My wife and I are sitting in a restaurant in Paris. It is days before Christmas and a wet December chill hangs over the city like drapery. Ducking down cobblestones, we find a local restaurant that looks cozy from the outside, is close and overheated on the inside. The owner, a harried but cheerful woman wearing a stiff white chef’s hat runs between kitchen and tables as her waiter--suited in black except for a white bow tie--has trouble remembering who ordered what or when.
We sit elbow to elbow at a table next to a couple whose proximity dictates we chat with and discover they are not French at all, but Brits from Bristol. The conversation hems and haws, the war in Iraq comes up. We are allies in a cause in which has felled the leaders of both countries. My wife, always one to poke at uncomfortable subjects, makes a statement. The Brit husband hesitates, then blurts out, “Well, excuse me, but I think that might be a bit of your American paranoia?”
I have not once considered us as a nation paranoid. Vengeful after 9/11? Yes. Bitter? Possibly. Cautious about flying? Certainly. But paranoid? Hmm.
Geographic distance often lends perspective. After examination, it seems that perhaps we have much to be paranoid about. And much of it has nothing at all to do with the war in Iraq.
Consider the national debt, which is now bursting over the $8 trillion mark.
There’s global atrophy (also known as global warming) given new significance thanks to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”. (The same man who gave the internet its relevance boost.)
There’s the fact that our jobs are being outsourced to offshore companies. Not just jobs like building cars and refrigerators or telemarketing, but white collar jobs like accounting and computer programming are being shipped to China and India.
Health care costs are rising, while the ability to retire comfortably (if at all) is falling.
On top of that, all those second mortgages we’ve been living off of since the dot.com crash now equal over $1.1 trillion. Banks are having shortfalls, and the new housing market—always a somber market indicator, is starting to dip.
Despite the growth of organic and natural foods ($15 billion and growing), we have started to look at our foodstuffs as various forms of poison.
Poultry is packed with not only with hormones, but bacteria. Beef is pumped up on steroids, we consume mercury-laden fish, and fruits and vegetables imported from countries using herbicides and pesticides outlawed in the U.S. decades ago. Wondering if the food we eat to live is killing us is a daily consideration.
There’s not just a gas shortage, but a shortage on human energy as well. “Serotonin depletion is a national epidemic,” declares Joshua Rosenthal, Institute of Integrative Nutrition. But wait, there’s more.
There’s bird flu, STDs, skin cancer, autism, the inexplicable Alzheimer’s, and Thalium and Polonium poisoning.
Add to that the growing gap between the super rich and the super poor. (One half of all Hispanic and African American high students do not complete high school.) Only half of all marriages work out.
Not to mention the fact that the entire nation has been on an orange terrorist alert 9 months and more.
And don’t forget you might get hit by a bus walking across the street.
If we aren’t paranoid, as the Brit at dinner points out, perhaps we should be.
In fact, research shows that we have become a nation overshadowed by fear. The good news is that the consequences of all this bad ju-ju can be positive for business.
The hand sanitizer market (a.k.a. Purell) has tripled in the last few years.
Personal protection services for executives traveling overseas, like International SOS, is a growing category. Home security systems will grow from 18% of all U.S. households in 2001 to more than 30% in 2009, according to a report from Parks Associates.
There’s a reason this demand for release from the ambient overwhelming pressure makes good enterprise. “We desire freedom and optimism,” says Shireen Jiwan of research firm Sleuth, Inc. “Practicality is tiresome and we find selective outlets to indulge and break free with measured doses of hedonism,” she tells us. “It’s why we spend money on Godiva chocolates, Starbucks Venti Lattes, and $3 organic apples.”
Rich opportunities await those able to create comfortable new communities where people can just chill. Here are some examples. Aromatherapy, hot yoga, and mood stones were underdeveloped a decade ago, but today the candle and incense markets have never been hotter. Cocooning, predicted by forecasters long ago, has also become reality. Homes are now sanctuaries replete with Zen gardens, restaurant-style kitchens, home theaters, private spas, and wireless capabilities office buildings might envy. Because the exterior world has become so freaky, we have overdeveloped our sense of place. Consumers are trying to turn each fraction of time into quality time.
Our need to always be in touch post-9/11 has led to 24/7 connectivity on Blackberries, Bluetooths, ftp sites, iChat, I.M., email and cell phones. Our hi-tech obsession has also led to a countertrend in the finer arts of high-end stationery, expensive pens, journaling, and just plain old letter writing.
Are oversized SUVs a demonstration of our desire for control in a world seemingly thrown out of control? Yes. So are wine collections, and escapist vacations to places like Las Vegas (where we can sin without detection), Canyon Ranch, luxury cruises, even Disney World. Affordable luxuries are attempts to better exist in a world where time can be cut short.
“Half the country is on Zoloft,” a comedian friend declares. “The other half is on Viagra.” Both are expanding product categories.
Perhaps de-escalation in Iraq and new elections will reduce our stress levels, perhaps we’ll have to wait and see. We’ll live together as a nation in fear until, well, we don’t any more. In the meantime, everyone will just have to fret.