Americans are divided over many things, but we can all agree that 2020 was tragic, terrifying and generally no good. Yet amid the sadness and strife, our social lives evolved rapidly, and the coronavirus pandemic ushered in changes that could leave a lasting mark on the economy.
It was a year in which “pandemically” served as an email signoff, and our friends’ Instagram sourdough pics gave us a real-time lesson in self-selection bias. (Somebody, somewhere made an ugly loaf, but you wouldn’t guess it from social media.) Zoom dates took awkwardness to new heights. Joggers may be the new pencil skirt.
Unemployment and anxiety skyrocketed, and the virus continues to inflict an enormous human cost. But America managed to find silver linings in the darkness, and below we run through a few of the year’s more colorful trends and what they might mean for future consumer spending, work life and markets.
America struggled with change.
The monetary kind — we could not get enough of it. When the economy shut down in March and April, disruptions to normal spending patterns meant that less physical cash was changing hands, compounded by the fact that people stopped taking their piggy banks to grocery store coin exchangers. Retailers around the country ran short on quarters, nickels and pennies as too few poured into the system and were circulated. A scramble to fix things ensued: The Federal Reserve convened a task force. Because it was 2020, fact checkers had to debunk coin conspiracy theories. The government tried to make #getcoinmoving happen. Normality has yet to fully return, according to a Fed spokesperson.
Robinhood took off.
In March, the government enacted a sweeping pandemic response package that included $1,200 checks to adults under certain income thresholds. Many households put the money toward expenses or paying down debt, and many saved some or all of their checks. At least some, anecdotally, put the cash toward buying stocks via the popular platform Robinhood or its competitors, like Charles Schwab and E-Trade.
As many small-time investors opened trading accounts during the year — perhaps because they had money to save or because they were bored — analysts said their footprint was significant enough at times to move the market. It’s unclear whether the just-approved $600 stimulus checks will be put to similar use or whether the newly enthusiastic retail investors will stick around after the pandemic. Robinhood itself has drawn scrutiny from regulators in recent weeks over accusations that it misled customers through activity that predated the pandemic.
This year put the “K” in Montauk.
If you strike it rich retail trading, good luck buying a home in the area of Montauk and the Hamptons — an expensive enclave outside New York City. Based on data from Redfin, houses in the area sold for 50% more in November than they did a year earlier, going for a median of $1.05 million.
A similar trend is on display across America. Luxury home sales surged 61% in the three months that ended Nov. 30 compared with the same period the year before, the fastest pace in Redfin data that goes back to 2013 and nine times the rate of increase for affordable homes. Demand for second homes doubled in the year that ended in October, the company said.
Real estate was just one example of the rampant inequality of the pandemic era. Even as millions of Americans who worked often low-wage service jobs were temporarily or permanently cut from payroll, people with college educations and office jobs were much more likely to retain them. A market rebound also left the wealthy many billions of dollars richer.
The result has often been referred to as a “K-shaped economy,” in which the well-off are on a rapid ascent while those with lesser means — and disproportionately Black, Hispanic and female workers — are suffering the pandemic’s economic consequences. As the rich get richer and more mobile in the work-from-home era, they’re buying houses.
America has Zoom towns.
Many middle-class millennials who lingered on the housing market’s sidelines for years reported that the pandemic had hastened their buying plans. They have been lured by the Fed’s pandemic-tied interest rate cuts, which have made mortgages cheap, and by the prospect of more space.
Some millennials, freed from office buildings by remote work arrangements, seem to be aiming for cities where single-family homes are relatively affordable — what some writers have labeled “Zoom” towns. People roughly ages 21 to 40 have accounted for a huge share of home purchase loans in places like New Castle, Pennsylvania, and Frankfort, Indiana, according to data from Ellie Mae, a mortgage software company. At the same time, rents in pricey cities like New York, San Francisco and Boston have been dropping.
A $300 giant skeleton sold out.
As people found themselves spending time at home, many decided to finally fix the back porch or renovate the garden — or to invest in weirder types of décor. Home Depot and its competitors had a good year in general as America shifted from spending on services to spending on goods as restaurants closed and far-flung vacations became off-limits. But the home repair store saw that goods-over-experiences trend play out in a big way at Halloween. The company offered a $300 giant skeleton that became a national sensation, selling out before October even started. People went on to decorate the 12-foot frame for the holidays, to social media users’ delight.
Deficit spending got a celebrity endorsement.
Skeletons aren’t the only domain where some Americans decided that bigger might be better. A group of economists has been arguing for years that the United States needlessly shackles its potential by trying to contain the federal deficit. They say resource constraints are the real limit on how much the U.S. government, which prints its own currency, can spend.
That idea — called modern monetary theory — attracted a lot of attention in 2020, particularly as some Democratic presidential candidates promised sweeping government spending programs. It even hit Hollywood. Actor and musician Ice Cube suggested in a tweet that America should be able to deal with problems like hunger and homelessness since it can print cash. Lest fans miss the point, he posted a follow-up photo of economist Stephanie Kelton’s book on the theory, which came out in 2020.
Celebrity endorsement aside, the theory has many critics, and it is clearly not operative in Washington yet: Deficits were central to the debate over a $900 billion relief package that President Donald Trump signed into law Sunday night. But the government’s debt increased rapidly during the year as Congress and the White House stepped in to blunt the effects of the pandemic, so an era of bigger spending does seem to be upon us.
Taylor Swift may be a productivity signal.
Taylor Swift released two full albums in 2020, singer Bad Bunny wrote a record during lockdown and there were plenty of pandemic-related singles.
It is admittedly a stretch to take “Folklore” and “Evermore” — Swift’s twin releases — or prolific pop stars more generally as a signal that a macroeconomic productivity surge is around the corner. But some serious theorists think the pandemic might be the thing that shakes America out of years of tepid efficiency improvements.
The logic rests on so-called techno-optimism, which argues that there are productivity-enhancing technologies out there that haven’t been fully adopted yet. The hope is that we are now seeing signs of faster innovation (see: the speed with which a vaccine was developed), and the pandemic itself has improved adoption of work-saving apps and software.
If that’s true, America could reap the benefits for years. Aaron Dessner, from the band The National, said he was surprised by how quickly the songs he wrote with Swift for “Folklore” came together remotely. Maybe we can all collaborate faster now?
Bike and puppy shortages showed our new patterns.
But there are huge questions about whether trends like working remotely will last after vaccines are widespread and life can (hopefully) settle into some new normal. If they do, it is unclear what it will mean for society and the economy.
One change that could come with the end of the pandemic — and that is likely to be received as obvious good news — is an end to weird shortages. It wasn’t just quarters and toilet paper that were impossible to find in 2020. As Americans stopped taking public transit and looked for outdoor activities, bikes became a hot commodity. So did pandemic puppies.
In fact, doggy demand embodies many of the pandemic economy’s key features. It was another sign of America’s shift away from service spending and toward goods — and, as designer breed prices took off, more evidence of the K-shaped economy. It also serves as a visible hint that 2020 will have lasting echoes: Today’s pandemic puppies will become tomorrow’s recovery dogs, requiring spending on day care, treats and food well into the future.