The discreet charm of poverty: Less is the new more

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On Sunday, The New York Times printed an op-ed by novelist Pico Iyer. In the piece, "The Joy of Less," Iyer explored the wonder of reduced circumstances, suggesting that privation may be the key to physical and moral happiness. In the process, he suggested a likely new direction for mass-marketing: poverty chic.

This change has been coming for a while; a year ago, the exploding price of gas gave the first hint that values were changing. On one level, the rapidly rising popularity of hybrids was pragmatic. After all, with dramatically better gas mileage than most cars and far better styling than old Geo Metros, Priuses were an attractive way to save money. However, a great deal of their popularity came from something a lot less practical: on some level, conservation was starting to become cool.
The New York Post alluded to this change when it ran an article about the difficulties that many consumers were having with finding hybrids on lots. One purchaser, Joe Abutel was very clear about his reason for buying an H1 Hummer: he wanted to impress the ladies. A few years later, however, he found himself buying a Prius for the same reason. Suddenly, his gargantuan status symbol had become a big, fat albatross: a sign of his wasteful lifestyle and inability to read the prevailing themes of his culture.

Flash-forward a year, and the world is a very different place. Amidst a weak stock market, a bleak job market, and ever-decreasing expectations, Hummers have become a rarity on many American streets. GM is trying to get rid of the company, which is tough, given that Iraq is one of the few places where they are selling well.

Beyond the decline of GM's monstermobile, lean is basically becoming the new black. While Iyer's article in the Times was a masterwork of the modern art of annoying self-congratulation clasped in false humility, it also may be the opening salvo of the next big thing: the "I was poor before poor was cool" narrative. In his short piece, Iyer emerges as the vanguard of a group that may mine social status out of a lack of material goods.

Admittedly, this is a little reductive: underneath all of the cringingly self-serving cliches, Iyer makes some great points. As he notes, a life removed from material goods and the relentless flow of media has a rhythm that can be comforting and sensuous. In his parade of quotes and title-dropping, amid boasts of the time he spends reading (Walden, of course), Iyer suggests that there may be some huge benefits from a life more ordinary. While his condescending delivery leaves a lot to be desired, his message resonates.

It's the perfect time for this narrative. With a world suddenly reevaluating its priorities, and even trustifarians discovering that the trough will not always be full, its clear that the dominant attitude is changing. While the unbearably rich and the incredibly poor will probably continue to live life as usual, most consumers are, ironically, learning how not to consume. Still, the marketing machine and the 24-hour news cycle must chug on, leading to an obvious question: what can we sell when nobody is buying?

The obvious answer is nothing, and media is already laying the groundwork for the big release of Nothing 2.0. A few weeks ago, New York magazine reported on the emergent recession culture, noting that money inspires aggression, self-absorption, and other antisocial behaviors. The recession, by comparison, was inspiring increased community involvement. A study released by the Journal of Research in Personality picked up the theme, noting that the pursuit of fame, wealth, and beauty does not lead to happiness. The message is clear: if you can't buy happiness, why not save your money?

With economists predicting that consumer spending will be down for at least five years, it seems reasonable to expect that Iyer's gambit -- positioning thrift as a moral and spiritual ideal -- will gain traction. In this context, low price, combined with environmental responsibility should be the dominant selling point of the next few years. It will be interesting to see how companies manage to work that perspective into their marketing

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