that they believe are adding up to something. At a Brookstone store in Boston, a man exchanges a gift, trading in a $99 executive fountain pen ("I'll never use it") for a car-care kit. Suddenly people want to buy toys that don't take batteries. Sales of dolls are up. Power dressing is out. One sign: shoulder pads, standard issue for the female corporate warrior, are finally disappearing from women's clothing. Even designers are getting into the act: Donna Karan and Bill Blass offer more congenially priced ready-to-wear fashion lines. Revlon's Charles of the Ritz has sprouted the cheaper Ritz Express skin-care line (1 oz. of Perfect Finish makeup: $10, vs. $25 for an ounce of Revenescence liquid foundation).
The change in consumer psychology is shaking many merchants to their roots. Traditional department stores ranging from Saks Fifth Avenue to Neiman Marcus have suffered from poor business as customers flock to discounters and back- to-basics stores, notably the Limited, the Gap, Wal-Mart and K Mart. The 75-store Sharper Image chain, which made its reputation in the '80s with high- tech gadgets, has been blurring its image to include more low-cost, practical goods. Example: a $19.95 aluminum-can crusher for recyclers.
In fact, that's another reason for rejecting rampant materialism: its impact on the environment. "Whenever I use something or buy something now, I'm thinking, Where is this going to end up?" says Debbie Worthley, 46, a student adviser at the University of Vermont. "I'm not as interested in buying gadgets as I was a few years ago." Seventh Generation, a two-year-old Colchester, Vt., mail-order firm that specializes in goods for the environmentally conscious, has an essay in its catalog titled "Why You Should Buy Less Stuff." Recycling has taken hold as a voguish and satisfying pursuit. People who used to meet at trendy bars now trade bons mots while sorting their garbage into the appropriate bins at the public dump. Even the smaller luxuries are giving way to environmental vigilance. If last year's popular orange juice was a quart of premium with extra pulp, this year's is canned concentrate, which requires less packaging.
The buzz word among marketers is "value" products, meaning quality at a low price. The Campbell Soup Co. has introduced discount frozen foods, including Swanson budget dinners (average cost: $1.39). In the hope of stemming a decline in business that typically reached 20% in the past year, restaurants are adding such moderately priced classics as fried chicken, meat loaf and bread pudding. Restaurateurs have coined a phrase for it: "casualization." In fast food, price is the object. After Taco Bell won new fans by pricing about half its items at 99 cents or less, Burger King began offering Burger Buddies cheeseburgers at 29 cents for customers who buy fries and a drink.
Sales of the ultimate yuppie symbol, the BMW, fell to 63,600 in the U.S. last year, a drop of 28% from 1985 levels. Meanwhile, Honda sales increased 29.7%, to 716,500. The sales pitch for autos today would have bored the driving gloves off an '80s car buff: safety features (antilock brakes, air bags), versatility (four doors, built-in child seats) and value. A 1991 Pontiac Grand Prix model sells for under $20,000 but looks (on the outside, anyway) like last year's sporty $26,000 Turbo model.
Even trendiness itself, or at least the slavish chronicling of consumer ephemera, has the taint of the passe. Many magazines that served as arbiters of hipness have gone out of business, including Egg, 7 Days, Smart and Fame. In the meantime, Vanity Fair thrives by sticking to cover subjects that have the rosy glow of maturity: Farrah and Ryan, Sly Stallone, Madonna. At the same time, such magazines as Workbench, Homeowner and 1001 Home Ideas are briskly building up their circulation. One of the hottest newcomers is Countryside, a Hearst glossy about the virtues of conservation, rural landscapes and life in the exurbs.
