Great Recession is reflected in our national culture, but are the changes lasting?

By Jocelyn Noveck, AP
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Meltdown’s lasting cultural impact tough to gauge

The economy is really bad, Jay Leno told his “Tonight Show” audience in March.

How bad?

“So bad that on ‘Sesame Street,’ they won’t even talk about the letters A, I or G anymore.”

Not that Leno was content to leave it at that. In fact, in eight months starting on Labor Day 2008, the comedian told no fewer than 863 jokes about the financial meltdown in his “Tonight Show” monologues, according to a Washington group that monitors such things.

Counting jokes is straightforward enough. It’s a lot harder, of course, to gauge the more subtle ways in which the Great Recession has impacted our culture: How we interact, how we entertain ourselves, how we worship, what we wear and buy and read and watch.

One cultural message has been clear, and Leno’s populist jokes reflect it: The country has been in no mood to celebrate ostentatious wealth, or those forces seen to have brought us to such a precarious place in our history.

But some historians say such a mood is in some ways cyclical, a phenomenon that has followed past recessions and then disappeared — until the next downturn.

“It’s a critique that emerges periodically in our history, that consumption is corrupting,” says Peter J. Kastor, a professor of history and American culture at Washington University in St. Louis. “Those concerns have been around since 1776.” But, he says, we are a society of consumers, and that’s what will ultimately prevail. Others agree.

“Certainly, you can see more critical attitudes toward conspicuous displays of wealth,” says Bruce Schulman, a historian at Boston University. “And you can expect popular culture to reflect those attitudes. But we are a country that depends on consumption, and that’s why I would not expect us to see really enduring cultural changes.”

Perhaps that’s also why some designers allowed themselves a little optimism at this month’s Fashion Week shows in New York. The glitz of some previous spring seasons was gone, but in contrast to the more somber fall styles now in stores, one could spy some feathers and even a little tinsel from at least one influential label, Proenza Schouler.

“The last thing the world needs is another black pencil skirt,” said Proenza’s Lazaro Hernandez. “You want something that feels more joyful.” And something different, he might have added, to bring women back to the stores and keep the industry afloat.

Designer clothes are, of course, accessible only to a few. One can’t say the same for movies, which do well in times of economic distress because they’re a relatively cheap, not to mention escapist, form of entertainment.

Indeed, Hollywood is coming off a huge summer in what’s been a banner year, with revenues running at a record pace of $7.4 billion for the year, 7.8 percent ahead of 2008 ticket sales, according to box office tracker

Could the content of our films be impacted by the recession, just as the Great Depression fueled the popularity of Frank Capra’s common-man-fights-corruption films? There’s always a lag between current events and cinematic versions of them, because it takes time to get movies made. One upcoming film, though, promises a scathing look at the forces that contributed to the recession: Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street 2,” now filming, with Michael Douglas returning as Gordon Gekko, the voracious financier who uttered that famous line, “Greed is good.”

As for comedy, look for Leno, David Letterman and others to continue to wring all the rueful jokes they can out of our economic woes. “Populist outrage is the undercurrent of all of it,” says Dan Amundson, research director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which monitors the late-night shows. “Particularly for Leno, it’s been a regular shtick.” (A favorite Leno target has been AIG, the insurance giant bailed out by the government.)

The recession may also have changed the nature of our celebrity obsession. Take a look at your favorite celeb weekly these days, and the cover story will as likely be about a reality TV star, like Kate Gosselin of “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” now famously split from her equally famous reality husband, as about a movie star or wealthy socialite like Paris Hilton.

“It brings the celebrity addiction down to our own level,” says Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. “It’s a more serviceable fantasy. Not everyone can be Beyonce, but we can be Kate.”

From celebrity worship to houses of worship: Though charity giving in America fell by 2 percent in 2008, forcing many groups to lay off staff, cut wages and eliminate programs, the same wasn’t true of giving to religious organizations, which was actually up by 5.5 percent, according to a study by Giving USA.

And, in what could be called a further silver lining for religious institutions, many have sensed a renewed purpose in serving communities that need them more than ever.

“It’s an opportunity for the church to be the church,” says Susan DeLay, spokesperson for the Willow Creek megachurch outside Chicago, which has four campuses and a combined attendance of about 24,000 worshippers each week. “It’s an affirmation of what God has called for the church to be. That’s very satisfying.”

Unlike some other churches in more hard-hit areas, attendance at Willow Creek has remained basically steady, while giving is down by 2 percent so far this year, DeLay says. Meanwhile, there’s been a huge increase in demand for the church’s services — such as the food pantry, where output is almost twice that of last year.

Demand has also gone up for the church’s cars ministry, which gives donated cars to those in need, and for a career transition workshop. And also for premarital counseling, DeLay says: “It’s interesting that people are eager to give their marriages the best chance.”

Speaking of marriage, one might think the divorce rate would go up in times of economic difficulty. There are, however, no statistics yet available past 2007, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, which compiles the information from states.

Whether divorces are up or down, divorce attorneys say anecdotally that they’re busy in court amending agreements because people’s finances have changed, with some unable to keep up their financial obligations to their exes. Another product of both the recession and the collapse of the housing market: Some couples are staying together under the same roof, albeit unhappily, because they can’t sell their homes or can’t afford to divorce.

And then there are the more subtle effects of economic stress on family life, the lasting nature of which will likely depend on how long the recession itself lasts.

“Both as couples and as parents, adults under stress often forget to express the kind of daily appreciation of partners and children that makes family life go smoothly,” says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington state and the author of “Marriage, A History.”

On the other hand, she notes, there may be long-range benefits from the economic meltdown, such as families learning to entertain and cook for themselves. They’re figuring out how to spend time together, rather than money.

“When people can’t afford to outsource family chores or pick up fast food, for example, they may rediscover the pleasures of doing some tasks as a family,” she says.

“If the Great Depression is any guide, one long-term good result of this economic crisis could be to remind people that bad things can happen to good people, and that ultimately we are all in the same boat — or at least subject to the same tides.”

Associated Press writer Megan K. Scott contributed to this report.

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