Business Casual: A New Reality

Even though we know better, I suspect a lot of us are secretly hoping to wake up one morning and learn that the recession is not just “officially” over but that everything is back to normal.

Our houses have re-appreciated to their early 2007 levels; out-of-work friends and family members are mulling multiple job offers. Banks are making loans. The stock market isn’t scaring us. The word “retirement” again sounds more like a choice than a punishment.

(And, while I’m hoping, a couple of personal requests: This same morning, upon opening my eyes, I find that I am a natural blonde and learn that there are no calories in Heath Bar Crunch ice cream. And that somebody has changed the oil in my car and painted the trim on my house.)

Unfortunately, we have all figured out that getting back to normal, whenever that happens, actually means moving forward to a new version of normal, which nobody seems to be able to define except in grim, somewhat obvious terms. (“It will be different.”) And this new normal won’t happen all at once; it will be gradual.

In fact, this new reality is being shaped even as we ponder it. Among the reasons normal will look and feel so different is that we ourselves are different.

In previous recessions, people lost jobs and went through tough times. Their circumstances took a hit, but they made adjustments – or so my admittedly selective memory is telling me. But there always was a satisfying and identifiable recovery – both for the economy and individuals. The people affected by the recession weren’t fundamentally changed by having gone through such a tough time.

The experience was more like sitting in a traffic jam and getting impatient and frustrated, but shaking it off once the roadblock was cleared and you were on your way. People didn’t lose their moorings or their sense of who they are.

This particular economic recession has cut deep – is still cutting. Even people who have held on to their jobs and their homes and maybe even an IRA or a healthy 401(k) are not feeling comfortable or complacent.

It seems to me that the full force of the recession, job losses in particular, has hit people in their 50s and 60s especially hard. They are the ones who are having a painfully hard time finding new employment after they’ve been laid off or bought out. So much for the golden years.

Nonetheless, the economic anxiety and the sense of helplessness and vulnerability it creates has had an effect on all of us. I don’t know anybody who isn’t worried.

Despite the conventional wisdom of hard times bringing out the best in people, I don’t see that happening. Difficult things (saving for the future, assuring your children you’ll put them through college) seem impossible, and ordinary things (paying bills, coping with car repairs) are tougher than they ought to be.

You have to wonder what the long-term consequences will be, not just to our personal finances but to our psyches. There’s been a lot of blaming, a lot of scapegoating, a lot of finger-pointing: at the banks, the politicians, the people who bought houses they couldn’t afford, the loan officers who aided and abetted them, the people in the neighborhood who sold their house for too little and lowered property values, the people who held on to their house but couldn’t afford to maintain it properly and lowered property values.

Are we grousing ourselves into a permanent state of helplessness?

Once things finally settle down, will we be perennially looking over our shoulders, afraid? Will we become our parents or grandparents whose vivid memories of the Great Depres-sion, that granddaddy of all economic disasters, kept them in fear for decades afterwards? Will we be the ones reminding future generations, with furrowed brows, that “money doesn’t grow on trees” and that “waste not, want not” are words to live by?

It’s not so much that the sentiments are wrong – they aren’t – but the frowns and the furrows and the attitude of crushing defeat do not seem like a legacy worth leaving.

I hope we can adjust and adapt to the new normal without losing our souls and our spirits and that we can get on with it – whatever it turns out to be.



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