One week in August, the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” came in second, third, and fourth in the Nielsen ratings—topped only by “Survivor,” in which 16 strangers agreed to spend almost six weeks marooned together for the chance to win $1 million. Rounding out the top five was “Big Brother.” A “Survivor” clone for agoraphobics, it offers a piddling top prize of $500,000 to 10 “guests” willing to endure three months of house arrest under the unblinking eyes of 28 TV cameras.
So what’s wrong with that? This country’s on an unprecedented economic roll. Why not flaunt it? And if I don’t like the glorification of wealth, why don’t I just roll up the newspaper, turn off the television, and ignore it?
I roll my eyes in moral superiority when I read about nouveau riche mummies and daddies draping their tots in $400 cashmere coats by designer Sonia Rykiel. I shudder at the furnishing and upkeep costs of those sprawling new McMansions cropping up down the block. I have long, earnest talks with my two young daughters about integrity, about privilege, about following your heart instead of filling your wallet.
But sometimes in the middle of the night, I lie awake doing endless math problems: Three years until college, minus the home equity loan, divided by my failing desktop computer, added to our looming IRS bill, multiplied by the broken air conditioner on the minivan. In those dark hours, when those grim equations encircle my pillow, I come up with only one response—I’ve been a stupid, irresponsible fool. What’s wrong with me? Why didn’t I invest in the market in 1982? How are my children going to get through college without a debt load that will follow them into middle age? Why didn’t I ever get a real job, with stock options? If I’m so smart, why am I not rich?
These financial nightstalkers visit my friends, too. By day, they’re bright, hard-working, talented people, with nice homes, reliable cars, and generally happy families. But when, insomniac, they hear the downstairs clock strike two and three, they feel like they’re the only chumps in America who don’t have a comfortable million or two stashed away in a high-yield mutual fund.
Half-envyingly, I read about young, earnest foreign service officers who are being plucked from the financial obscurity of the State Department by the golden claws of Goldman Sachs. I feel a bittersweet pang when my seven-year-old eagerly describes her planned career as a marine archaeologist; when she’s a little older, will she find more romance in day-trading? I hope she’ll have the courage to pursue a life and career that offers satisfactions beyond a fat paycheck. But I don’t know. It’s so easy for her to turn on the television, or pick up a magazine and lose herself in those seductively portrayed trappings of wealth that make our home seem scruffy by comparison. Maybe some day she’ll look at me and see one of life’s also-rans, a mere scribe who lacked the ambition to sashay downtown and commandeer one of those six-figure public relations gigs.
Take financial advisor Suze Orman’s breathtaking title: The Courage to Be Rich. What does that make the rest of us? Cowards? (In case you missed it, Orman reveals that “money is attracted to people who are strong and powerful, respectful of it, and open to receiving it.” Thanks. That explains a lot.) Would-be financial heroes can receive Orman’s gospel courtesy of our high-minded friends at PBS, which has starred the financial guru in two hour-long specials. Stay tuned for next season’s BBC import: “Upstairs, Further Upstairs.”
Our thinking has become so distorted that being comfortably middle-class now feels like the next step to actual poverty. In one recent survey on “Money and the American Family,” the AARP found that one in three adults believes a family of four with an income under $50,000 is poor—and one in five considered an annual income of $200,000 as the bare minimum required for wealth.
We don’t want all this dough for ourselves, of course. It’s the kids we’re thinking about. Leaf through the ads in Money magazine and you’ll find a whole nursery full of dimpled youngsters. The little sweetheart dancing in her socks on Daddy’s big shoes is fronting for Chase Vista Funds, while the youngster out sailing his toy boat works for American Century Investment Management. A sleepy newborn touts Barclays Global Investors. An intent little fisherman helps the Northern Fund trawl for new customers. (The only discordant adult note in this lullabye is struck by the handsome couple who’ve hit the sheets for E*Trade. Their post-coital bliss is captioned: “Imagine rolling over and saying, ‘That was better than investing.’” )
The ads shamelessly target worried, conscientious parents. And boy, do they have our number. One ad, for TV, shows a father joyously lifting his little son high up in the air, while the caption muses: “I want to make sure they never have to carry me.” A similar note is sounded by the TV commercial for Scudder Investments: “What if your kid gets into Harvard? What if your mother needs long-term care? What if they happen at the same time?” The worst-case scenario is illustrated by one grim little ad for Conseco Life Insurance that asks: “How do you plan on providing for your family after you pass away?” The grave of the improvident parent is marked by a tombstone reading “Your ad here.”
