A small sign of the times: USA Today this week ran an article about a Michigan family that, under financial pressure, decided to give up credit cards, satellite television, high-tech toys and restaurant dining, to live on a 40-acre farm and become more self-sufficient. The Wojtowicz family—36-year-old Patrick, his wife Melissa, 37, and their 15-year-old daughter Gabrielle—have become, in the words of reporter Judy Keen, “21st century homesteaders,” raising pigs and chickens, planning a garden and installing a wood furnace.
Mr. Wojtowicz was a truck driver frustrated by long hauls that kept him away from his family, and worried about a shrinking salary. His wife was self-employed and worked at home. They worked hard and had things but, Mr. Wojtowicz said, there was a “void.” “We started analyzing what it was that we were really missing. We were missing being around each other.” So he gave up his job and now works the land his father left him near Alma, Mich. His economic plan was pretty simple: “As long as we can keep decreasing our bills we can keep making less money.”
The paper weirdly headlined them “economic survivalists,” which perhaps reflected an assumption that anyone who leaves a conventional, material-driven life for something more physically rigorous but emotionally coherent is by definition making a political statement. But it didn’t look political from the story they told. They didn’t look like people trying to figure out how to survive as much as people trying to figure out how to live. The picture that accompanied the article showed a happy family playing Scrabble with a friend.
Their story hit a nerve. There was a lively comment thread on the paper’s Web site, with more than 300 people writing in. “They look pretty happy to me,” said a commenter. “My husband and I are making some of the same decisions.” Another: “I don’t know if this is so much survivalism as a return to common sense.” Another: “The more stuff you own the harder you have to work to maintain it.”
To some degree the Wojtowicz story sounded like the future, or the future as a lot of people are hoping it will be: pared down, more natural, more stable, less full of enervating overstimulation, of what Walker Percy called the “trivial magic” of modern times.
The article offered data suggesting the Wojtowiczes are part of a recent trend. People are gardening more if you go by the sales of vegetable seeds and transplants, up 30% over last year at the country’s largest seed company. Sales of canning and preserving products are also up. Companies that make sewing products say more people are learning to sew. I have a friend in Manhattan who took to surfing the Web over the past six months looking for small- and farm towns in which to live. The general manager of a national real-estate company told USA Today that more customers want to “live simply in a less-expensive place.”
Some of this—the desire to live less expensively, and perhaps with greater simplicity—seems to key off what I am seeing in Manhattan, a place still generally with more grievances than grief, and with a greater imagination about how badly things are going to go than how bad it is right now. Many think that no matter how much money is sloshing through the system from Washington, creating waves that lead to upticks, the recession is really a depression. We won’t “come out of it,” as the phrase goes, for five or seven years, because the downturn is systemic, global, and because the old esprit is gone. The baby boomers who for 40 years, from 1968 through 2008, did the grunt work of the great abundance—work was always a long-haul trip for them, they were the first in the office in 1975 and are the last to leave the office to this day—know the era they built is over, that something new is beginning, something more subdued and altogether more mysterious. The old markers of success—money, status, power—will not quite apply as they have. They watch and work as the future emerges.
In New York some signs of that future are obvious: fewer cars, less traffic, less of the old busy hum of the economic beehive. New York will, literally, get dimmer. Its magical bright-light nighttime skyline will glitter less as fewer companies inhabit the skyscrapers and put on the lights that make the city glow.
A prediction: By 2010 the mayor, in a variation on broken-window theory, will quietly enact a bright-light theory, demanding that developers leave the lights on whether there are tenants in the buildings or not, lest the world stand on a rise in New Jersey and get the impression no one’s here and nobody cares.
The New York of the years 1750 to 2008—a city that existed for money and for all the arts and delights and beauties money brings—is for the first time going to struggle with questions about its reason for being. This will cause profound dislocations. For a good while the young will continue to flock in, for cheaper rents. Artists will still want to gather with artists—you cannot pick up the Metropolitan Museum and put it in Alma, Mich. But there will be a certain diminution in the assumption of superiority on which New York has long run, and been allowed, by America, to run.
More predictions. The cities and suburbs of America are about to get rougher-looking. This will not be all bad. There will be a certain authenticity chic. Storefronts, pristine buildings—all will spend less on upkeep, and gleam less.
So will humans. People will be allowed to grow old again. There will be a certain liberation in this. There will be fewer facelifts and browlifts, less Botox, less dyed hair among both men and women. They will look more like people used to look, before perfection came in. Middle-aged bodies will be thicker and softer, with more maternal and paternal give. There will be fewer gyms and fewer trainers, but more walking. Gym machines produced the pumped and cut look. They won’t be so affordable now.
Hollywood will take the cue. During the depression, stars such as Clark Gable were supposed to look like normal men. Physical perfection would have distanced them from their audience. Now leading men are made of megamuscles, exaggerated versions of their audience. That will change.
The new home fashion will be spare. This will be the return of an old WASP style: the good, frayed carpet; dogs that look like dogs and not a hairdo in a teacup, as miniature dogs back from the canine boutique do now.
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A friend, noting what has and will continue to happen with car sales, said America will look like Havana—old cars and faded grandeur. It won’t. It will look like 1970, only without the bell-bottoms and excessive hirsuteness. More families will have to live together. More people will drink more regularly. Secret smoking will make a comeback as part of a return to simple pleasures. People will slow down. Mainstream religion will come back. Walker Percy again: Bland affluence breeds fundamentalism. Bland affluence is over.