The other day I found myself roaming about in a large store offering toiletries, grooming products, along with general merchandise. There, arrayed on a large shelf was a display of hair dryers from various manufacturers – 27 distinct devices, priced from $19.99 to $149.99. I recounted just to make sure; yup – 27 hair dryers, similar in shape, differing in color. That somehow led me to recall a book, “People of Plenty” (David Potter) dating from the 1950s, which, in what was then a novel thesis, identified abundance as the distinct and defining feature of American society. Surely, providing consumers with that many hair dryers to choose from would seem to confirm his original insight.
We’ve known abundance for quite a long time in the United States (the fact that it is unequally distributed and that there are millions obliged to do without is, of course, another matter). Indeed, discussion has moved on to consider a more recently recognized consequence of abundance – namely boundless variety, i.e., virtually unlimited, frequently bewildering options. Consumers entering the marketplace are likely to encounter a multitude of choices in almost every category of goods and services. Baskin-Robbins may have introduced a plethora of ice cream flavors years ago (31), but now, almost every such purveyor offers choices galore. Cruise along the breakfast cereal aisle in any large supermarket and be startled by the endless display of crunchy, crispy, hearty possibilities. Pick up a color chart at your local paint store and be dazzled by the dozens of choices and shadings available, even within the particular color you’re considering. Exploring vacation ideas – fly, cruise, sail, drive, travel by rail or bus or bike to and around nearly every corner of the earth (and soon outer space as well). Remember when you once knew all the car makers and all models? No longer. Auto showrooms and manufacturer’s brochures will start your head spinning, and that’s before you’ve begun reviewing optional features. One could once easily navigate daily TV listings and choose from a relatively limited number of programs. That task has become far more challenging these days, given the countless new offerings from an ever expanding range of sources and platforms.
No further elaborations or illustrations are needed. Abundance made variety possible; variety meant choices, and choices required decisions. For some, such choices were exhilarating and liberating, even elevating. Each time they travelled it was to a different destination. They consumed foods rarely if ever available, barely even recognized years before. They dined at restaurants representing the cuisines of nations spanning the globe. They sampled art, and art forms only recently conceived. They assembled sizable troves of collectibles of all sorts, objects both precious and prosaic, from sources across the world. They sipped wines from regions and nations located outside the traditional sources in France, Italy and Spain. When it came to investing they ventured well beyond stocks and bonds, putting money into IPOs, MLPs, REITs, crypto currencies, commodities and other exotic financial constructs. With choices galore all across society life in the cornucopia that was America became for many an ongoing adventure and challenge more fulfilling and comprehensive than ever before.
But lots of folks have not come on board. Many studies have demonstrated that when faced with multiple choices people often become indecisive, frustrated, tend to hesitate and delay. Consider also the fact that many do not find choices at all welcome or necessary. Millions upon millions of Americans have long been set in their ways, comfortable with decisions and choices made many many years ago. Life for them is largely a process of repetition, a recurring cycle of that which is predictable, tried and true, traditional. There are people who day in and day out will have the same breakfast or in a restaurant will order what they’ve always eaten. And, despite the profusion of dining possibilities, will patronize the same eatery again and again, express little interest in sampling others. They will head to the same vacation retreat season after season, listen to music no more recent than Frank Sinatra, or, if classically inclined, show little interest beyond Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. They will watch old television reruns and remain loyal to brands they’ve known and selected for years. They remain in the same houses they’ve lived in since they were married and have retained much of the original furniture. If men, they’re likely to be satisfied with the clothes purchased years ago, and if women, maintain the same hairstyle for as long as anyone can remember. These folks, no doubt, recognize the wide range of choices available to them, but prefer keeping things the way they are; how they’ve long been for them. They’ve thus created for themselves a way of life – stable, familiar and predictable.
The United States, many observers concede, is divided to an unprecedented degree. No simple explanation can account for this, but it would seem to be connected, at least in part, to the division revealed above – i.e., between those at home with and can afford the world of abundance, who are eager to explore choices and experience change and those more comfortable and secure proceeding in ways more familiar, where change is less intrusive and where choices often represent sources of confusion and contradiction.