But let’s be honest. We’re not planning to hand all of our millions (real or coveted) straight to the kids. We’re bullish on the way we define the necessities of life. In 1982, the average new home sold for $84,000, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Last year, the average sale price was $196,000. Much of that increase was due to inflation—of the house. In 1982, the average buyer got 1,710 square feet; last year, the average size of a new home was 2,225 square feet. And 17 percent of the 1.31 million new homes built last year boasted 3,000 square feet or more.
We’re simply unwilling to make do with the charming bungalows and modest Cape Cods our parents once cherished. As proof, look at the growing number of teardowns—unpretentious to moderately swanky homes in desirable older communities that have been demolished to make room for oversized manses whose most prominent architectural feature is the gaping maw of a four-car garage. The NAHB estimates that 100,000 of these so-called replacement homes went up nationwide last year. In Hinsdale, an elegant, 120-year-old Chicago suburb, almost 17 percent of its vintage housing stock has been knocked down over the past decade and a half. In the Seattle area, the bumper crop of mansionless technomillionaires led to a reported 4,000 teardowns last year alone. Delta Airlines chair Gerald Grinstein paid $8 million for Bill Gates’ old house, a 60-year-old estate on the shores of Lake Washington—then promptly bulldozed it to the ground for a new $3 million structure.
It’s not surprising that an $8 million house is no longer enough to satisfy the housing needs of the superrich. We’ve spent the last 20 years being told that the best isn’t nearly good enough.
Look at the way Hollywood sequels insist on giving all their characters an upgrade to first class. In the 1948 classic, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Cary Grant played a Manhattan ad man making a very comfortable $15,000 a year. Carried away by the sylvan charm of the Connecticut countryside, he ends up sinking $38,000 into a nice, roomy, Colonial-flavored home. The “Blandings house” (which was actually constructed for the film) proved so pretty and so practical that the architectural plans were sold publicly, and 70-some copies of the three-bedroom house were built across the country. But when Hollywood revisited the Blandings saga with The Money Pit in 1986, our hero was suddenly a hotshot entertainment lawyer, and the house was a huge mansion on Long Island’s North Shore.
Or consider the more recent bracket shift imposed on another favorite film, The Shop Around the Corner. In director Ernst Lubitsch’s hands, it was the story of two Budapest shop clerks living in furnished rooms, workplace rivals who unwittingly become anonymous pen pals and slowly discover that they’re soulmates. At the movie’s end, star Jimmy Stewart gets a promotion to store manager—and the hand of pretty coworker Margaret Sullavan. He doesn’t win the Hungarian lottery, or find out she’s an heir to the Hapsburgs; he just winds up with a few extra coins and a smart, spunky, angel-faced little wife. Back in 1940, that was enough to qualify as a happy ending.
But in the 1998 update, You’ve Got Mail, director Nora Ephron transforms the two high-minded clerks into Meg Ryan, owner of a small children’s bookstore on the Upper West Side, and Tom Hanks, heir to a huge chain of megabookstores. They’re hardly colleagues. In fact, he eventually succeeds in driving her out of business. But don’t worry. Thanks apparently to some supremely benevolent ATM, Meg manages to keep her chic, sunny apartment and maintain her Starbucks habit. And when her endearing erstwhile nemesis comes courting, there’s never any doubt that she’ll yield. After all, he’s rich and stylish, and magnificence is the only Aristotelian virtue the movies really appreciate. (Justice, courage, and temperance aren’t nearly so photogenic.) Since Hanks has a nice fat checkbook in the pocket of his Armani pants, he is, by definition, lovable. So as the music swells and the closing credits roll, it’s clear they’ll soon be joyously inking a prenup. The financial bliss doesn’t stop there. Jean Stapleton, the elderly bookkeeper who’s left unemployed by the bookshop’s demise, has no worries; she bought Intel at six. So You’ve Got Mail provides lots of happy endings—millions of ’em.
On the small screen, producers like to shower their characters with all the trappings of affluence, even when the gap between their wages and their lifestyles is wide enough to spark an IRS audit. In ” Friends,” a personal shopper and her sous-chef roommate manage to maintain a funky, charmingly decorated two-bedroom apartment in downtown New York. And the young marrieds in “Mad About You” —a mid-level publicist and a documentary filmmaker—have snagged a spacious flat filled with genuine Stickley furniture. When we’re shown life among the lowly (those with, say, less than $150,000 annually) they’re appalling, whether they’re the fictional characters in ” Roseanne” or “Married with Children” or the real-life working-class people who grace the stages of Jerry Springer and Queen Latifah’s talk shows.
