Schizophrenic Nation

Paradoxical You

Consider the typical consumer: besieged by choices; needing more goods at better prices with a range of enhanced, time-saving services; bewildered by change, stress and the opposing pulls of hope and cynicism. It's enough to drive anyone to distraction.

Yet distraction isn't exactly the state we're seeing. Yankelovich partner Caplan believes the simplistic ideologies of the past are toast in today's terms.

Why? It's not simply because we see more, have more or demand more--it's because we know more. And with that knowledge, we've become both sadder and wiser as a culture. "Baby boomers grew up seeing the world in very ideological terms," says Caplan. "Good or evil, black or white--everything was one way or another."

But reality is not so easily defined. In the 1980s and early '90s, we saw wealth, then economic downturn. We embarked on a national mission to exercise, eat well and live healthy lives, only to find that we grew older anyway. "We embrace the idea of balancing work and life, career and family, in some kind of perfect harmony, but that, too, has been elusive," says Caplan. "In the end, we've found we can't have it all. We can only try to manage it. In the process, we've become more willing to accommodate the areas in between [the ideal and the reality]. We're learning to accept a more complicated view of the world."

Complicated, indeed. "We saw [paradoxical thinking] coming onto our radar screens around 1997," says Caplan. "There have been a number of examples since then. People say they're concerned about their kids' nutrition, but they buy their families snack foods in massive quantities. We say we look to the home as a refuge, yet we make the home stressful with multiline phones, faxes, PCs and all the other accoutrements of work. Again and again, we've seen strong findings that people want a return to traditional social values, yet the public has approved in overwhelming numbers the job [President Clinton] is doing," even as they believed him guilty of morally questionable behavior.

Yet, according to Caplan, this isn't hypocrisy. "Nobody's fooling themselves," she says. "They know they're dealing in contradictions, but they see them as a part of life. They're saying, `This is my world, warts and all.' "

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This article was originally published in the March 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Schizophrenic Nation.

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