You may remember that commercial from Lending Tree, where the suburban father shows off the upper middle-class wonders that he enjoys — large house, riding lawnmower, country club membership — and asks how does he afford it. "I'm in debt up to my eyeballs," he confesses warmly, sounding like he's cracked and about to go on a calm shooting spree around the office.
That attitude of self-aware yet dismissive humor toward debt came way before the humbling Great Recession, back during the housing bubble. Even during that heady euphoria, the typical Boomer realized how illusory much of their status symbols were.
Could it be found, then, farther back still, say during the Clinton years when every Boomer styled themselves as a wise investor in the stock market just because they bought a subscription to Money magazine?
The graph below shows the prevalence of the phrase in Google's digitized print media library (Ngram). It doesn't matter whether the phrase was "my" eyeballs or "our" eyeballs.
Surprisingly, the phrase goes all the way back to the origins of the current debt bubble, taking incipient form in the '70s and exploding from the '80s until today. That makes them part of the status-striving and inequality cycle.
I thought it would've come some time later, after the naivete toward credit cards had worn off and consumers sobered up to the reality of compound interest. But nope, the Me Generation took the glib, joking tone right from the beginning. They knew what they were getting into, but waved away the consequences. "Fake it till you make it," but since you never really make it, keep on faking it.
This tone showed up elsewhere in popular coined phrases during the '80s. "We'll just charge it!" Oh, OK, nothing to worry about then. Money just grows on trees. And the synecdoche slang of referring to credit cards affectionately as "plastic," e.g., "Don't worry, honey, I'm sure they'll take plastic."
The unapolegetically open tone that the Me Generation has taken toward their status symbols being financed by debt rather than their own achievement reveals the relative balance of forces at work in their minds. Are they so competitive because they want to WIN WIN WIN at their "career" (job), or so they can finance a separate but related contest over conspicuous consumption?
It looks like the latter, otherwise taking on so much debt to purchase the status symbols — and especially being so open about the money coming from creditors rather than their own bank account — would have struck them as a failure, an embarrassment. Something they would have tried to cover up.
But if the primary goal is to compete in the game of conspicuous consumption, who cares where the money came from? "It's not as though the NFL players buy their own equipment," you can hear a Boomer rationalizing. "Worthier borrowers get bigger loans, so my millions in debt prove I'm better than you, with your measly little thousands in debt."
To reiterate: I'm not dismissing the well established tendency of the Silent and Boomer generations to want to win at any costs in the career world, so that they can brag about their career (job) on its own, regardless of what particular status items their salaries and debt have afforded them. I'm suggesting that the over-arching concern of theirs is the zero-sum status game of conspicuous consumption, whether that takes the form of blue-state liberal battles or red-state pseudo-conservative ones — Prius vs. Hummer, over-priced walking staff vs. over-priced fly fishing rod, thousands toward Apple products vs. thousands toward a home theater set-up, etc.
It's worth noting in the generational context that the main form of debt that Gen X and Millennials are saddled with is exorbitant student loans. Those are not part of a conspicuous consumption game, but immaterial status contests based on knowledge, coolness, and leisure. See this earlier post on the generational structure of status contests.
Are you college-educated or not? What tier did you get into? Within your tier, did you hang out in this type of environment or that one? What did you major in? That's as close to the contest over career accomplishments that X-ers and Millennials engage in.
Plus, the Silent / Boomer incumbents have rigged the economy so that a $40,000 certificate from a degree mill has become a requirement for even crappy jobs. That makes the student loan more a matter of merely making a living, and not an instrument of superfluous spending like credit cards, home loans, car loans, and the like.
Student loans are taken out by naive half-children who are promised that it'll be worth it when they go job-hunting later in life. At the beginning of the debt bubble, credit cards etc. were taken out by knowing 20 and 30-somethings who cynically used them to acquire more status symbols right now rather than delay gratification until they could afford it.
The Silent / Boomer conspiracy to take over the government has also made sure that the upstart generations cannot discharge their typical form of debt (student loans) through bankruptcy, unlike the Silents and Boomers who have thrown off the burden of their typical form of debt (credit cards, mortgages) with the stroke of a pen. This difference in which categories of debt can be cut loose has served to widen inequality between the generations, and can only be corrected with the death of the Me Generation or their removal from government.