It’s instructive to spend an evening tuned to Nick at Nite, a cable channel dedicated to reruns of 1960s sitcoms. In watching a marathon presentation of “The Andy Griffith Show,” I was struck by the show’s warm-hearted depiction of everyday life. Andy Taylor, the town sheriff, lives in a little house with his son and maiden aunt; he doesn’t even own a lawnmower. His best friends are a barber shop owner, a car mechanic, and his own deputy; and his girlfriend is an underpaid schoolteacher. By today’s standards, they’re barely middle-class. Yet Andy is a strong, proud, dignified, and well-respected man.
Or take the “Dick Van Dyke Show.” Rob Petrie is a college-educated man with a good job as head writer for a hit comedy show. But he lives in an ordinary suburban home, and Laura is clearly keeping house on a comfortable but limited budget. In Watching TV: Four Decades of American Television, Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik note that the show presented “a world not very different from the one most [white middle-class] viewers faced. Rob and Laura lived in a real middle-class town in which real people commuted to and from real jobs.” Even now, I hear echoes of my own household concerns in the script—as when a tearful Laura confronts spendthrift Rob about his insistence on picking up the check every time they go out with friends. “Don’t you want our son to go to college?” she wails. Thank God Laura never had to leaf through the ads in Money magazine; she’d have had a nervous breakdown.
OK. It’s true that the “Dick Van Dyke Show” was not a documentary—just as most Depression-era moviegoers did not share in Carole Lombard’s perplexing struggle to find the right butler. The point is that we once had a wider, more realistic array of aspirational models, both in the media and in real life.
For this, I partly blame color television. In black and white, a spartan interior can look elegant, while a cluttered room seems comfy and cozy. In living color, however, spare is drab, and homey is tacky. The economics of television also play a major role. When producers such as Aaron Spelling dazzle viewers with sumptuous sets and extravagant costumes, they’re actually making a sharp business decision. If you distract the audience with high-priced eye candy, they may not notice the flatness of the script. And while that $8,000 designer dress or $15,000 Florentine brocade sofa may boost a show’s initial cost, neither is likely to demand back-end participation when the series moves into international syndication.
The media landscape has changed in other ways, as well. Back when Preston Sturges sent Joel McCrea slumming through Sullivan’s Travels, the reading public got a wide-angle view of the world through general-interest publications such as Life and Collier’s. Now, magazines are niche-marketed, and the upscale readers of Money simply aren’t interested in hearing how the other 80 percent lives. It’s hard to imagine advertisers vying for space on the pages of Limited Aspirations Monthly.
In fairness, we can’t blame the media alone for the perpetual ratcheting-up of our desires. Movies and television are only magic mirrors that reflect and refocus our own visions. As David Brooks explains in Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, the rise of the educated class boosted the stakes in the status game. The Bobos (bourgeois bohemians) define themselves by their rarefied consumption. The ’50s-era host who offered a choice of ” red” or “white” has been replaced by an amateur sommelier who delights in dazzling his guests with an array of cabernets, syrahs, barberas, and pinots both noir and gris. These high-end consumers would be mortally offended by any suggestion that they’ve gone over the top. And since they’ve become the nation’s tastemakers, the rest of us nod wistfully and wish we had extensive wine cellars too.
The conundrum is how to cover the wealthy and celebrated without celebrating wealth itself, how to keep us informed about life at the top of the economic food chain without setting up a feedback loop of unlimited envy. A glitzy little story is fun once in a while, like sprinkles on an ice cream cone. But a steady diet of them leaves us fretful and discontented, forever dissatisfied with our own portion of abundance. We find ourselves nodding in agreement with the young mother, quoted in the Post’s Style section, who complains: “Being frugal is not what everyone talks about when you go out. It’s what did you buy, how much did you pay, and do they have any left?”
To be fair, there are a few media outlets (other than this one) that claim to take a different tack. Time Inc. recently launched Real Simple, a magazine allegedly dedicated to the promotion of Cheap Chic, etc. But one scornful reader suggests the subtitle: “How to Buy Yourself a Minimalist Lifestyle.”When such faux back-to-basics types aren’t hawking the expensively sleek doodads needed to achieve the Real Simple lifestyle (“If you own too many panties, camisoles, and demicups to fit in one or two dresser drawers, take your storage system to the next level: Buy a lingerie chest. Or two.”), they’re celebrating those high-minded souls who took their $3.6 million in stock options and opened an ecologically aware bed-and-breakfast in Vermont. Or they’re profiling hyperstingy housewives who saved $162.50 last year alone by whipping up a weekly meal of “Refrigerator Stew,” an amalgamation of all their leftovers, and forcing it down their families’ throats with a cheap, easy-to-assemble plastic tube.
