Welcome to the me-economy where ego is supreme

Budget time, and the living is easy. Or at least, the economy is doing very well indeed. Everywhere you look, there are freshly minted millionaires aged about 16, and - give or take a Rover or two - thriving businesses.

But what kind of businesses? There is Lastminute.com, with its pledge to help you get your hot little hands on theatre, aeroplane or football tickets in order to pamper yourself. Then there is www.ready2shop, where Susannah and Trinny, the Daily Telegraph's fashion-plate Laurel and Hardy, help you select the best-fitting clothes without having to set foot outside your door. Or what about foodaficionado.com, which sells gourmet food from beluga to buffalo at the click of a mouse?

You don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to detect a pattern here. These are businesses that cater for the well-to-do who wish to self-indulge, the hard-working professionals who'll pay anyone to pamper them. It is their needs and wants and aspirations that have created a whole new market. It's not the e-economy, stupid, it's the me-economy.

There are services out there (and not all part of the dot-com phenomenon) catering for every bit of . . . me. Who benefits from the companies that find you a babysitter double quick or a daily who has earned the Good Housekeeping seal of approval? Me! Who's the target for the services that will bring your grocery shopping home or your (private) doctor to your bedside? Me! Who's the client base for health-club chains or companies that sell mail-order exercise equipment? Me!

Everything and everyone seems geared to making me the centre of the universe - and to turning my life into an easier, smoother and more leisurely experience. The new economy runs on personal tracks, with every single individual need met and every fantasy fed. It props up the "treat yourself" mentality that has become as ubiquitous as the glossy mag advertisement starring Jennifer Aniston: "L'Oreal. Because I'm worth it." Purchase power doesn't just boost self-esteem; it has become proof of self-esteem. How I feel about myself is measured by how much I spend on my yoga instructor, weekends away, scented candles and my mobile phone bill.

Me has to be looked after and nourished and cherished. And me is always in the right, always deserving of something more, or better.

Had a hard slog at the office? Treat yourself to a nice new skirt through the Boden catalogue. Stressed out? Treat yourself to an aromatherapy session at the Holmes Place gym near you. If you quarrel with your partner, have a shouting match with your child, or feel tension with your boss, don't let them get you down: just dial the number or click the mouse and, hey presto, you'll find someone ready to sell you something to chase the blues away.

Every business plan of every entrepreneur has cottoned on to this. They recognise that to succeed in today's me-economy, every effort has to be made to look after number one, nourish the ego, support the self, polish the image. Me is the consumer king, the marketplace monarch.

Beware of me-fever, though. More than one savvy economist has licked his finger to test the wind, and found that things may change. Not immediately, not for ever. But boom risks going bust; and when it does, out go the essential oils and in come the essentials - such as food, nappies and medicine. The luxury of spending money to save or improve the time I spend on me will dwindle quickly as survival takes over from pampering. Spare time will suddenly become an opportunity to earn more to make ends meet; and shopping will be about back-to-basics and not about a frock like the one Susannah wears.

It's a sobering prospect, a world stripped of life-enhancing sandalwood balms, mail-order couture and personal trainers. A world where priorities shift once again from me.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - How we have lost the joy of sex