Answer: Short answer, nothing has changed. Recipients owe givers prompt thanks, in some form.
Long answer, everything has changed. Stuff matters less.
When I was a kid about 1,700 years ago, it was a big deal to unwrap a sweater. New clothes were special. Now, even for many who struggle financially, it's a yeah-whatever experience; people can now get sweaters (or any goods within the purchasing power of a gift card) 24-7, often without leaving home, sometimes so cheaply that a kid's dog-walking money would cover it.
As a result, many kids and even adults now are immune to their own possessions. Despite the recession, Americans are staggering under the weight of their stuff.
And so I'm not just going to say yes, by all means, start sending only cards to mark your loved ones' special occasions. I'm going to throw it out there that we'd all do well to give our gift-giving habits a harder look.
Does this thing I'm about to buy have any chance of being important to its recipient? Does it get cash to someone strapped, free up time for someone busy, show support for someone down, strengthen connections for someone lonely, provide a pleasant experience to someone who wants for nothing material? Would this person prefer no gift at all?
Is there something only I can give, even just my thoughts, expertise, or time? If I'm not sure, then can I redirect my gift energy into keeping in touch more between birthdays and weddings?
Most of us can, and should, do better at showing gratitude and teaching its value to "the current generation." But we can also do better at listening to what changing mass behavior tells us, instead of just trying harder to make the old ways stick - or escalating the protests when they don't.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org.