Allison J. Pugh is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia. Pugh's latest book, Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture was published by UC Press in February 2009. For more information on Pugh and work, please visit her website and her blog, Care Work Live. In her blog entry below, she talks about how recent economic woes effect parental spending.
By: Allison J. Pugh
Apparently, the age of consumption is over. Time Magazine is proclaiming this the era of the New Frugality. The New York Times conducted a poll reporting that 71 percent of Americans say they've cut back on luxuries. The Wall Street Journal contended there was "good reason" to believe that America's turn to thrift will outlast the recession.
To be sure, the recent economic dislocations are profound. There is no doubt that many people are cutting back where they can. But what counts as "luxuries"? What are viewed as the basics, the fundamental priorities for a strapped budget? What is consumption for, anyway?
For the children I observed for three years in Oakland, Calif., spending on things as mundane as GameBoys or Magic cards served as critical markers of belonging in their social worlds. Had they seen that recent movie the girl sitting nearby just mentioned? Could they talk about that kind of Lunchable, what came on the tray, what it tasted like? Had they been to Marine World? Kids continually had to negotiate their way in and out of conversations that formed a sort of "economy of dignity," a system of fleeting moments of belonging.
What did they do when they did not own or had not experienced whatever everyone else was talking about? Most children had multiple strategies for handling those incidents, strategies that I explore in my book Longing and Belonging. While they could manage those difficult moments, however, children up and down the class ladder also disliked them intensely as felt instances of deprivation.
Parents felt the ensuing pressure, and in most cases, even under dire economic conditions, responded by making sure children had what they needed to participate in the social world at school. I visited with one mother who bought her daughter a full bedroom set, even though she herself was sleeping on the floor. Even when financial necessity forces parents to reshuffle creditors, they often put their child's desires first.
At the same time, when parents talked to me about their buying habits, what they reported was not quite as straightforward as those news reports of cutting back on "luxuries" suggest. Affluent parents would tell me how little they bought, maintaining that they were not materialistic or spendy. Low-income parents would tell me how much they bought, how they could really take care of their child's needs and desires. Both seemed to view their kids' consumer desires as the psychological need to be normal. Is that a "luxury"? Only to those few parents who actually did resist, who had the convictions or biographies that inured them to the social risks of their children's difference from others, risks that their children bore on their own at school or in the neighborhood.
We don't know exactly how most American households will respond to the changing economic tides, where they will reduce, where they will not. The spending data are not yet in, despite the trend pieces and poll data. But without change in the root causes of spending on children — the risks and fear of difference, the paramount importance of commodities in determining normalcy, and thus belonging — parents may be reserving the New Frugality for themselves while for their children resorting to some of the Old Consumerism.