Twenty-first century American life: McMansions, SUVs, and celebrities

An argument that the first decade of the twenty-first century never really ended includes citing McMansions, SUVs, and celebrities as part of our current world:

You might be tempted to cap the perceptual 2000s in late 2008, when Obama was elected president and the investment banks Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns collapsed, taking down the housing market and much of the American economy with them. That collapse ended the tacky prosperity of the early 2000s, a period when the McMansion flourished, cheap gas fueled a love affair with giant SUVs, and pop culture was overrun with paparazzi shots of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan falling out of Los Angeles nightclubs while wearing low-rise jeans and trucker hats. Meanwhile, Facebook was metastasizing beyond college students, sculpting the basic contours of the digital environment much of the world now lives in. In hindsight, the moment in 2007 when the pop princess Britney Spears cracked under the paparazzi glare, attacked a car with an umbrella, and shaved her head feels like foreshadowing of the cultural brink to come, when none of this would feel so innocent or breezy.

The pairing of McMansions and SUVs continues. Both are still alive and well. Americans continue to purchase large vehicles and like driving (at least compared to alternatives). At the same time, Americans generally desire the largest new houses in the world. While housing prices may be really high in some urban markets, many still desire a starter home and suburban life.

Adding pop culture to this pair is an interesting choice. Do all three of these together suggest bigger is better or that consumption of all things – cars, homes, and people/celebrities – is what Americans want to see and experience? We have many images of celebrities driving around in expensive SUVs and living in large homes. As Americans in general like the idea of large homes, those in the public eye seem to gravitate toward large and showy homes. Their residences, such as those of sports stars and Hollywood stars, are usually beyond what the average American could buy (as are most McMansions).

These three together are likely not going to age well: do people need such large homes, large vehicles, and news about celebrities? Will future generations see this all as rampant excess and problematic? Yet, it is hard to see a future where Americans turn away from each of these three interests: new homes might be slightly smaller than in the recent past but a big shift has not occurred, driving is still necessary for most people to attain success, and celebrities allow consumers to consume people rather than created products.

American preferences for returning to a past decade shaped by when they grew up, their politics

The Economist reports on a recent poll that asked Americans which decade to which they would wish to return:

In our latest weekly Economist/YouGov poll, we asked Americans which decade of the 20th century they would most like to go back to. Most popular was the 1950s. The decade of economic boom following the second world war is regarded as a time of consumerism, conservatism and cold-war caution. It was an age of stay-at-home wives, novel household appliances and new suburbs—yet was also most popular among women. The haze of Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s rolled up in second place. Republicans in particular preferred the morally uncomplicated 1950s under President Eisenhower and the 1980s of Reagan; Democrats tended to opt for Bill Clinton’s 1990s. In general, people yearned for their youth. Over 50% of those over 65 wanted to revisit the 1950s and 1960s, while 45- to 64-year-olds pined for the 1980s. The youngest were torn between the jazz age of the 1920s and the 1990s, their own salad days.

On one hand, this might be somewhat meaningless: stereotypes of entire decades are much too simplistic and even The Economist falls into that trap in their descriptions. On the other hand, perhaps knowing what decade people would prefer to return to helps give us some indication of what people are trying to accomplish now. If your preferred era is the 1950s, you might pursue different social norms and policies compared to something who most fondly recalls the 1960s. Indeed, conservatives and liberals might both want to push such a narrative: Republicans to return to the prosperous and calm 1950s (maybe also their vision of the 1980s) while Democrats would prefer the more liberating and exciting 1960s (and perhaps also the 1990s).