Consumer Confidenced and the Land of the Booster

THE JOURNAL RECORD, May 14, 1993 | Go to article overview

Consumer Confidenced and the Land of the Booster


Consumer confidence. It has such a reassuring, solid sound. If only it would come back, the economy surely would get better.

It was even up a bit in April, the poll takers reported recently, although not nearly as much as last December when hopes were so high for the newly elected president, Bill Clinton.

But such avid attention to the monthly fluctuations has concealed a most troubling trend. Ever since the 1960s, the optimism of Americans about the economy and their own circumstances has gradually deteriorated. And today millions of people view their future with no sense of certainty that things can get better.

Put starkly, the soaring optimism of the 1950s and 1960s that life in America could only become more prosperous has gradually given way to what Richard T. Curtin, director of consumer surveys at the University of Michigan, calls "diminished expectations." The 1970s and early 1980s _ a transition period _ brought fist-banging and frustration as living standards stopped rising for most Americans. And now, particularly over the past three years, the struggle to regain the old prosperity has dissolved into resignation.

"People are satisfied today if they can keep their incomes and living standards from declining," Curtin said. Other poll takers have picked up the same shift in attitudes, among them the Daniel Yankelovich Group, a market-research firm.

"Happiness is being able to cut it with less," said Florence Skelly, the firm's vice chairman. "Rather than trying to climb the economic ladder, people are becoming more concerned with relationships and family and community involvement."

The phenomenon is still too new to trace all its consequences, says Christopher Jencks, a sociologist at Northwestern University. But some are becoming evident. Above all, Americans, having lost the old confidence that next year will bring a higher wage or a better job, have been unexpectedly reluctant to help turn the weak national economy into a stronger one.

As interest rates fell last year, for example, many economists thought that homeowners would refinance mortgages to lower their monthly payments. They did refinance, but the savings were not spent on consumer goods. They have gone mostly to pay down debt, to clear the family balance sheet, in case a wage earner is laid off or is forced to take a lower-paying job.

Such bad luck, so alien to the 1950s and 1960s, so resisted in the 1970s, is accepted today as anyone's possible fate _ in an age of diminished expectations.

"People were more comfortable with debt in more optimistic times," said William Dudley, a senior economist at Goldman, Sachs

Co.

Until well into the 1980s, there had been a safety valve. Women entering the workforce added a second paycheck for millions of households, and that helped mask the fact that the median individual wage had failed since the early 1970s to keep up with inflation.

"The number of persons per paycheck shrank, but that is gone now," said Frank Levy, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Part of it is that women's labor force participation has leveled off, and some of it is that the birth rate has kicked up as couples who had put off having children finally took the step."

Adjusting to the change, retailers are endlessly offering bargain prices, opening more discount stores and pushing what they call real value. The new ethic is that less is more, Skelly said: "You don't need 100 shirts, 15 are fine, and you don't need designer watches and Mercedes-Benzes. …

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