The pop-culture machine is rushing to catch up with the times. Gilded '80s shows such as Dynasty and Falcon Crest are gone, swept away by a wave of proudly downscale fare, including Roseanne, The Simpsons and Married . . . with Children. Campy hobnobber Robin Leach of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous has been replaced in the hearts of viewers by chatty Jeff Smith of The Frugal Gourmet and nonaerobic carpenter Norm Abram of The New Yankee Workshop. Love stories, melodramas and family films have taken over Hollywood. Home Alone, Ghost and Pretty Woman, for example, collectively reaped more than $500 million in total revenues last year. Get set for an onslaught of films about people waking up and smelling the coffee.
For many Americans the most startling realization is how much they have given up for their careers. In her new book Down-Shifting, author Amy Saltzman maintains that baby boomers have grown increasingly skeptical about the payoff for devoting so much time to the fast track. As their huge generation crowds toward the top of the corporate pyramid, many are getting stalled. At the same time, companies have been slashing the ranks of middle managers.
For Karen Glance, 36, it came down to all those little packets of shampoo. She remembers the morning she opened her bathroom cabinet in St. Paul and counted 150 that had followed her home from hotels in dozens of cities. Says the former apparel executive: "I was a workaholic, a crazy, crazy woman. I was on a plane four times a week. I just wanted to get to the top. All of a sudden, I realized that I was reaching that goal but I wasn't happy. A year would go by and I wouldn't know what had happened."
A few months ago, Glance was shopping in a neighborhood grocery store when she learned that its owner was about to retire. Something fell into place. She looked around the old-fashioned shop, where clerks still climb ladders to retrieve goods from the upper shelves, and she decided on the spot to buy the place. The new proprietor of the Crocus Hill market may never come anywhere near to matching her old $100,000-plus yearly income, but she couldn't care less. Says Glance: "It really comes down to saying, 'Slow down. The value of life might not be in making money.' "
Mostly, though, what people want now is more time around home and hearth. Most parents of small children work outside the home. More than 7 million Americans hold down two or even three jobs to make ends meet. "Nobody seems to have any damn time anymore," says Winby, the Hewlett-Packard executive. "People can't manage their home, work and personal life." As a result, many working mothers (and some fathers) are giving up full-time careers to devote more time to homelife. "There is a sense of an enormous trade-off between a fast-track career and family well-being," says economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of the forthcoming When the Bough Breaks: The Cost of Neglecting Our Children. "Women can see the damage all around them and are making different choices than they did a few years ago."
Some couples are even thinking twice about divorce in light of the problems it can pose for children, the financial damage it does to families and other consequences. The U.S. divorce rate, which reached a high of 5.3 per 1,000 people in 1979, is now 4.7 and may still be falling.
Of all those rejecting the rat race to spend more time with their families, perhaps the most famous is Peter Lynch. While the 47-year-old investment superstar was busy building the Fidelity Magellan mutual fund into a $13 billion behemoth, his youngest daughter got to be seven years old, and he felt he hardly knew her. Last spring he stunned Wall Street when he decided to give up his 14-hour workdays. With a nest egg estimated at $50 million, Lynch could well afford to quit. But many ordinary people evidently felt a connection with what he did, for he received more than 1,000 letters of support for his move. These days, while other investment managers are scanning their market data at dawn, Lynch is making school lunches. Says he: "I loved what I was doing, but I came to a conclusion, and so did some others: What in the hell are we doing this for? I don't know anyone who wished on his deathbed that he had spent more time at the office."
The stay-at-home urge, also known as "cocooning," has produced a boom of its own. Consumers spent more than $9 billion renting videotapes in 1990, up 13% from the previous year and nearly twice the $5 billion they paid to see new releases at theaters. Home entertaining is decidedly back to basics. Remember onion dip? The Mom Rule has re-emerged as America's primary meal- planning guide: if she never heard of it, don't serve it. With a couple of children in tow, mothers and fathers simply don't have time to hunt for goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes in the supermarket. Marsha Bristow Bostick fondly recalls the leisurely evenings she spent at home before her children were born, "cooking wonderful things with my husband while we sipped white wine." Now? "We're eating SpaghettiO's, fried chicken, lots of terrible-for- you casseroles covered in cheese."
