Mark Dolliver’s Takes

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, the idea that “everything has changed” was the mantra of pundit and man on the street alike. With so many of our compatriots lying dead, it felt indecent to suppose that life for the rest of us would pick up pretty much where it had left off that morning. Given the fixity of human nature, though, change occurs slowly and within a narrow range. By and large, the things that mattered most to people on Sept. 10 are still the things that matter most; the trajectory of trends in day-to-day life remains on the same course, for good or ill. Here’s a look back at how some of these played out during the past year.

The family way

In the weeks following Sept. 11, everyone and his brother affirmed the importance of family. But the family had seen its ups and downs earlier in the year as data emerged from the 2000 Census and went through the media meat grinder. Trend watchers were left to wonder at times whether the traditional family was thriving or vanishing.

The Census Bureau muddied the waters with an April bulletin whose headline declared, “The ‘Nuclear Family’ Rebounds.” It soon became clear that this “rebound” was a quirk resulting from the bureau’s terminology and not from real demographic change. In any case, the story line shifted a month later as another Census report noted that fewer than one household in four now consisted of married parents and their kids.

We suddenly found ourselves awash in headlines about the decline and fall of the traditional family—some lamenting it, others celebrating it. (A Glamour article about single mothers carried the giddy headline, “No Dad? No Problem.”) As with the nuclear family’s rebound, however, this supposed trend didn’t live up to its billing. With people marrying later and living longer, it’s quite true that the percentage of total U.S. households consisting of parents-plus-kids has declined. The real story here is that Americans spend more of their lives in kid-free households than was once the case. As for households that do have kids, though, data showed the majority of them (around 70 percent) continued to have two—count them, two—married parents.

In fact, the most significant development in family data of late has been a decline in the percentage of kids (especially poor and minority kids) living in single-parent homes. The most persuasive sorting-out of the matter came in a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Analyzing the Census data, it found that “between 1995 and 2000, the proportion of children younger than 18 living with a single mother declined from 19.9 percent to 18.4 percent.” While the traditional family hadn’t exactly rebounded, one could fairly say that its decades-long decline had ground to a halt.

Another pound heavier, and deeper in debt

That’s one way of summing up the personal experience of many Americans in 2001. We’ll get to people’s finances in a moment. As for their weight, the year may go down in the epidemiological annals as the one in which Americans officially lost the battle of the bulge. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Surgeon General warned that obesity could soon surpass tobacco as the foremost cause of preventable death. A September bulletin from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bemoaned the “Twin Epidemics of Diabetes and Obesity,” with the latter a main cause of the former. The rate of obesity among adults had climbed from 12 percent in 1990 to 19.8 percent in 2000, and plainly kept rising in 2001. Looking ahead to 2002, The Economist predicted that 30 percent of adults in the U.S. and Britain will qualify as obese. The news about kids has been no better. An article in last month’s Journal of the American Medical Association told of a “rapid” rise in the incidence of excessive weight among children.

While numbers like these ought to be a wake-up call, a Roper Starch poll conducted in the spring indicated people were dozing through it. Sixty-two percent of overweight Americans said they don’t believe excess weight “poses any serious risk to health and well-being.” Twenty-one percent of them didn’t believe they need to lose weight, and 25 percent had never tried to do so.

Given the spectrum of medical problems linked to excessive weight, you’d expect to find large numbers of people complaining of poor health. Instead, a Gallup survey fielded in November (see chart below) found most Americans saying they’re in fine fettle, with just a handful terming their physical health “poor.” Go figure. Meanwhile, despite the much-discussed stress of recent months, it’s noteworthy that 85 percent described their mental health as excellent or good.Hey, this recession isn’t our faultThe economists impaneled to make such declarations have decided a recession began last March. Still, consumers hung in there for much of the year, buying freely even as stock market indices fell and unemployment rose. The vigorous getting and spending of recent years had built its own momentum, it seems, so people kept spending even as getting became tenuous. By mid-summer, though, layoffs finally kicked consumer confidence into submission. Sept. 11 had its effects, too. Polling conducted shortly after the attacks detected a (short-lived) rebound in confidence as Americans’ sense of solidarity expanded to encompass the economy. Now that this “rally effect” has subsided, how do people view their own finances and the economy in general?

In a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll fielded in mid-December, the number of people saying we’re “on the way out of a recession” (43 percent) was nearly equalled by the number saying we’re “headed deeper into a recession” (41 percent). Still, many more felt “safe and secure” about their own finances (66 percent) than “frightened” about them (26 percent). Likewise, a Los Angeles Times poll conducted in November found people more apt to call their finances “secure” than “shaky” (by 75 percent vs. 23 percent). The number expecting to have more money to spend in 2002 than in 2001 exceeded the number expecting to have less (29 percent vs. 21 percent). As you can see from the chart at left, significant numbers of people are holding off on major purchases. Among those whose annual household income tops $40,000, though,63 percent said they anticipate “no change” in their spending; as did 48 percent of those in the under-$40,000 cohort. Along the same lines, a Publicis poll found 54 percent of respondents saying their plans to make a big-ticket purchase “have not changed at all” as a result of Sept. 11.

