October 17, 2008

Personal Priorities and Societal Situations

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you heard that the economy is in bad shape? Have you noticed this “bad economy” in your everyday life? One could ask the same thing about other societal issues. Are you aware on a day-to-day basis that we at war? 

Unless we are directly affected, many people continue to live their lives, doing what we normally do, no matter what is going on in the larger societal arena.

We learn in sociology that the personal “is” the public – or societal – as our personal experiences connect with larger societal patterns. Have you ever taken notice of how these larger patterns connect or are reflected in your own life or the life of your community?

If we are directly affected by job loss, this is an obvious connection between the personal and political levels of society. However, people lose their jobs in good economic times too. (See the unemployment graph below for trends since 1998.)image 

I’d like to challenge you to find some examples of the impact of societal trends upon our personal lives beyond those obvious direct linkages. Here are some of mine:

  • The shock of buying gas for a vehicle is a rather obvious example of economic forces impinging upon our daily reality. Gas has increased in price tremendously and its fluctuations are affecting people’s lives – this is a given.
  • Have you tried to buy or sell a car lately? Larger cars and SUVs are not selling, GM announced they are discontinuing the production of their larger vehicles, and gas is expensive. A friend of ours bought a new car and the dealers would not take his older car as a trade-in.
  • Have you ridden public transportation lately? For those who ride it regularly, it is clear that more people are on the buses and trains throughout the day. There are even more people riding bicycles for commuting purposes (although the distance from work to home certainly plays a part in that decision). (See the American Public Transportation Association for specific details.)
  • We receive flyers and note pads from realtors who hope we will choose them when we sell our home. I noticed on one flyer recently – which gave me the idea for this blog - that all the homes selling through this one realtor were bank-owned homes. Previously, people, not institutions, owned the majority of homes this person sells.
  • Have you taken a trip lately? A relative recently went to Hawaii – not a far trip from California – and noticed that there was a dearth of other tourists. Prices were not low, but at the end of summer it was odd to see mostly empty hotel parking lots and few people in the restaurants and parks. A new word has been coined this year due to the impact of the economy upon people’s lives and travel plans: staycation. Time will tell if this term becomes a common word, yet it has been used a lot this summer as people find some way to take vacations while staying home. If this word does make its way into regular usage, will this signal an ongoing economic problem? I think so. 
  • Have you bought food lately? Food prices have also increased and buying the basic staples (bread, milk, eggs – unless you are a vegan) can add up as if they were luxury items. (See the Consumer Price Index graph below for trends since 1998.)image 
  • The 99 Cent Only Stores in my area will soon charge more than 99 cents for some items. They cannot sell the same items that made them and successful for that price any longer. I wonder if they will change their name in some way to reflect their new reality? Their most recent announcement is that they will be charging $0.9999 for items they previously charged $0.9900. This may be a move to reassure consumers their items are still under a dollar yet those extra portions of a penny will add up. 
  • The new semester began for us last week and it was obvious to me that the economy is in pretty bad shape. I teach at a community college and our enrollments are up tremendously – there are students everywhere on campus, even in the late afternoon and on Fridays, which are times that used to feel like a ghost town. Students are showing up to add classes that already have long waiting lists. We’ve added classes as much as we can but we have run out of rooms and, in some cases, instructors ready to teach potentially new classes. Among those coming back to school are people who had other careers but were laid off and need a new career path so that they can keep working and saving towards retirement. 
  • Do you know someone who regularly buys new clothes or other items but has cut back on these purchases? Someone who has taken on an extra job or has begun selling items through “home parties”, e.g., crystal, candles, and cosmetics? 
  • Class matters too. If we are in the lower-middle classes, it is much more likely that we will feel the pinch of a bad economy than if we were in the upper-middle classes. Wealthy people may not feel it at all--they are insulated from such trends by the vastness of their wealth and the way it is typically held. However, middle class people who have been depending on certain investments may have trouble retiring when they planned since the value of those retirement accounts may have lost so much value. Those in the lower-middle classes may not even have any retirement options as they only get paid if they are working.

Can you think of any other examples of how people have been affected by these larger societal trends?

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Comments

Sally calls the audience to call on some of the trends that affect our own personal lives. One of the perfect example for me is that increase in the consumption of public transportation. I remember two years ago when I was using the Santa Barbara MTD public transportation, I would always find a place, no matter what the time was, and no matter from where I was taking it. The Fall of 2008 is the first time that I notice how the busses are extremely packed. Sometimes, I would have to wait for another bus or even ending walking back home. What about the buses going to UCSB or coming from UCSB, they are always packed which is not surprising anymore as it is a perfect example for people commuting from Isla Vista to Santa Barbara. Additionally, one other great example that clearly affecting my personal life and daily activities is the fact that Santa Barbara City College has greatly increased in the number of students. Classes are always full and I remember when I was trying to end classes in the beginning of the semester, it was extremely difficult as I was competing with ten other people for two seats. My law professor stated that next semester, Spring of 2009, they won’t allow students to jump from one class to the next, and once you choose a class, you are basically stuck with it.

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