Another major factor in our perverted view of the American Dream is the worldly success of the journalists who write all these articles. Reporters used to be working-class stiffs who would have snorted at the thought of paying someone $65 an hour to clean out your closets. (Imagine Mike Royko heading down to Pottery Barn to pick up an extra lingerie chest.) Now, a New York Times reporter with two years’ experience pulls down a minimum of $1,360 a week, according to Newspaper Guild figures.
As journalists have moved up the economic foodchain, they’ve lost their knee-jerk identification with the values and realities of working-class life. Instead of casting a sardonic glance through the window that divides the wealthy from the rest of us, many reporters now leave damp noseprints on the glass ceiling. Take, for example, the Post’s appreciation of the late philanthropist Paul Mellon. By any measure, Mellon was a most admirable billionaire. (You’ve got to love a guy who tells a high-school graduating class: “What this country needs is a good five-cent reverie.” ) But to underscore Mellon’s lack of affectation, his appreciator solemnly intones: “His jet wasn’t new.”
When reporters are assigned to cover those funny little people toiling away down there in the middle classes, they tend to confuse Style with Snottiness. One particularly nasty example was a Post piece on the benighted folk who buy “genuine oil paintings” to match their living room sofas.” For just $12, you get an 8-by-10-inch oil painting—real oil paint, paint piled so thick on the autumn tree, the meadow flowers, that you could clean your fingernails with it,” the writer snickered. “Genuine. Authentic. No glass,’ say connoisseurs of hotel-function-room art. No glass means class.’”
Warmer-hearted writers try to give the un-rich the sympathy they deserve. One 1996 newspaper story still burns in my memory. In The New York Times’ award-winning series, “The Downsizing of America,” we read the tragic tale of a middle-aged man who lost his high-powered job. He was left with only a $300,000 savings account, a $130,000 severance check, an aging Mercedes, a roomy ranch house with a pool in the San Fernando Valley. The author solemnly detailed how the emotionally wounded former exec was trying to make ends meet on his wife’s $30,000 salary, plus the $25,000 or so he earned in temporary jobs. Their daughters, who lived at home, made about $40,000 between them, but didn’t contribute to the household expenses.
Now look. I’ve been there. My dad and my husband have both lost good jobs to recession and downsizing. I know first hand how wounding un- or under-employment can be to a man whose self-esteem rests on his ability to provide for his family. But when I read the Times story, I see a family of four living on a combined income of roughly $95,000, plus almost half a million in savings. An American Tragedy? Please.
It’s hard to find any hint that regular middle-class life might be pleasant, honorable, or desirable. Part of this, I think, stems from all those baby boomers who used to stand around college quads and denounce middle-class morality and bourgeois standards. Now, seeing them in middle age, we realize they were quite sincere in rejecting the middle class; they all really wanted to be rich.
Maybe I have an unusual take on this. I’m an unabashed fan of the bourgeoisie. Both my parents grew up in working-class families in Mayberry-sized towns. While I have a wholehearted respect for my grandparents’ thrift and their lifelong work ethic, I also know how dowdy, constricting, and culturally barren their world could be. I have absolutely no romantic notions about real life in the exit lane. Yet having watched my grandparents lead long, productive, satisfying lives without ever making a single purchase at Crate and Barrel, I’m sure that you don’t need a multimillion dollar bank account to bring up successful, happy children and lead a contented, honorable life. Whenever I cast a jaundiced eye on my serviceable but uninspiring dining room rug, or gaze speculatively at our ripe-for-renovation bathroom, I can hear my grandmother’s voice scolding gently in my ear, “Much wants more.”
Look. I don’t want to be rich. I am plum delighted to live in a pretty nice house in a pretty nice suburb. And I don’t want to lead a simpler life; I’ve worked too hard to amass this modest level of complexity, thank you very much. I just want to carry on in my little niche without feeling like America’s biggest idiot every time I take an unwilling glance at my svelte bank account. And I’d like to hear a few voices talking about what’s right with the choices I’ve made. Because there are a lot of people who have made the same choices, and it’s shameful that so many of us are staying awake at night wishing we could revise our lives. Even worse, our children are inundated by media messages whispering that anyone who isn’t rich is a loser—and that includes Mom and Dad.