Far from becoming hermits, many Americans are reaching out to strengthen their ties beyond the home. Instead of defining themselves mostly by their possessions and work, more Americans in big cities as well as small towns are getting involved with their communities. "I don't think God puts you on this earth just to make millions of dollars and ignore everyone else," says Chris Amundsen of Minneapolis, a commercial real estate expert who took a 34% pay cut when he became the chief financial officer of a nonprofit housing agency.
Lately, charitable agencies and community groups have seen an upsurge in the willingness of Americans to help the less fortunate. In 1989 citizens gave a record $114.7 billion to charitable causes across the U.S., a 10% increase from the previous year, despite the stagnating economy. Instead of exchanging Christmas presents, many have started making contributions in the names of their friends. Even more impressive, more than 98 million Americans -- about half of all adults -- volunteered their time to charitable organizations in 1989, a 23% increase from two years earlier. Voluntary efforts range from the spectacular to the simply heartwarming. In Los Angeles real estate broker Eric Broida regularly volunteers at the Union Rescue Mission, where he serves meals to the homeless. "A couple of years ago, I went down one night to help out, and it just felt right," he says. "I felt good. I've been going back ever since."
In their search for more enduring gratification in life, many people are seeking spirituality, if not a born-again commitment to organized religion. "Spirituality is in," says theologian Marty, "so much so that I get embarrassed by it." Says Milton Walsh, a Roman Catholic priest who is pastor of St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco: "People want some kind of direction and purpose, the basic 'Who am I? Where am I going?' "
The mood has influenced the career choices of college students and recent graduates. Many are spurning high-powered corporate careers to train for teaching, nursing and other community-service jobs. Joe Holland turned down generous offers after graduating from Harvard Law School a few years ago to move to Harlem to help build up the community. Now the owner of a restaurant and a travel agency, Holland has also founded a shelter for the homeless. "I know that coming to Harlem shut the door to Wall Street," says he. "But I can look at a healthy man, a full-time travel agent, who came through my homeless program two years ago strung out on crack. I have absolutely no regrets."
By some analyses, the 1990s will be an anxious era of dues paying for the excesses of the '80s. That may be true in a public sense, but in private lives, how much fun was the past decade? For most Americans it was a time of struggling to keep up with everyone who seemed to be making it big. Now that the bubble of financial speculation has burst, people should -- and do -- feel entitled to accept more modest aspirations. The real estate market was a prime example of a 1980s torture track. Americans started thinking of housing as a vehicle for getting rich, rather than as just shelter, and it became an obsession. Author Ann Beattie, a chronicler of the baby boom, fled Manhattan in the mid-1980s for Charlottesville, Va., declaring, "I could not spend the rest of my life listening to people talk about real estate. It's a constant, boring, hysterical subject."
Now that the conversation has changed to more humane topics, how will it affect the economy? During the past month, consumer confidence has shaken off the worst of the recession blues, according to studies by the University of Michigan and the Conference Board. Over the long haul, prudent consumers who feel optimistic about the future could help build a stronger foundation for the economy. For one thing, the U.S. personal-savings rate, which dropped from 9% in the mid-1970s to a low of 2.3% in late 1987, is now about 4% and climbing. That will provide a larger pool of investment capital and could help the U.S. regain its competitive footing. The poor may also eventually benefit if the notion of a kinder, gentler America is translated into concrete action.
But the final question is this: Is the simple life just a passing fancy, a stylish flashback of the 1960s? Not so, say people who have studied both eras. Contends Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah: "It's no longer messianic, the way it was in the '60s, but relatively pragmatic. That may give the present mood a greater staying power." That's good, because the American generation now reaching middle age has a lot of promises to keep -- not to mention mortgages to carry, tuition to pay and lawns to mow. No wonder they want to keep it simple.