The bankruptcy thing is because too many law students figured out they could discharge their student loans early and then start rebuilding their credit with a degree that can't be repossessed.ReplyDelete
"Debt up to my neck" was briefly popular around 1940. "Debt up to my ears" was only very recently surpassed by the "eyeballs" variant. (Ngram)ReplyDelete
I read somewhere recently that Gen X is most indebted due to homes bought during housing bubble. Millenials behind them with student loansReplyDelete
Millennials are also 20 years younger. Just wait till they take out mortgages in addition to their student loans...ReplyDelete
Lessons in Millenial naivety. I assume that most people reading this also read Steve Sailer's blog. He linked to this study:ReplyDelete
This is the kind of cultural 'epidemic' of whining, ignorance, foolishness, and paternalism that happens when the West decided to raise in entire generation of nebulous not children/not adults people.
In addition, the vast majority of post 1990 people have grown up in such a sterilized, non threatening environment that they don't see dangers staring them right in the face 'til it's too late.
I suspect that people born from 1930-1960 also didn't appreciate the dangers of playing with fire. You do really need to grow up in a wild time period to learn at a young age to have what late Boomers/Gen X-ers/very early Millenials regard as basic common sense.
I Know Agnostic (and ESPN's Bill Simmons) have complained about the increasingly frigid Gen X culture of the very late 80's/90's, but at least Gen X-ers had seen so much nasty stuff that they had good reasons to want to opt out of the bacchanalia (and the resulting dodging of personal responsibility for the havoc that ensues) that Silents/Boomers created and that Millenials are resuming.
The really bizarre part of today's date rape hysteria is the background of a steadily falling risk of rape. At the peak of the crime rate circa 1990, it was at least conceivable that there was an epidemic of guys drugging girls' drinks, and having their way with them. This time around, nothing could be more unimaginable.ReplyDelete
There was a similar hysteria during the falling-crime Midcentury, centered around "sexual psychopaths." Cases like Leopold and Loeb, and the Lindbergh baby, during the '20s and early '30s had everybody understandably spooked about crime that was not just violent but sick and perverted.
After a peak in '33, the homicide rate kept falling through the '50s, but that didn't stop people from imagining a never-resting onslaught of predators. The sexual psychopath became a more shadowy boogeyman kind of figure, perhaps seen perhaps unseen, but always lurking. It wasn't a tangible killer type like that weird guy who lives in that weird house that no one wants to go near, or that superficially charming guy who rumor has it gets over-heated when women turn him down.
The intangible, can't-really-explain it kind of paranoia that flourishes in a falling-crime period leads people who don't remember the earlier period of true danger to say, "What's the big deal? Nothing to worry about in the world of June Cleaver." I imagine most Millennials, aside from the tiny fringe of SJW loons, are totally writing off all of this new date rape hysteria.
By now the disconnect between the safety level that people can sense for themselves, and the danger level they're told about by spastic ideologues, is widening so much that normal folks are soon going to downplay the dangers altogether. Chicken Little keeps saying the sky is falling, but it isn't, so nothing to worry about.
That will lead to people letting their guard down, and being cheerfully naive about the risks of strangers in public places. Crime and exploitation will rise after that, leading to people being out-and-about but more savvy about the risks (a la the later '70s and '80s). Then growing weary of all the crime, cocooning again, and so on.
"After a peak in '33, the homicide rate kept falling through the '50s, but that didn't stop people from imagining a never-resting onslaught of predators.ReplyDelete
The intangible, can't-really-explain it kind of paranoia that flourishes in a falling-crime period leads people who don't remember the earlier period of true danger to say, "What's the big deal? Nothing to worry about in the world of June Cleaver." I imagine most Millennials, aside from the tiny fringe of SJW loons, are totally writing off all of this new date rape hysteria."
I know you're focusing on the crime rate aspect, but I'm more concerned about the high inequality/high corruption of the current period and the way that will make today's moral panics even more insidious.
The disturbing aspect of today's culture that I was getting at that didn't really exist in the more wholesome and modest mid century is the shameless blame dodging of 'victims' and the malicious, life ruining false accusations by said 'victims' that is happening in some cases now.
These accusations are aided and abetted by out of control, ambitious people that will screw anyone over for the sake of their egos and careers. Look at those NY cops who killed a poor guy over selling cigarettes illegally. That's the kind of draconian, frightening repression of slight (or imagined) transgressions that we've got now that barely existed in the humble 30's-60's.
Those youngish cops are part of the increasingly diverse, spiritually/morally confused set of Gen X-ers/Millennials who are pawns cynically manipulated by the Me Generation that created the current high stakes game of chess that's being played.
In defense of those cops (and the Millennial 'rape' victims), I've said before and I still believe that most Gen X-ers/Millennials at heart want to help people and do the right thing. When they go off track it's often because of circumstances that put them under a lot of duress like mental illness, intense social pressures, or poverty. Whereas Silents/Boomer pathologies arose out of genuine me 1st psychopathy.
That psychopathy is still plaguing us and will haunt us until they are safely housed in group homes, nut houses, and graveyards.
