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No more spendthrift?
on August 19, 2012
Here is a fresh paean to US American ingenuity and our can-do attitude. Gerzema and D'Antonio have written what appears to be a booster book for the US psyche and an examination of conscience for the US businessperson. The subtitle suggests in typical US hyperbole (language that promotes what it describes--the authors are, after all, business boys) that there is a values revolution in progress, a "revolution," not a "shift," not a "tendency," but the whole nine yards.
This claim is much based on the research undertaken with the BrandAsset® Valuator, which claims to show that "Over half the US population is now...seeking better instead of more, virtue instead of hype, and experiences over promises." This research tool is a proprietary tool of Young and Rubicam where Gerzema holds the title of Chief Insights Officer. In the end, it is a book about marketing.
Spend Shift appears apolitical in a sense that it tells stories of how US Americans in various cities around the country are taking charge of their lives in a variety of ways, in the face of the financial crisis. On the other hand, we could say that it is deeply political in the sense that it describes or perhaps promotes the "do-it-yourself," "bootstraps" approach to the revitalization of US life and community structures, while at the same time makes the assumption that there will be a sea change in consumer attitudes that will force organizations and coerce government to behave differently and more responsibly to their consumers and their citizens. This will usher in a whole new era of how money works and how the American Dream and US society will be shaped in years to come. Throughout the book there are parables told of both startups and established corporations who have adopted the new values or, having held such values even before the crisis, are now even more benefitting from them as consumer attitudes shift in their direction.
Is it a utopia leaning slightly to the right of the political spectrum, trying to create a new middle that embraces many leftist energies? Well, we shall see. Let's leave that question up in the air and look at what the book actually does and often does interestingly and well; it recounts how individuals and groups leverage optimism and hard work to improve the quality of their life and the lives of those about them. The stories are both inspiring and serve as models of what is possible on the micro level and how it may go on to both touch and create larger contexts. Written during what the authors call, "The Great Recession", Spend Shift is, given its timing, a present and forward-looking book. There is surprisingly little nostalgia here. Understandably it lacks the editorial retrospection of Studs Terkel's "Hard Times": An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970), and, of course, its marketing subtext makes it quite different from the populist journalism that Studs was famous for, though still a good read.
The types of stories told, are in the main urban, set in Kansas City, Detroit, Dallas, Boston, Tampa, Brooklyn, Las Vegas, Dearborn, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. By and large, whatever the level of hardship its protagonists' experience, one senses that they are as largely middle-class in terms of background, education and attitude, whatever the level of resources they access. The key messages are renewed entrepreneurship, building trust via customer service or serving others, and rebuilding fractured community. Critical behaviors are listening and responding and constant conversation in an era where the Internet, social networking that are the "fusion cooking" of a diverse USA that makes this possible in rich new ways. At the same time there is a sense of familiarity with what is being proclaimed-- the new values revolution is quite in line with what we have long identified as perennial US aspirations derived from national core values. It is an American book with Yankee perspectives.
There seems to be a sense that these refreshed attitudes are the essential building blocks to a bottom up restoration of the middle class that has been in decline no for close to half a century. We are left with the question of whether this "revolution" can overturn entrenched domestic and corporate attitudes in some definitive way, to the point where effective renewal will occur in both business and government at a time in history when we seem to have so definitively outsourced so much labor and imported so many products and services from abroad, and when much of the country is mired in poverty.
The last Chapter lists 10 takeaways, making it easy to summarize what the authors are trying to say:
1. We are moving from a credit to a debit society.
2. There are no longer consumers, only customers.
3. Industries are revealed as collections of individuals.
4. Generational divides are disappearing.
5. Human regulation is remaking the marketplace.
6. Generosity is now a business model.
7. Society is shifting from consumption to production.
8. We must think small to solve big.
9. America is an emerging market for values led innovation.
10. Everything will be all right.
Is this real or potentially real? Is this the contemporarily refreshed American Dream, a way of looking at hopes and possibilities that motivate us to start on a journey as immigrants to the future? One also wonders to what degree the Great Recession is itself receding worldwide and, especially with the USA currently swimming in election campaign hype where we are polarized into separate and seemingly incompatible versions of the American Dream. Are we really "post crisis?" Is what we read here "too good to be true?" Would this shift in values hold in better in the more economically balanced society that it aspires to create, or is it simply an unconscious strategic response, an adjustment to the environment shaped by the recent crisis? Would it be far-sighted enough to fix itself as a new culture that insists on corporate due diligence, financial honesty and governmental decision-making? Can it not only address planetary survival, but also lead us to thrive in new more humane ways? Is this book, in fact, also an entrepreneurial step designed to take us in the direction of the values shift it intends to identify? One turns over the last page of Spend Shift with many such musings, and with the disturbing personal question of one's role in what it describes as taking place.