Out of the Pandemic: Researcher’s Front Row Seat

A Researcher’s Front Row Seat Out of the Pandemic

The past two years feel more like five, but now 32 waves into our nationally acclaimed Back to Normal Barometer tracking study, our team has had a fascinating view of evolving American attitudes and behaviors as we’ve lived through and are now emerging out of the COVID pandemic.  What started as an anticipated two to three month thought leadership exercise to inform clients and friends of our firm has arguably become one of the more fascinating studies that I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of.  We’ve chronicled the path forward; seen the magnitude of dichotomous opinions here in the U.S. and gained good insights along the way of where we might end up post pandemic.  Here’s a snapshot of what’s most salient as we “Spring Forward” into the Summer months.

COVID is in the Rear View Mirror

Both behaviorally and attitudinally, Americans have largely moved on and gotten over lockdowns, mandates and abstention from leisure activities.  In analysis of our April Barometer data, we found 93% of those surveyed who have resumed a basket of leisure activities or will do so without hesitation or concern. That is the highest we’ve seen since inception of the study and it continues a consistently upward trend that began when we eclipsed 70% in April of 2021.  

Perhaps most telling is that among a list of fourteen different domestic issues, ranging from crime to inflation, to government leadership, the COVID pandemic now ranks at the bottom of the list of those that respondents see as very serious for the country at this time.  There are interesting differences based on one’s political leanings, but overall, just four in ten see the pandemic as a very serious concern.  Nearly three of four agree with the statement that “In general, people have moved on from being pre-occupied with COVID 19,” while nearly two thirds agree that “It’s time to put restrictions behind us and just live with the fact that the virus is out there.”  

This is further reflected in changing attitudes about masks and vaccination requirements for access to public activities.  A majority believe that it is appropriate to remove all requirements to wear facial coverings.  In the past month alone, we’ve seen 10 point drops in those who indicate that they will wear masks in venues including hotel lobbies, concerts, movies and sporting events, to around 35%.  And people’s frustrations with the mandates are reflected in observations that more felt that these requirements should have been lifted a long time ago relative to those who feel that recent easing was premature.  Nearly six in ten plan to “make up for lost time.”

But Americans are Still Very Displeased about How Things Are Going

Yet, while we are clearly back out and about, the overall consumer mindset, as measured by our confidence barometer aggregation of some 26 attitudinal statements is still mired below 30%,  where it has bounced around since a low of 27% at the start of the pandemic in April 2020.  The key drivers are inflationary and other economic concerns. Those who strongly agree that people will go back to spending freely on luxuries has dropped from 58% last October, to just a third in April.  Just a quarter strongly believe that the U.S. will return to economic growth before the end of the year.  That’s down from nearly four in ten, last year.  Those reporting somewhat or much higher prices for consumer goods relative to pre-pandemic times, remains at or above 70% for the fifth consecutive month and has risen significantly since we began tracking this sentiment in July of ‘21.

Aftermath—The Great Re-Prioritization and an Underwhelming Return 

One of the most compelling and immediate impacts of the pandemic was that we were thrust from an environment where we lacked the time to do the things we enjoyed, to one where there weren’t enough things to do during the earlier months of lockdowns. Our research has shown an interesting and thus far sustainable shift towards a greater prioritization on work life balance.  This is dramatically reflected in the observation that only around half of Americans have returned to a scenario where they are working exclusively at a dedicated work place outside of the home. Just over a quarter do not expect to ever do so, while astoundingly only 8% of those not back to full time out of home work, have a desire to do so.  Perhaps even more indicative of the foundational changes that this has brought about is that we have seen no shift in the meaningful percentage of Americans who strongly agree with the sentiments that they have greater flexibility in how they can apportion work and personal time and that they have more leisure time available to them now than they did at the onset of the pandemic.  

Yet despite this increased freedom, less than half of Americans feel that they have personally experienced a “COVID liberation moment”, defined as a particular moment in time where they personally feel that they have gotten their pre-pandemic life in back in some meaningful way. Perhaps driving this phenomenon, is that we still see a majority of Americans that strongly agree that the resumption of normal activities, that were limited during the height of the pandemic, has been underwhelming relative to expectations and recollections of them, pre-COVID.  A deeper dive attributes much of this to the labor challenges that have compromised customer service, coupled with the highly uneven applications of protocols, restrictions and perceived peer judgements that have created a less than comfortable return to leisure.

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