It also goes without saying that people were less hedonistic back then so; I'm pretty sure most young woman and men in the later 30's thru the 50's were not geting loaded around horny people, at least not to the same degree as naive Millennials in today's period of nihilistic non-judgementalism.
"I know you're focusing on the crime rate aspect, but I'm more concerned about the high inequality/high corruption of the current period and the way that will make today's moral panics even more insidious."ReplyDelete
Cocooning is much worse, the true evil. I wonder if it is possible to stop it from happening in the future.
"These accusations are aided and abetted by out of control, ambitious people that will screw anyone over for the sake of their egos and careers."ReplyDelete
Right, unlike the Midcentury, this time around there's a competitive status-seeking motive underneath the paranoia.
There's obviously a male vs. female aspect to rape hoaxes and rape paranoia, but there's also a female vs. female competition over who outranks who on the victim totem pole. And the implication that they were more desirable than the ones who don't get targeted.
It's like they're broadcasting their Gamerscore on RapeBox Live.
"Have you ever been sexually assaulted? Didn't think so, you goody two-shoes bitch."
"As a survivor of multiple rapes and rape attempts, I [authoritative claim here]."
"You've only been raped by a ghetto black? How ordinary. *My* rape was at the hands of white frat bros." (Rare drop / achievement unlocked / max stats.)
"It's like everywhere I look around Starbucks, all the guys are fantasizing about raping me. Is it so much to ask to hang out at Starbucks and not be subjected to an avalanche of male gaze?"
The last couple of weeks I've heard a late Boomer/Early Gen X-er make some snarky union related jokes. The every-man-for-himself later period of a high inequality time period really does make people develop a callous disregard for other people.ReplyDelete
The apathy towards your fellow man as seen in the contempt of unions is also evident in the lack of outrage toward obvious instances of abusive authorities running amok.
There's a startling myopia toward these things; why should I care about brutal cops when it won't happen to ME? Cops don't just kill for no good reason, if somebody dies they had it coming, right?
Why should I care about unions when I can take care of myself? It's all about ME, remember? If somebody dies in a mine collapse, they knew what they were getting into, didn't they?
Why should I care about senile politicians starting shit with half the world's countries, we've gotta win and they're all US hating homophobic savages who have funny ideas about being free of modern Western culture.
There's such a void of conscience, of humanity, of any kind of heart or soul. If things don't go your way, well, I guess you had it coming. Too bad, don't expect me to go through the trouble of even pretending to give a damn about anyone else.
Another thing I left out but is heard way too often: who cares if everything is made in China, it keeps stuff cheaper, doesn't it?ReplyDelete
Also, why complain about high immigration levels, they're people too, just trying to make it. Besides, do you really think young Millennials will mow or garden for 7$ an hour? Do you think the average American woman would be a nanny for the wealthy?
Last but not least, why should we question the wealthy? There our greatest gift and we mustn't bother them. We must automatically assume that they honestly worked for it, that they never cheated or exploited anyone, and that they've got the right to do whatever they want to with their money. Hell, they're so special and cool that they shouldn't even be playing by the same rules as the rest of us.
Part of the shift toward laissez-faire is the pervasive norm of "don't pass judgment". The easiest and most psychologically comfy way to avoid passing judgment is to remain ignorant, and not inquire what's going on.ReplyDelete
"Hey, I don't know what's going on anyway, so who am I to judge? I don't judge you, you don't judge me. I don't concern myself with what you're up to, you shouldn't concern yourself with what I'm up to."
Laissez-faire feeds atomization.
A sign that striving and inequality is about to turn around is the thriving of movements whose basis is concerning themselves with what other individuals and organizations are doing, a la the Temperance and Progressive movements of the early 20th C.
With the rise of the Me Generation, those movements were re-written as busybody paternalism (not without a grain of truth), the worst offense to the new norm of let anyone do whatever they want.
"those movements were re-written as busybody paternalism (not without a grain of truth),"ReplyDelete
I understand that. But one of the reasons such fervent movements develop is that the level of vice/corruption has reached such an extreme, offensive level.
A lot of our cultural cycles/trends eventually leads to extremes of both action and reaction. One of the reason that something can seem like a big over reaction is the fact that eventually a 'response' or 'justice' group is going to be trying to stamp out a problem that runs it's course.
By the later 30's people had shaped up their act to the point that hyper vigilant justice groups seemed hysterical and unnecessary. People quickly forgot the decadence which spurred the justice group in the first place.
Kind of like how the anti-drug campaigns of the 80's/early 90's became a big joke as wildness began to wind down in the later 90's with little awareness of just how out of control drug use was getting in the 80's.
If society is screwed anyway why not die in debt to your eyeballs.ReplyDelete