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Debt Culture
Popular Culture and The Culture of Debt

Performance Art?

Attitudes toward personal debt have fundamentally influenced generational identities in American society. For instance, personal sacrifice and the importance of saving for an unexpected "rainy day" have profoundly shaped the behavior of America's seniors. Ask grandma about the Great Depression and you will probably endure a lecture about shortsighted consumption and the loss of homes and farms. Lesson plan, read SAVE! Mom and Dad, on the other hand, enjoyed the post-World War Two prosperity of suburban colonials, Whirlpool appliances, and Buick automobiles. If you ask, they will explain that before DVD players, it was more fun at drive-in movie theaters. Sure, they appreciated their parents' mantra--SAVE--but they preferred the Keynesian notion of "spend your way out of a recession." Imagine if Ben Franklin were alive today... Anyway, Boomers are schizophrenic. Save--it's good, Spend--it's bad but it feels sooo good. Ever wonder why the first Boomer President (remember Hilary's husband?) made such a bid deal over balancing the federal budget? Avoid debt and enjoy the surplus (savings)!

Now, what about the Boomers' kids (Generation X) and their little sisters--the Y guys. Save for the Future? Yeah, like when I'm 25? Balance the budget? Get real! This is the generation of debt. Exalting in the bounties of the present and in denial over paying for the the future. "Just Do It." Besides, everyone knows that Social Security won't be around when X'ers relax in their "Golden Years." The ozone layer, Get Real. Unlike seniors that refer to debt as emblematic of the "Devil's Temptations" or the social yardstick of personal failure, debt is an accepted feature of the "Reality Bites" generation. Incredibly, X'ers think nothing about starting a job or getting married with substantial personal debts. Like, sacrifice is so "old school."

This experience is expressed frequently in the popular culture. For example, Jon is a 23 year-old transvestite that performs in a large Northeastern city. His parents would seriously freak if they knew his preferred career path. Anyway, like so many of his friends, Jon's on-stage persona reflects the common financial reality of young twenty-somethings who are "maxed-out" on their credit cards. One of the most dreaded phrases in their vocabulary is the response of retail clerks who can not accept their purchase requests: "VISA, declined." For X'ers, Visa is a generational allegory of society's denial of their dreams and aspirations. For Jon, this common predicament inspired his professional nom de guerre: Ms. Visa de Cline. Charge on Jon.

Looking for LOVE? Charge It!

Yes, we know that sex can be purchased. Otherwise, why are there so many "escort services" and "massage parlors" in the Yellow Pages. In fact, what's the difference between a hooker and an escort? The escort accepts Visa, MasterCard, AND American Express.

Okay, this is a new millennium and gratuitous sex and one-night stands are "out" and monogamous, mutually fulfilling relationships are "in." So, how do you find Love, after exhausting the dry cleaners' dating exchange or happy hour at the local fern bar? Well, where else but the personal section of your local newspaper or on-line singles sites. The rage is "cyber" dating with computerized match-making, digitized photo exchanges, and Real Player audio introductions. Ever notice that there are not many seniors listed? That's because cash is not the currency for facilitating a Love connection. Rather, as a frequent advertisement in the "Personals" section of the Washington City Paper, explains "MONEY CAN'T BUY YOU LOVE, But A Credit Card Can Get You Started." The point is that credit cards are the most common means for "singles seeking singles" to initiate potentially amorous liaisons through impersonal telephone connections or e-mail communications. Like the commodification of fun, "Love" begins with a charge to Visa or MasterCard. After all, a computerized "blind date" can't be worse than your last one, can it?



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