Sometime around Thanksgiving, when thoughts turned for the first time toward the holidays, I informed my children that we were going to have a recession Christmas.
They said: "What's a recession Christmas?"
Thus began their first lesson on the national economy. They'd had plenty of lessons in the past about the family economy, and those lessons were fairly cut and dried, as in: "No, we can't buy that because I don't have enough money." But this lesson on the national economy was different. We began the lesson with the story about the people across the street who had their house on the market for eight months and then finally sold it after knocking down the price enough that it ought to lower everyone else's assessments. That family, I explained, was fortunate. At least they had sold their house. Most people are sticking "reduced" signs on real estate placards where they used to put "sold" signs.
One of the children then wanted to know what the sold or unsold houses of other people to whom they were in no way related had to do with their Christmas. That's when I brought up the Persian Gulf crisis and the savings and loan cleanup.
Technically, we may not be in a recession. But the reality of the matter is that everyone I know seems to be holding his or her breath, wondering what's going to happen next in the Middle East, what bank is going to lay off how many people, what stores are going to go belly-up and how long this is going to go on. When you have half of the leading developers in an area scurrying around trying to stay out of bankruptcy, you are not living in a upbeat economic environment. This is not the time to count on finding the latest in electronic gadgetry under the Christmas tree or a new sports car in the driveway.
A great deal of that situation may be very healthy, however. Economists and politicians are fond of using terms like "economic correction" to describe what the rest of us might call a mess. But this economic correction might produce a kind of correction in priorities, in values, in what we deem important. People who are getting laid off are going to turn to their families for help, and maybe even for shelter. And they will find that while an employer is a transient visitor in their lives, their families are not.
Perhaps as the going gets hard, we will turn away from some of the mindless activities that consumed so much of the human energy generated in the '80s -- things like MTV and video games that held young people in thrall and reduced them to receptors instead of challenging them to be creators. With any luck, the term couch potato will go out with the rest of the debris from that era. And young people, if they can get a sense of how hard the economy is for some families, may get the idea that it's not easy out there and that the ones who will survive are the ones who get educated and who can do something more strenuous than press a button on a remote control.
The retailers have been worried this Christmas because business has been off all fall. But this area saw an extraordinary explosion of stores during the last few years. Tysons Corner wasn't enough. We had to have Tysons II. I never understood why. How many stores does one community need? Who is going to buy all that merchandise?
For a while it seemed to work. It seemed as if America's favorite indoor occupation was going to the mall. Getting stuff became a legitimate human activity, sort of an everyman's answer to Wall Street, where acquisitions were made for the sake of acquisitions. I know a young man who sublet a house. The previous tenant, also a young man, left thousands of dollars worth of new clothing behind that had been purchased from one of the most expensive men's chains in this area. The clothes finally were given to homeless people.
For too long, there was simply too much. An entire generation of middle-class young people came of age with no memory of homes without two televisions, two cars, vacations on the slopes, summer weeks at the beach, their own rooms at home wired for every electronic device they needed to be a successful teenager. When they became adults, they turned into yuppies.
Now another generation of young people raised with the same amenities are becoming adults, and a lot of them are finding it hard to get a job. This is the era of layoffs, and the young are among the first to go. For many, this will be the first time they have ever run into economic hardship.
Perhaps, however, something worthwhile can come out of this. The recession Christmas will be about cutting back on costly and unnecessary gifts. But it can also provide us a time to reflect on what we really need. Warm clothes, shelter, food, good friends, family -- all count for so much more than we seem to realize.