Over the last couple of decades the developed world became richer and richer and lifestyles became more and more or extravagant. There was lots of talk of a new economy, but the Internet and globalisation didn't buy Americans all of those robotic vacuum cleaners, skylights, and Ford Expeditions. Cheap debt - globalisation's real gift - did.
But now, we know we're in trouble. We hear that half of Americans are worried that someone in their household may lose their job this year. The UK media is a daily gloom machine, with reason. The Japanese economy is declining at a double digit annual rate. We're not buying cars, rich people aren't buying Bolli, and it won't be too long before young, professional couples start putting off starting a family. This we know. This we are told.
We are also told about the things that have to be done to help us. All governments must stimulate their economies. All governments must take steps to stabilise their financial sectors and get lending going again. This is all true. Some of us don't like having to do it, but we certainly hear about it all the time.
Importantly, we're hearing that this mess is going to take a while to sort out. GDP isn't going to grow again for some time. The new President's frankness and freedom from culpability allows him to warn us that he won't be able to fix things quickly.
But there is a problem here. So far, we aren't talking about how things are going to be different once the 'recovery' comes. The great expectation problem is not that the public expects things to start getting better again this year, or that they don't think that things will get worse before they get better. The expectations that aren't being managed are those beyond the horizon. The problem really is that most of us assume that at some point, things will return to the way they were.
But for most people, they won't. Employment may settle. House prices may stop falling. But unless something truly remarkable - and most likely truly stupid - happens, access to cheap finance for all is gone for a long, long time. And when the modest income families that could afford a DVD player for every tv in the house, an annual beach holiday, and a semi-regular refinancing of their mortgage on their nice suburban home realise those things aren't coming back, our society is going to finally confront the transformation this crisis will bring.
I remember being told that my grandmother was stingy despite her relative wealth because she was "a child of the depression." Her generation still wears the scars of a crisis of 80 years ago. For them, things never really were the same, even when they got better.
The interesting discussion to be having right now focuses on how all of us will be permanently changed by what we are living through; not just how our spending habits will change, but how our values and aspirations will be transformed. At the root of that discussion are the forces and trends that will define our future.
But so far, we aren't talking about it.