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A Pandemic Shift: America’s Return to Depression-Era Values

People sitting at a table

As a strategist and researcher, I have long been fascinated by how values influence human behavior. They guide our thinking and actions, and relationships, and how we see ourselves in the world. They also tend not to waver, taking years to change in meaningful ways.

But like so many other things that have changed in our COVID-19 lives, so apparently have Americans’ views of their most important values, moving away from materialism toward frugality, and away from self-centered ambition toward duty – a shift in values not seen since the last time Americans experienced this much economic and social upheaval: The Great Depression of the 1930s.

This shift revealed itself last month after our researchers at Zeno Group posed this central question to 1,000 people in the U.S.: What values do you hold in high importance today versus those you held in high regard before the pandemic?

Their responses illuminate how much the pandemic has affected our lives.

For example, Americans previously benefitted from a robust economy, a strong stock market and very low unemployment. In that faraway existence of just two months ago, we hungered for leisurely escapes and relaxation as we climbed our professional and social ladders. And while we also wanted protection from the global and social issues of the day, a sense of optimism remained imbued in our ambitions.

Then came COVID-19, and the picture flipped. Americans have been reassessing their values ever since.

“Considering what is happening around the world with COVID-19, it is more important to be self-reliant now,” said a male, Generation X respondent from Minnesota. “… we should not take tomorrow for granted. Life is short, and we need to reevaluate what is really important in our lives.”

Our research showed the values rising most in importance in the pandemic were those associated with family, interpersonal relationships, and self-sufficiency, specifically Protecting the Family, Self-Reliance, Helpfulness, Simplicity, Honesty, and Stable Personal Relationships. Also, among the top risers were Thrift and Duty – Depression-era values that have not been in most Americans’ top ten in generations.

Falling most in importance were values associated with materialism and self-fulfillment -- those more reminiscent of good economic times. These values – Power, Status, Wealth, Adventure, Romance, Excitement, Ambition and Self-Interest – now look out of step with the hardships Americans have experienced since March.

As a Millennial woman from Washington put it: “My self-interests, goals, and achievements are all on the back burner [now] while we all focus on getting through this together.”

We also observed the value shifts across generational cohorts – Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials and Gen Z. In fact, three of the four groups had as their top rising value Protecting the Family. Even among the socially conscious Gen Z, there was a premium expressed on familial values. Though Ambition was Gen Z’s top rising value, it’s not the ambition of pre-2020; it’s flanked by rising values, such as Working Hard, Protecting the Family, Thrift and Freedom – values hardly associated with bull markets and economic expansion. Gen Z’s greatest ambition now is to protect their families, friends, and the world.

Will this shift in values be lasting, given all the plans underway to return to pre-pandemic life? Well, with so much in flux these days, we are wary of making such predictions. However, we do see the values shift pointing to a few implications that are clearer for American companies and brands.

First, they point to a heightened need for stakeholder listening. Companies and brands should invite conversation – to listen and provide people a way to regain a sense of control. Precisely because we are in a fluid environment, it is essential to stay in tune with the public’s fears, hopes and priorities. Failing to do so could result in market miscues.

Second, with Duty as a value on the rise – a first since the 9/11 attacks – companies and brands will be expected to demonstrate their sense of responsibility to the pandemic cause and our new world. Companies that offer practical solutions to the new challenges – as opposed to overt marketing – will win in the marketplace.

Third, American consumers will expect companies and brands to exhibit greater appreciation for our economic hardships, particularly on Main Street, where the reality of nearly 30 million people out of work is taking its toll. Especially now, with Protecting the Family as a top value, this is a time for companies and brands to show their empathy.

And, fourth, a return to simpler and classic pleasures will likely take hold as values, such as Thrift and Simplicity, continue to be central in our lives. So best to avoid information overload, or inadvertent exploitation.

Finally, people do not need to be reminded of how bad it is; they already know. Instead show them there is a light at the end of the tunnel and a path to a new normal and you can be a guide as they make their way.

This article originally appeared on the Institute for Public Relations website in May 2020, here.


A Historic Moment: The Values Shift in Pandemic America by Zeno Group