Living beyond their means?

By KARA BASKIN  |  June 17, 2009

It's only human nature, really: there's comfort in knowing that there's always someone else out there who has it worse. There's someone who's married and doesn't have a job. Or there's someone who has kids and doesn't have a job. And, in the meantime, this generation can put a positive spin on a dismal situation and turn disappointment into an asset.

And so life — and consumer spending — goes on as planned. True, there have been a few notable casualties of the economy. Nationally, ubiquitous Starbucks has shuttered more than 800 stores; here in Boston, a number of fancy restaurants, including the Four Seasons' Aujourd'hui and the Hotel Commonwealth's Great Bay, just closed. But the young people who like $5 lattes and $30 entrées are, in general, the same people who refuse to panic and hide, and they're crowding the Bonds and the Clinks with unchanged fervor.

"Human beings are deeply social," says Frederic Brunel, associate professor of marketing at Boston University. "It's very much who we are. We need social interaction. People are not going to stop eating or drinking — it's part of being a healthy human being. It's not something you turn off overnight. You'll find tragic stories at a food pantry. You won't find tragic stories at a club on a Friday night." (Unless you count the intoxicated woman at Bond who was groping a man twice her age, but that's not the point.)

Meanwhile, colleges and graduate schools, cognizant of the bleak job market, are trying to cushion the blow with programs designed to help students deal with failure. (Exhibit A: Harvard's Office of Career Services hosted a coping seminar, distributing kitschy "reject" buttons to attendees. Picturing a Harvard kid sporting a reject button is like trying to conjure an image of a black female Republican — it takes some adjustment.) The lesson is simple: turn rejection into a slogan, deprive the word and the situation of meaning. Put yourself back in control, and keep living the life you deserve.

But is this ingenuity brave, or is it naïve? It feels almost like tweaking a résumé to gloss over a regrettable stint selling steak knives. For Teflons who haven't had to sacrifice, at least not in the traditional way, making a difficult situation bend to their own habits seems like the only possible solution. While sociologists might posit that we've raised a generation of brats who don't know the meaning of hard work and postponed fulfillment, maybe this economy is proving them wrong. These people aren't crying, they're not hiding, and most of all, they aren't toning down their dreams or their spending habits. They're continuing to live the only way they've ever known — and so far, it hasn't wounded. But I do have to wonder if there isn't something the tiniest bit nobly vulnerable about fear.

At least one person in all my travels agrees. "Look," a 25 year old named Tracy whispers to me across the sticky table. "I admit it. Sometimes I think we'll all turn into our grandparents and sit at home making 1A cakes, like during the Depression," she says. "I really do get scared."

I'm about to ask her to go on, but everyone in the room is suddenly on their feet, erupting in shouts and screams. Doug raises his iPhone in salute. The Red Sox have scored a run. Tonight, again, belongs to the winners.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kbaskin@phx.com.

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