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Monday, October 23, 2006

Luxury for all?

Have we become a society of foodies and product people? Are luxury goods available on a scale unheard of in the past? Do the non-rich really have access to the same things mega-rich people do? Good food, good wine, goods made to pamper the body, therapies designed to mellow the mind, and the usual necessities that proliferate our culture – coffee and chocolate and cotton. Does the status of our credit card Nation attest to the fact that we all want the finer things and are often too willing to live beyond our means to get them? Is it that this generation, unlike others in the past, does not look to the future because of an unspoken assumption that there is none?

Someone once said to me that every generation conceives of it’s problems as worse than the one before. The depression era babies went from poverty straight into WWII. The baby boomers started out in a consciousness of abundance, possibly the knee jerk reaction of their parents as a way to deal with posttraumatic stress – give the kid everything. The advertisements in the 50’s would show a running tap and an announcer would say in a booming voice, “Go ahead, run the tap! There is enough water to run it forever!” It was as if this generation collectively decided, “The world is our oyster and we will eat and eat and eat.”

Then these pampered, abundance loving, consumer boomers dealt with Vietnam and the cold war. Gen X and Y are dealing with genocides on such mass scale. It seems that the global horror felt at the holocaust is not present for more recent genocides. The world’s muted response to Tibet, Rwanda, and the Kurds and others is perplexing in an intellectual sense and horrifying in an empathic one.
Gen X and Y are living in a world where genocide is so rampant that mass protest of them does not occur.

The old symbols of security have also crumbled with many Enrons and Halliburtons ensuring the end of the job. No one in my generation in his or her right mind truly believes in the pension myth. The very thought of a company that will provide for us in our old age is laughable. I have yet to meet another Gen X’er that believes they will ever see one cent from Social Security in their old age. It’s not like we bemoan this. We just live with it the same as we live with our understanding that the earth is round and acid rain falls on the Adirondacks.

So do we bargain our future for a little momentary comfort? Does my Peet’s latte distract me from the real fear that North Korea may nuclear bomb the crap out of us tomorrow?

In parallel to the over spending masses, the rich are getting richer and the gap between rich and poor wider and wider. NPR was having a discussion about this that touched upon the expectations the rich have of aging. The whole idea of looking your best was put into a whole new plastic perspective. The question, it seems has become, not if you will elect for plastic surgery, but when you will NEED it - that is if you care about keeping up your status in society as a worthwhile human being. After listening to this show I realized that the gulf between the wealthiest elite and me is really, really HUGE. The gulf I saw spans beyond what they own and I don’t all the way into a difference in values.

So do we really have what the truly wealthy have? I think, probably not. I know of a few truly wealthy people. They go to places I have never heard of and wear watches that make Rolex look shabby. But PR firms and marketers bank on their assumption that I don't know there is a level of wealth beyond Rolex. And you know what? They are really onto something. They market Luxury. In Europe they are way more obtuse about it. They actually call goods Luxury soap or Luxury chocolate. The word Luxury itself gets attached as if it is some sort of proof of quality; a ticket to a parallel universe where there is no war or poverty all for a $3.50 cup of chai.

Did I mention one of my undergraduate degrees was in philosophy? I can’t help thinking about all this when Christmas is nearly upon us. For me that has always been a time when I have come face to face with the fact that instead of buying my ticket into the safe oblivion of the parallel universe, I should have been saving that money for stocking stuffers.