A crisis of collective character disguised as the quest for the perfect latte
An exceptionally poised woman I know, codename Venus, has started a personal boycott against Starbucks. This has nothing to do with the coffee conglomerate’s stranglehold on the caffeine trade, a slight from a service-impaired barista or the fact that a large espresso-based beverage yields barely a jingle’s worth of change from a $10.
No, the tipping point for Venus was an incident that emphasized the java giant’s mollycoddling of an increasingly self-indulgent North American middle-class. While patiently waiting to order a round of joe for inner-office consumption, Our Lady of Perpetual Good Grace, found herself behind a customer who insisted that the beverage she was about to consume be heated to exactly 180°F. Not 179° nor 181°, but precisely 180°. Venus’s cool demeanor gave way faster than the temperature of a carafe of milk rises when subjected to a Cimbali steam probe.
A variation of that scenario unfolds several times a day; neigh, per hour, in coffee shops all over. Ordering a precisely heated, decaf, no fat, no fun, solo, extra foam latte with a dusting of chocolate placed in an over-sized cup – hold the insulating cuff – is no longer seen as particularly high-maintenance behaviour. Rather it’s common practice for a group that feels it is their inalienable right to have their every desire fulfilled. Their position is simple: "I want it my way." And this belief permeates every aspect of their lives.
The children raised during the ’70s Me Generation have grown up and we’re a nightmare.
In the mid-’70s, an upstart hamburger chain in the U.S. started encouraging people to "Have it your way!" Now, the ability to order a cheeseburger sans pickle is not a bad idea. However, in an effort to capture a larger share of the fast-food market Burger King unleashed a concept that flew in the face of acceptance and compromise.
A decade later, the need to "have it your way" was played as endearing in the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally . Sally, as portrayed by the perennially perky Meg Ryan, is a neurotic bag of quirks masquerading as the girl next-door. One of her more pronounced neuroses is her inability to order off a menu. In Sally’s world everything is "on the side" which somehow manages to put her in the middle of Harry’s heart.
Around that same time, Starbucks snuck into Canada. Back then I lived around the corner from the first outlet in Canada on the east side of Denman Street. Within months, a new lexicon had erupted. Along with a handful of bastardized Italian words, we learned we could have it our way, no matter how inane, complicated or expensive. The idea of a three-dollar coffee became acceptable. We were willing to pay double for a jolt of jamoke because the experience, the coffee and our personal fulfillment, was worth it.
The problem is, couple "I want it my way" with "I want it now" and you have a philosophy that is prevalent among the five-and-under set. When the purveyors of these sentiments are less than 46" tall, it’s bad enough, but when full-formed adults exercise the same whiny attitude, it’s pathetic.
As an acronym, "I want it now" reveals itself to be iWin. And maybe that’s what it’s all about. In our ridiculously overly competitive, consumerist society winning is everything whether it’s actually besting one’s peers in a particular endeavour or, as a popular ’90s T-shirt slogan suggested, dying with the most toys. Or for that matter winning can apply to always having things, you guessed it, your way.
Look at Apple computer’s core marketing campaigns of the last 10 years. The majority of consumer products the computer company has launched feature "i" in the name. It started with the custom-coloured deskstop i-Mac computers and moved to the portable i-book laptops (the first ones that looked like toilet seats). The "i" brand now emblazons everything from MP3 players (i-Pods) to software (i-Tunes and i-Life). Predictably, the messaging that accompanies the marketing of these items is based on infinite choice and customization. Connection? Use "i" products and your needs will be fulfilled.
We all start by saying "me" and graduate to using the more correct "I". Those who grew up in the Me Generation can now be seen as the "iGeneration." Apple markets "i" products to us. Coincidence? I think not.
The question now is whether the contrary ideas expressed by Slow, simplicity and sustainability movements will be enough to counter the "iGeneration" and its relentless pursuit for personal fulfillment through infinite choice?
All I know for sure is that the next time I see Venus, I’m taking her a cup of ordinary coffee. I know she’ll appreciate the lack of choice. After all, it’s just a hot beverage.