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Are Americans ready for the new normal?

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN.com
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Amitai Etzioni asks: Do you really need a flat-screen TV?
  • Economic downturn suggests that Americans may be adapting to less materialistic lives
  • He says there's no way people will see same rise in income that U.S. had after World War II
  • Etzioni: Will this be an opportunity to enrich spiritual side of our lives?
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Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is a sociologist and professor of international relations at George Washington University and the author of several books, including "Security First" and "New Common Ground." He was a senior adviser to the Carter administration and has taught at Columbia and Harvard universities and the University of California, Berkeley.

(CNN) -- When I asked an audience, "Do you really need a flat-screen TV? An inflatable Santa Claus? Plastic pink flamingos on your front lawn?" they chuckled with agreement. However, when I added, "A 4G phone?" the room went awfully silent.

The bigger question is: Will Americans learn to live with -- better yet, find -- some new sources of contentment, in the austerity many millions will face for years to come, or will they continue to be sharply disappointed that they have to make do with less? With less when it comes to material goods, that is.

I wish I could send them all a copy of the writing of Abraham Maslow. Maslow pointed out that human needs are organized in a hierarchy. At the bottom are basic needs for food, shelter, clothing and other such essentials (the physiological and safety needs, in Maslow's terms).

Once these needs are sated, psychologically healthy people pay more mind to their social needs, to being loved and loving, to being appreciated and appreciating. And as these higher needs are fulfilled, these good people turn to "self-actualization," to spiritual and transcendental pursuits -- to the pinnacle of human needs.

There is nothing wrong about people who have few resources focusing on satisfying their basic needs. A problem only arises when, as people's income grows -- as it did for the last several decades -- they continue to buy stuff, instead of spending more time in the pursuit of serving their higher needs.

It is the subject of scores of movies, plays and novels: The man feels he did all he should by bringing home oodles of money, which allowed the family to buy a larger house, the latest appliances and so on -- and the family is frustrated because the man has no time for his spouse or kids.

In the social science lingo, people are conditioned to buy objects to express affection (as captured in the commercial tag lines "promise her anything, but give her Arpège" and "diamonds are a girl's best friend") and measure their esteem by the size of their bank account. If Maslow is correct, there is no true happiness down this road, and people ought to be liberated from the use of goods to buy affection and esteem.

The Great Recession provides a golden opportunity to test Maslow's prescription. As most everybody has read by now, we lived beyond our means for decades, and we borrowed about all we could from overseas and indebted our children. It's payback time.

There is no way on earth Americans over the next decade will continue to experience the kind of increases in income, and hence standards of living, we have seen since World War II. The question is if they will respond in anger -- or benefit, by dedicating themselves, once their basic needs are sated, to spending more time with each other, their children, in social activities and cultural pursuits.

Polls suggest that large numbers are ready. An April 2009 Gallup Poll, for example, finds that six out of 10 (59 percent) Americans say they enjoy saving money more than spending. Fifty-one percent of Americans project that they are going to settle into a new, normal pattern relating to either spending less or saving more.

An October-November 2009 survey by Euro RSCG finds that eight out of 10 (79 percent) of Americans worry that society has become too shallow, focusing on things that don't really matter. Two out of every three (67 percent) say the recession has served to remind people of what's really important in life -- and that's a good thing, and 78 percent believe most of us would be better off if we lived more simply.

Better yet, Americans say that even when the economy will rise again, they plan to lead a less materialistic life. The October-November 2009 Euro RSCG also reports that 52 percent of Americans are determined not to go back to their old shopping patterns even after the economy rebounds.

A May Pew Research Center study finds that once the economy recovers, 48 percent of Americans say they plan to save more, 31 percent say they plan to spend less, and 30 percent say they plan to borrow less.

Sociologists like myself have long noted that there is a great distance between the lip and the cup, between what people say (and plan), and what they actually end up doing. It hence remains to be seen to what extent those Americans whose basic needs are covered will spend more time with their family, friends, community and culture -- on their "higher needs" -- and less on making money and shopping. That will show whether the new normal is just a passing phase or truly the new face of America.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.