At the beginning of every recession, there are people who see the downturn as an occasion for moral revival: Americans will learn to live without material extravagances. They'll simplify their lives. They'll rediscover what really matters: home, friends and family.
But recessions are about more than material deprivation. They're also about fear and diminished expectations. The cultural consequences of recessions are rarely uplifting.
The economic slowdown of the 1880s and 1890s produced a surge of agrarian populism and nativism, with particular hostility directed toward Catholics, Jews and blacks. The Depression was not only a time of FDR's optimism, but also one of apocalyptic forebodings and collectivist movements that crushed individual rights.
The recession of the 1970s produced a cynicism that has never really gone away. The share of students who admitted to cheating jumped from 34 percent in 1969 to 60 percent a decade later. More than a quarter of all employees said the goods they produced were so shoddily made that they wouldn't buy them for themselves.
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Recessions breed pessimism. That's why birthrates tend to drop and suicide rates tend to rise. That's why hemlines go down. Tamar Lewin of The New York Times reported on studies that show that Playboy Playmates of the Year tend to look more mature during recessions – older, heavier, more reassuring.
This recession will probably have its own social profile. It's likely to produce a new social group: the formerly middle class. These are people who achieved middle-class status at the tail end of the long boom, and then lost it. To them, the gap between where they are and where they used to be will seem wide and daunting.
The phenomenon is noticeable in developing nations. Over the past decade, millions of people in these societies have climbed out of poverty. But the global recession is pushing them back down. Many seem furious with democracy and capitalism, which they believe led to their shattered dreams. It's possible that the downturn will produce a profusion of Hugo Chavezes.
In this country, there are also millions facing the psychological and social pressures of downward mobility.
In the months ahead, the members of the formerly middle class will suffer career reversals. Paco Underhill, the retailing expert, tells me that 20 percent of the mall storefronts could soon be empty. That means thousands of service-economy workers will experience the self-doubt that goes with unemployment.
They will suffer lifestyle reversals. Over the past decade, millions of Americans have had unprecedented access to affordable luxuries, thanks to brands like Coach and Starbucks. These indulgences were signs of upward mobility. But they will no longer be so affordable. Suddenly, the door to the land of the upscale will slam shut for millions of Americans.
The members of the formerly middle class will suffer housing reversals. The current mortgage crisis is having its most concentrated effect on people on the lowest rungs of middle-class life – people who live in fast-growing exurbs in Florida and Nevada that are now rife with foreclosures; people who just moved out of their urban neighborhoods and made it to modest, older suburbs in California and Michigan. Suddenly, the home of one's own is gone, and it's back to the apartment complex.
Finally, they will suffer a drop in social capital. In times of recession, people spend more time at home. But this will be the first steep recession since the revolution in household formation. Nesting amongst an extended family rich in social capital is very different from nesting in a one-person household that is isolated from family and community bonds. People in the lower middle class have much higher divorce rates and many fewer community ties. For them, cocooning is more likely to be a perilous psychological spiral.
In this recession, maybe even more than other ones, the last ones to join the middle class will be the first ones out. And it won't only be material deprivations that bite. It will be the loss of a social identity, the loss of social networks, the loss of the little status symbols that suggest an elevated place in the social order. These reversals are bound to produce alienation and a political response. If you want to know where the next big social movements will come from, I'd say the formerly middle class.