We Need a 'New Normal' When It Comes to Consumption

Could traveling entertainment replace the shuttered malls and concert halls?

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@connorjkeith via Twenty20

Just over one hundred years ago, in 1919, a group called the Everyday Life Reform League was set up in Japan. This group's aim was to change the way Japanese families ran their households, to modernize cooking techniques and improve health, and to make life better for women and families. Writing for The New Republic, historian Frank Trentmann explains,

"[The league] urged homemakers to give up kneeling on the floor and cooking with polluting charcoal, in favor of standing upright in a modern kitchen that ran on clean electricity. Gift-giving, elaborate ceremonies, and male-only hobbies were to yield to rational budgeting and a focus on what today would be called 'quality time' with the family."

Not everything changed, but Trentmann says that the "new-normal lifestyle," spearheaded by this league, did make many improvements and had a lasting impression on Japanese culture.

He shares this anecdote in a long-form piece, titled "The Unequal Future of Consumption," in an effort to show that a society's idea of "normal" is constantly evolving. We are now emerging from the coronavirus lockdown, wondering what has become of the life we once knew and how it will ever return to normal. But Trentmann wants people to realize that what we assume is "normal" today was not always that – and that our future normal will be different yet again.

"The notions that each person should have their own home, eat out, fly to Ibiza, exercise, take at least one hot shower a day, and change their clothes constantly — these are not inborn human rights, and were indeed regarded as exceptional before they established themselves as normal. The history of consumer culture since 1500 is a succession of many such new normals. They come and go, but they are never simply the result of changes in getting and spending. They have been aided and steered by politics and power."

Consumption drives much of our global economy, and the coronavirus is now forcing us to reckon with what we once took for granted. Sporting events, restaurant dinners, drinks with friends, concerts, shows, house parties, shopping centers, and resort vacations are suddenly inaccessible, or nerve-wracking at best. And yet, without them, vast swaths of society fall into a state of unemployment, lack of entertainment, and empty storefronts. 

What Trentmann wants to see are serious national debates over how to resurrect consumption in a way that's safe for post-COVID times, while continuing to support artists, athletes, chefs, designers, and more. But this would require a radical overhaul of what our society looks like, what we spend our time doing, and how we interact with each other – much like the Japanese Everyday Life Reform League's task a century ago.

He offers some examples. Consider the old-fashioned model of the traveling circus or zoo, musicians, library, and more. Perhaps this could be a way to keep the arts alive (with a hefty dose of government assistance, of course), especially if people move en masse into more rural places to live. Trentmann suggests:

"Instead of 'drive-in,' it might be more sensible to promote 'drive-out', and reverse the logic of mobility: Bring culture to the people where they live, obviously at a distance ... Most countries still subsidize cultural institutions on an appreciable scale, and those institutions will fight hard to keep their public funding streams. In the future, these could be tied to more diffused and localized forms of consumption."

With fewer places to go to display tangible signs of consumption (like designer handbags, expensive clothes, etc.), our habits and wallets will be turning toward new forms of consumption, such as outdoor getaways, home furnishings, independent transportation, and more. Strategy and investment would ideally follow suit, triggering debates over topics such as right-to-roam laws, the necessity of balconies and street views in all future buildings, bicycle lanes and hiking trails, sporting fields with communal access to body temperature monitors, and the aforementioned drive-in cultural entertainment. 

We are at an historic crossroads, where we can either sit around and lament the loss of what we once had, or make conscious decisions to redesign and create something better than what we had before. But even if we don't take action, the important takeaway is that it will all change anyway, just like it always has. A preferable alternative is to take control of it and turn it into something that we actually want.