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.