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Recession Culture

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Lears is clearly onto something. Right now, in New York, volunteerism is booming. Compared with the first quarter of last year, Citymeals-on-Wheels, which delivers food to the elderly, has seen a 32 percent increase in its volunteers; God’s Love We Deliver, which distributes meals to those suffering from hunger or illness, has seen a 20 percent increase. New York Cares, which places people in charities around the city, trained twice as many people in February and March of 2009 as it did those same months the year before. “We actually had to start offering phone orientations,” says Michael Coughlin, the director of recruitment and outreach at the New York chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters. “We just didn’t have any more room for people to come in.” He says more than twice as many men and women have stepped forward to become mentors as they had by this time last year.

This attitude doesn’t seem to be confined to the world of volunteering, either. Enrollments at divinity schools are up: The number of Ph.D. applicants to the Jewish Theological Seminary has doubled; almost twice as many students are set to matriculate at Union Theological Seminary. It’s true that graduate-school enrollments almost always spike during hard times—continuing one’s education is often easier than finding a job—but divinity school tends to be a mid-career choice. “Some of our applicants have lost jobs, but definitely not the majority,” says Alain Silverio, associate dean of academic administration at Union. “This moment has struck an ethical chord.”

From Obama on down, people are initiating public discussions that reevaluate the purpose of work—as if trying to remind us, after a long bender of risk-taking and creative economics, that there’s dignity in secure, generative labor. This June, as the economy was slowing, Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s new president, used her baccalaureate address to discuss the complicated allure of Wall Street. Her closing thoughts contained both an entreaty and admonition: “If you don’t pursue what you think will be most meaningful, you will regret it.” (The Harvard Crimson later reported that 8 percent fewer graduates would be heading into the financial and consulting sectors than the year before.)

During the Great Depression, many men and women valued security over risk, pursuing careers in the civil service, teaching, police departments. They also invested much more conservatively in the stock market once it finally rebounded. It may have been a time for liberal politics, just as it is now. But it was a time of very conservative choices about how to make a living. While it’s too early to know what kinds of choices people are making today, we’re hearing rhetoric that encourages the same values of caution and productive work. (“Jobs are the new assets,” says Time magazine.) “It’s almost as if the flamboyant, arbitrary values of the boom economy made us reel in disorientation and then grope for something more solid,” says Lears. “So we reach for more familiar values that were supposed to guide us all along—the work-ethic-and-disciplined-achievement model, and all the modest expectations that went along with it.”

I’ll admit that there’s a part of me—a part that really ought to be cloaked in gray wool and a Pilgrim’s bonnet—that breathes a sigh of relief when I hear this talk. While I admire gamblers, the culture of risk of the nineties and aughts still looked a bit like a culture of shortcuts to me, even though it gave us Google as well as mortgage-backed securities. Risk-takers might keep the world hurtling forward. But secretly, I prefer the company of grinds. “I believe that security is more important to happiness than wealth,” says Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at Swarthmore. The problem, he says, is that during a time of high-risk, high-reward prosperity, the pursuit of security can seem dull. “Who cares about security?” he asks, channeling the voice of … well, lots of people during the boom. “Accountants care about security, and who wants to be an accountant? That’s what the low-fliers aspire to.” As a professor, Schwartz notes that he himself was once viewed as a man who’d made a low-flying choice. Job security, steady industry, autonomy—those were his values, not money. But now, in this recession, his profession is suddenly esteemed. “The thing is, it’s a false choice,” he says. “There’s plenty of room for joy in a low-flying life.”

Oh. My. God.” Ande Sedwick, 24 and lithe as an orchid, pops out of the doorway of a third-floor walk-up on Carmine Street in the West Village, beckoning her boyfriend, Isaac Woofter, to come have a look around. They’ve been casing various one-bedrooms for the last hour or so, all nice, but all with deal-killing problems. Not this place. It has light. It has closet space. It has a kitchen separately defined by a wall. Oh. My. God.


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