What of 2002? In the Los Angeles Times poll, 38 percent said the economy will be better in six months; 16 percent said it’ll be worse. A Gallup poll, fielded in December, found just 5 percent of respondents saying conditions will be “excellent” in six months. But 44 percent predicted the economy will be “good,” versus 39 percent saying “only fair” and 10 percent saying “poor.”

There’s a significant difference between consumer attitudes in this recession and that of the early ’90s: Scarcely anyone seems glad to have been rescued from a “decade of greed.” People are unrepentant about the ways they spent their money during the latest boom. Once a recovery begins, it will be unrestrained by chatter about “voluntary simplicity.”

Older, if not wiserWhatever else one might say of Americans in the past year, there’s no denying they got older. Indeed, the Census Bureau said the U.S. population had reached its highest median age ever: 35.3. Don’t blame the old folks, though: The 65-and-over cohort had its slowest increase on record. What drove up the national age was the surge of baby boomers toward their golden years.

Naturally, boomers were in no hurry to acknowledge they’re on the verge of being certifiably old. Many aren’t reconciled to being middle-aged. When a global survey by Euro RSCG Worldwide asked boomers at what point a man becomes middle-aged, 32 percent pegged it at age 55; 26 percent said that’s when a woman hits middle age.

Despite all this aging, Americans were doing a poor job of saving for retirement. A poll by International Communications Research (conducted in October) found just 28 percent of men and 8 percent of women “very confident” they’ll reach their savings goals by the time they reach retirement age. An AARP study noted one problem: 60 percent of 401(k) participants who change jobs take cash payments rather than roll their balances over. While boomers were in denial about retirement, people who’d already reached quitting time were increasingly unlikely to have left work altogether. According to Census data on people over 65, 19 percent of the men and 10 percent of the women remain in the labor force. That helps explain why old folks are less likely to pick up and move to Florida. An item in Time said realtors across the U.S. “are seeing 25 percent to 50 percent more retirees stay in or near their hometown, compared with five years ago.”

That’s just one of the new tricks these old dogs are learning. Consider the online population. Despite the Internet’s image as a playground for highly caffeinated 20somethings, the youngsters must jostle their elders for room in cyberspace. Look at the chart above, which excerpts data from a Harris Poll conducted in the fall, and you’ll note that the online adult population splits almost evenly between people who are under 40 and those who are 40 or older.

Beyond mad cows

Before world events focused our attention on malevolent people, mad cows seemed like the year’s most alarming mammals. In the first half of the year, polls documented rising fear about mad-cow and hoof-and-mouth disease. Of course, that’s not the only reason Americans were worked up about what they ingest. Many were also fretting about genetically modified (gm) foods.

Not that they actually knew much about gm foods. A study by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found the number of people calling them “basically unsafe” (25 percent) far exceeded the number who had heard “a great deal” about the topic(9 percent). Overall, though, Americans professed confidence in the nation’s food supply—as well they might, considering how they were wolfing it down. A summer Gallup poll found 89 percent of respondents saying they’re confident the food available at most grocery stores is safe to eat, while 77 percent said the same of restaurant food.

By the way, don’t feel offended if you’ve received fewer dinner invitations in recent years. Polling by the NPD Group found Americans “are making their lives easier by inviting fewer people over to share a meal.” The typical household ladled out52 meals to guests in 2000, versus 94 meals in 1985 and 72 meals in 1995.

The decline (if not fall) of alienation

It’s no surprise Americans have felt more unified in recent months. But there’s reason to believe this phenomenon was in motion prior to Sept. 11. The Harris Poll’s annual Alienation Index, issued last January, stood at its lowest level in a dozen years as people voiced less distrust of the powers that be. And the number of Americans feeling “left out of things” going on around them had declined to 39 percent from 51 percent in 1995. Teenagers even admitted to sharing their parents’ values, with 38 percent of teens in a spring USA Weekend poll saying they attend church services with their folks “regularly” and 25 percent saying they do so “sometimes.”

Underlying these sentiments is the fact that Americans are generally happy with their lives. In a poll conducted at the start of last year, Gallup found 56 percent of adults “very satisfied” with the way things were going in their own lives, with another 29 percent “somewhat satisfied.” Posing the same question last month—i.e., after one of the lousiest years in memory—Gallup received nearly identical answers (with 54 percent “very satisfied” and 30 percent “somewhat” so). One could hardly blame Americans if they now yearned for the pre-Sept. 11, pre-recession good old days. But they don’t, judging by the chart above, which displays a poll conducted for Adweek by Alden & Associates Marketing Research of Hermosa Beach, Calif. Apparently they think these days are good enough.