Will Bad Economy Lead To A New Outlook?

Jeff Greenfield economic attitudes piece
Workers in search of a job. Some say that the current economic depression will change American attitudes and values.
CBS

Spring may be here, but everywhere are signs that this is the winter of our economic discontent.

"What I'm learning is not to spend, spend, spend, you kind of need to save a little," one woman from Atlanta told CBS News correspondent Jeff Greenfield.

But more than that, there's a sense that the lean times will not ease anytime soon.

"Our children are going to be stuck with this bill for years and years and years to come," surmised one man.

If that's true, it will surely define this era, and change those who will live through it. But how? And might it even change us for the better?

The Great Depression lasted for more than a decade. Most Americans who lived through it felt firsthand the reality - or threat of - real suffering. Historian Morris Dickstein said it made some values supreme.

"Security, caution, stability," he said. "Civil service jobs, low paying, but steady - that was very important to the Depression generation."

And they took their values with them through the rest of their lives - for instance, embracing the post-war comforts of suburban life and consumer pleasures.

"They were reacting to all the depredation that they had experienced, or that their parents had experienced," Dickstein said.

Today's generation didn't stand on breadlines - they stood on line to buy iPhones, spent half a billion a year on ringtones. We have just passed through a time when those at the top earned kings' ransoms, when credit cards and the housing bubble led millions to acquire as if there were no tomorrow.

"We have been through a 26-year-long cycle or so that is all about individual ambition, individual getting, individual spending," said author and essayist Kurt Anderson.

Anderson argues in Time this week that the end of the age of excess may prove the proverbial blessing in disguise. For instance, he says, even when conditions get better, we'll ask ourselves, "Do I really need the fifth television, the third car, the slightly cooler laptop computer?"

More significantly, the next generation may choose radically different career paths.

"In terms of what will make them happy rather than be seduced by what looks like the easy road to wealth, " Anderson said.

We could, of course, emerge from these times a less confident, more cautious people, without the traditional American belief that things will always be better tomorrow. What we do know is that the conditions that surround us when we're young never really leave us. And this generation will carry with them conditions unlike any we have seen in a very, very long time.