It’s darkly ironic that our rejection of homespun virtues and our worship of the new affluence are pushing some poor souls to the brink of poverty. Some months ago, the New Yorker ran a sad little story by a young writer named Meghan Daum. In it, she confessed that she’d based her college choices on the alma maters of the privileged brides featured on the Times wedding pages: “Columbia rather than NYU, Wisconsin rather than Texas, Yale rather than Harvard, Vassar rather than Smith.” After graduating (from Vassar) she spent seven years in New York pursuing her vision of life as an urban sophisticate—a vision distilled over a couple decades of scrutinizing style sections, fashion magazines, movie sets, and similar avatars of affluence. Wryly, Daum explained how she managed to spend herself into $75,000 of debt by indulging in such stylish necessities as fresh flowers, Starbucks coffee, and pricey white wine—all easily affordable items, if you happen to be a bookstore owner named Meg Ryan or a waitress on “Friends.” Admittedly, Daum’s tale of self-inflicted financial woe gave some readers a severe case of the yips. But I think there’s something desperately wrong when a smart, pretty, funny, talented young woman feels compelled to court financial ruin in the name of stylish living.
It’s time to demand a more attractive group of role models and a more attainable definition of style and success, that reflect an authentic American mix of taste and ingenuity. We don’t need The New York Times’ helpful articles explaining how to train our butlers, or fire our personal trainers. What we desperately require are some fresh new thoughts on how to leaven our overworked daily lives with some healthy doses of affordable elegance and achievable chic. We need to make heroes out of people who have shown the courage not to be rich, like my young friend who left Wall Street to become an English teacher, simply because he loves books more than he loves money.
We need a few national cheerleaders for ordinary life. Whenever I feel overwhelmed with my nagging financial anxieties, I pull out my worn copy of Jean Kerr’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, a collection of warm-hearted, witty essays about middle-class suburban family life. Published the year before I was born, it describes the challenges and pleasures of my life in a way that I can’t find anywhere in the current media. If a glance through the real estate section leaves me dissatisfied with my four-bedroom, 1.5 bath, 1,600 square-foot fixer-upper, I can restore my sense of perspective with Kerr’s law of real estate: ” All the houses you can afford to buy are depressing.”
When a high-end travel magazine reports that a week (the minimum stay) at the Golden Door costs $5,375, and the newly trim and revitalized writer assures me that it’s worth every penny, I long for another Jessica Mitford, whose 1966 report on her week at a ritzy Arizona spa ended with this calculation: “I had lost five pounds, at $200 per pound.” Despite the Hon. Ms. Mitford’s upper-class English background, she had a witty, sensible, middle-class voice, and it’s one I desperately miss.
I’m not suffering from misplaced nostalgia. The way we view ourselves, the things we hold up as desirable—these have a tremendous impact on our social and political life. Look at the recent debate over the abolition of the inheritance tax. It’s mindboggling that the middle class didn’t rise up in a body and denounce the idea of handing an estimated $850 billion dollars to America’s rich kids over the next 20 years. I think we were all embarrassed to admit that the only way we’re likely to end up owing such a tax would be by going all the way with Regis Philbin—six times.
I realize that our reach has always exceeded our grasp. The principle that anyone can become a millionaire is a basic part of the American character; we prefer not to notice that, while everybody theoretically can make a fortune, most of us don’t. Nevertheless, I think there’s something terribly amiss when the former pinnacle of the American dream is redefined as the minimum standard. We need to celebrate the entire journey, not just a destination that most of us will never reach.
Right now, the only place I see anything vaguely resembling my own life is on “The Simpsons.” Sure, Homer’s an idiot and Bart’s a brat. But in the Simpsons’ Springfield, I see people who go to work, go to church, go to the grocery, attend school plays, take occasional family vacations to Disney World, and generally enjoy the discreet charms of middle-class existence. I love Marge’s heartfelt belief that money can’t buy happiness, and little Lisa’s marrow-deep distrust of corporate America. Even though Homer is always cooking up some harebrained get-rich-quick scheme, he’s never particularly distressed when they don’t pan out. You never hear Marge complain about the millions her husband and children have managed to accumulate and squander within the limits of a 22-minute TV episode. Despite their wacky adventures, they’re a mostly happy, mostly contented, middle-class family much like my own—except, of course, that we exist in three dimensions.
We need more shows like “The Simpsons” (preferably starring characters that don’t have primary-colored skins.) We need to hear what’s right about middle-class life. Because markets fall. Businesses falter. Booms go bust. And when adversity comes, as it inevitably will, we’ll need a value system that doesn’t blame the victim for lacking the courage to be rich. We shouldn’t kick ourselves for failing to amass the $30 million that one of my friends says you need to be “bulletproof.” When those canny marketers at Scudder Investments ask what we’ll do if we find ourselves facing college tuition payments and nursing home bills, we need to answer boldly: “We’ll think of something. We’ll have faith. We’ll all work together, and we’ll get by.”
Beth Austin is a writer living in Chicago. Her article “Saving the Home from Martha Stewart” appeared in the December 1999 issue of The Washington Monthly.