As markets slump, other values can rise

To everything there is a season. For more than a decade, many Americans have enjoyed an extended season of plenty. A rising tide of prosperity has lifted the yachts, although not necessarily the rowboats.

Now the season is changing. A growing chill across the country has less to do with the calendar than with the economy. From Silicon Valley to Wall Street, the question hanging in the September air is: How now, down Dow?

What a difference a year makes.

Not so many months ago, various managers and business owners could routinely assume a lordly position over customers. Contractors reaping the fruits of a building boom could ignore calls from the little guy who had only a modest project in mind. Upscale restaurateurs with reservation lists booked solid for weeks could adopt a haughty tone. Hoteliers could charge the moon, confident that business travelers on expense accounts would not flinch.

In a tight labor market, job applicants often held the upper hand over employers desperate for workers. The most sought-after interviewees could name their salary and demand a smorgasbord of perks. Professional athletes were not the only ones getting signing bonuses.

Even 25-year-olds grew wealthy, and sometimes cocky, through stock options in high-tech start-up companies.

A sense of entitlement ran strong.

Now the balance of power is shifting, with losses and gains on many fronts. Hotels are scrambling to fill rooms as occupancy rates fall. One travel industry consultant refers to the challenge as the need to put "heads in beds."

Some restaurant owners are lowering prices, offering frequent-diner programs, and even instructing waiters to give customers a welcoming smile.

Imperiousness is out. Solicitousness is in. Signs of a new humility are spreading.

Real estate brokers report that newly prudent buyers are rediscovering the joys of smaller, cozier houses, while supersized homes stay on the market longer. Some contractors have even started courting the little guy again.

Leaner times are also changing the rules of the job search, fostering a new respect on the part of applicants, some of them newly humbled by dotcom layoffs. Increased concern about getting and holding a job may even be changing the way workers dress in some companies. As one Boston menswear store announced in an ad last week: "Sanity has prevailed. The suit is back."

Well, maybe.

Anyone whose parents or grandparents lived through the Depression has undoubtedly observed their respect for money, the habit of thrift that still lingers more than half a century later. That habit has been largely lost on a generation of children who have known nothing but prosperity.

Whatever advantages and material goods this prolonged season of plenty has bestowed on young people, it is not necessarily an unmitigated blessing to grow up with the impression that the world is one big ATM machine, with unlimited money just a plastic card and a password away.

For children, and for all of us, the current reality check on Wall Street and beyond may serve as a reminder, however unpleasant, that our grandparents were right: Money doesn't grow on trees.

In time, another season of plenty and prosperity will return. When the Dow rises again, will Americans remember the lesson that what goes up can also go down?

Moralists, as well as economists, may hope so. It is, after all, finally a lesson in attitude, extending well beyond just dollars and cents.

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