Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Do It Yourself Like People Who Had No Choice But To Do It Themselves

Patterns found in newly published books can serve as excellent economic indicators. A couple of years back, roughly a trillion books were published telling people to "master the market." For a while, we all had the delusion we were swaggering Wall Street millionaires. It wasn't about the cash in your pocket, we were told, it was about the names in your portfolio. Then, as you may be aware, some stuff happened in the intervening years which changed our prospective a bit. Now a number of books are telling you it's not about the cash in your pocket, it's about the cash securely buried in a coffee tin in your backyard. The role model switched from Rich Dad to Penny Pinching Grand Dad.

Welcome to the realm of the folksy home economics genre. Every week it seems that there is a new book aimed at people facing the ripe old age of 30 to pick up their sewing needles, be an urban homesteader, live sustainably on the bare minimum needed, and emulate a character from Little House on the Prairie. It's interesting. As far as I can tell, this group has been targeted for a few reasons:

1) We are broke.

The credit card peddlers gave us a free taste during those early days of the five year blackout known as college. We got hooked and used them for everything from groceries to Gundam models. The fiscal responsibility of a college student with a credit card is on par with that of a 3 year old in a candy store holding a five dollar bill. We buried ourselves in debt before we even had jobs to pay it off. Those "hip" credit report commercials on TV? They are for us.

Speaking of college though, getting a degree no longer seemed optional. We were told that college degrees were the new high school diploma. No degree, no job prospects. But unlike a high school, college isn't free. Tuition was high and went up almost every semester. This helped us accrue more debt by taking on school loans we had no hope of paying back in a timely fashion. But there is a loophole! You don't have to pay for the loan until you are out of college. So you end up taking more classes causing you to take out more loans. Due to this brand of mobius strip logic, there is an army of professional students living off of school loans and looking at a debt that will take them nearly a century to pay off.

Long story short, learning how to stretch a dollar is a skill we desperately need.

2) We are in danger of being functionally helpless without technology.

I grew up around tools and people who used them. My mom had a sewing machine AND a band saw. My grandfather had a workshop. My dad had eight different types of hammers. A car with half a body hanging out of the hood was a common sight at the house. When something broke or wore out, they fixed it. This knowledge was something they were happy to pass down. And if it wasn't for that first Nintendo system, I totally would have paid attention to them.

Instead we have to rely on mechanics, landlords, farmers, tailors, and spellcheckers to fix everything for us. But the authors of these books understand that a lot of these tasks are not lost to us. By growing up around this knowledge, we have some dormant memory of it. We just need someone help dredge up what we were told when we were half paying attention to our parents so many years ago. The generation after us, however, is doomed.

3) We are a wasteful generation who feels guilty about being wasteful.

Our parents were hippies. They loved the environment and taught us how to treat it well. They also taught us how to consume at rates previously unimaginable. So we are caught between the desire to both save the earth and plunder it for all it is worth. Currently, we feel a little bad about the past 20 years and are trying to make up for it. We are doing this, in part, by making the things we buy last longer. I should note that this excludes electronic devices and phones which we will buy every six months if something better comes along. And considering 90% of what we purchase is an electronic device or a phone, we aren't doing a very good job.

4) We have an affinity for vintage clothing.

Seeing as we've gone around to thrift stores buying clothes to look like our grandparents, the authors are assuming we want to be more like them in general. And they are somewhat right. We admire their resilience and independence. We romance the freedom they had in their careers and the struggle to get that freedom. We even like their cocktails. These books feed a nostalgia for times that we never lived in. It's not just about learning useful skills, it's about connecting with a previous generation.

5) We like to buy colorful books with lots of photos that make it appear that we can do things, even if we can't.

That's kind of self-explanatory.
posted by jw