Not too long ago, my firm, SS+K, moderated a handful of focus groups across the country for one of our clients. In these groups, we learned a lot about the current American zeitgeist — overt and latent themes swirling around the public consciousness — influencing people’s behavior and action.

I should mention that SS+K regularly tracks forces (not trends) on behalf of our clients and applies a rigorous process to attach brands and issues to them.

While we heard a variety of comments from respondents, there was one that encapsulated public sentiment and frustration with the current state of affairs in America best. This individual said:

I’m a mother of a 3 year old girl. Left to her own devices, my daughter would eat cookies all day long. The reason she doesn’t is because I don’t let her. She needs someone to control her impulse to devour the cookies in the cookie jar – to stop her from engorging herself. That’s how I see the world right now. We’ve become an over-indulgent society and we need someone to take the cookies away from us – to stop us from becoming our own worst enemy…

Subsequent to this comment, the entire room burst into applause. Some said, ‘amen sister’ others said, ‘that’s exactly right’.

Originally, I chalked this cry for control up to an isolated market – the sentiment of a particular demographic.  But then I read, “The End of Excess: Is This Crisis Good For America” in the March 26 edition of Time Magazine (thanks for the tip/link @brianmorrissey) and I realized there’s something much bigger afoot here.

As a nation, we’re reassessing – Does being American mean chasing money above all?  Or, does it mean hard work and pulling together?  Like waking up with a bad hangover, folks are swearing they’ll never do that again.  I guess time will tell.

In the meantime, here’s a few terrific quotes from the Time Magazine article and a link to the entire piece:

We saw what was happening for years, for decades, but we ignored it or shrugged it off, preferring to imagine that we weren’t really headed over the falls. The U.S. auto industry has been in deep trouble for more than a quarter-century. The median household income has been steadily declining this century … but, but, but our houses and our 401(k)s were ballooning in value, right? Even smart, proudly rational people engaged in magical thinking, acting as if the new power of the Internet and its New Economy would miraculously make everything copacetic again. We all clapped our hands and believed in fairies….

But now everything really has changed. More than a year into the Great Recession, we still aren’t sure if there’s a bottom in sight, and six months after the financial system began imploding, it’s still iffy. The party is finally, definitely over. And the present decade, which we’ve never even agreed what to call — the 2000s? the aughts? — has acquired its permanent character as a historical pivot defined by the nightmares of 9/11 and the Panic of 2008-09. 

You know the story of the ant and the grasshopper? The ant is disciplined, the grasshopper parties as if the good times will last forever — and then winter descends….It’s time to ratchet back our wild and crazy grasshopper side and get in touch with our inner ant, to be more artisan-enterpriser and less prospector-speculator, more heroic Greatest Generation and less self-indulgent baby boomer, to return from Oz to Kansas, to become fully reality-based again.

…Here is a streamlined, secularized Three-Step Program for America — Bubbleholics Anonymous? — to start getting back on track:

• Admit that we are powerless over addiction to easy money and cheap fossil fuel and living large — that our lives had become unmanageable.

• Believe that we can, individually and collectively, restore ourselves to sanity and normal living.

• Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and be entirely ready to remove our defects of character.

Of course, when addicts finally quit, it feels awful for a while, and that’s where we are right now.

Here’s a link to the entire article, “The End of Excess: Is This Crisis Good For America”.