Listen very carefully and you will hear a change in the conversational soundtrack around you. People have stopped talking about property. That sustained, impossible dream for the idle – their bricks and mortar was making money for them simply by existing – has passed. Once again, houses have become places where people live, rather than viable investment opportunities or potential profit centres. How dull that is, and how refreshing.
One of the side-effects of the economic downturn has been, rather oddly, that there is less general preoccupation with money. The suburb of Celebrityville, occupied by those who are famous simply because of their wealth, exerts less fascination than it once did. The obsession with smart and cool brand names, pioneered by the fashion industry, has begun to seem rather silly. Documentaries on TV, which once offered the fantasy of making a fortune through house-dealing or by coming up with some sparky business idea, are now more liable to put the emphasis on financial survival.
The dream has faded. For the past few years, we have lived with the fantasy that not only would the years of comfort roll on into the future, but that wealth would bring important additional rewards in terms of personal satisfaction and fulfilment. The fact is that while, for a few, the credit crunch will be a disaster, it will for many of us be an overdue wake-up call. Already there are signs that people are snapping out of the money-obsession of the past 10 years, looking around them and noticing that there are more important goals than adding to one's own personal wad.
In this sense, what is happening is more than an overdue economic adjustment. It has the potential to bring in a saner way of life which will have benefits for us and the world around us. It might even make us happier.
With the crunch, new values are becoming evident. Making money on expenses, once an accepted perk for politicians and business people, has begun to seem tacky and exploitative. Eye-wateringly large annual bonuses for those dealing in money are no longer the subject of boasts but of embarrassment, even to some of those who work in that bubble of self-interest, the City of London. It has been reported that divorce rates among the very rich are accelerating: those who once approached marriage as a financial opportunity are bailing out as their investment loses value.
Conspicuous spending, something which has bizarrely become associated with the Labour years, suddenly begins to feel at odds with the mood of the times. English holidays are back. Whereas the last prime minister basked in the sun on the other side of the world at some high-security compound owned by Sir Cliff Richard or a Bee Gee, Gordon Brown has settled for the rather different pleasures of Walberswick – catching crabs, waiting for the wind to die down and, in his particular case, avoiding the attentions of people across Suffolk who, even now, are preparing to track him down to discuss matters of mutual concern.
The price of fuel is beginning to influence behaviour. There is less movement for the sake of it, more walking and cycling. To their astonishment, car drivers are beginning to discover that by knocking 10 miles an hour off their speed, they can save fuel and reduce stress with little difference to their journey time.
More effectively than any save-the-planet propaganda, financial pressures are forcing people to rethink they way they behave as consumers. The old-fashioned idea that waste is harmful, personally and socially, is returning. The absurd over-packaging of food in supermarkets has begun to seem absurdly profligate. There is a new interest in allotments, in growing vegetables, even in rearing poultry in the back garden.
The life-denying message that contentment lies in money-making, passed down from Thatcher to Blair, from "Greed is good" to "It could be you", is now playing to empty halls. With the fading of that fantasy, something more solid and achievable is establishing itself. People are beginning to realise that their best resource is themselves; they are appreciating the value of those around them, of the things they have.
History has shown that it is at these moments when individuals are forced to look inwards, rather than pursue the latest dream offered by their leaders, that a new creativity in the arts becomes evident.
The credit-fuelled boom years of instant gratification are over, we're told by the money experts, and will be replaced by delayed gratification – the old-fashioned business of earning money before spending it. But if the hard times help us to appreciate what we have around us, that might be the most lasting gratification of all.