Changing Lifestyles

Our View: The Recession Has Changed Our Habits - We're More Anxious But Are Taking Satisfaction In The Pleasures Of Home And Family

April 18, 2009

For most Americans, recessions have been relatively brief interludes in an era of generally increasing affluence. But the current sweeping downturn has affected everyone - wealthy, middle class or poor - either directly, with unemployment or reduced income, or indirectly, through fear of a future without adequate safety nets to protect health and income. Those fears have changed many of our habits, possibly permanently, because the bedrock of our economic confidence has been taken away. No longer do we believe homeownership will make us wealthy or even secure.

So we're changing our grasshopper lifestyle assumptions and spending priorities - all of us. Now, nearly two-thirds of Americans say they will continue to spend less than they did before, even after prosperity returns. Roughly half of us earn $50,000 or less, and among that group, a third have not gone to the doctor because of the cost, a third have been out of work at some point and more than one out of 10 have been hungry. Forty percent of people at all income levels say they feel anxious, a third have trouble sleeping and one in five are depressed, a recent Time magazine survey indicates.

Middle-aged Americans who once mocked their grandparents' saving ways, spawned in the Great Depression, are now channeling them, starting vegetable gardens and using water out of the tap in place of the bottled stuff. Public libraries are jammed, and sales are up at consignment shops and Goodwill stores.

Most people believe the economic pain will be lasting, and more than half think the American dream will be harder to achieve. Despite all of this, a solid majority believes America's best days still lie ahead, the pollsters have discovered. And if that strikes a surprisingly positive note, consider this - confronted by this frightening economic train wreck, Americans are determinedly finding upsides. Community colleges and other affordable education options are praised, discovering a solid used car to buy at a reasonable price has become a recycling move to brag about, and cutting grocery bills in half with coupons is a bargain home run, with winners interviewed on the Today show.

Heavily taxed cigarettes are helping people quit smoking, and economic meal planning is helping us lose weight. Skipping the gym and biking to the store also contribute. Unfortunately, we won't be able to sneak into the drive-in the way our parents did. But more and more of us are watching free videos on YouTube, the Internet site where more than 5 billion clips a month are streamed and mainstream TV and movies are promised.

Religions tell us that money doesn't buy happiness, and research has confirmed that theory for families earning $50,000 or more. Now, more of us are testing the hypothesis at every level. A third of the people polled by Time say they are spending more time with family and friends, and nearly four times as many people say their relationships with their kids have gotten better during this crisis than say they have gotten worse.

Still, in these, the hardest times in recent history, parents worry about health and jobs and the fate of their children. And they watch for early signs that newfound virtues will help yield a brighter future.

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