USA Today loves to run lifestyle features that purport to show how we are living, what we are doing, what we like and what we don’t like – premised on a collectivist assumption that all our preferences can be tracked and characterized with these aggregate claims.
Most of the time, these features are silly. It’s not really true that we are all listening to Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, or tweeting what we had for breakfast.
However, the other day, the paper offered a roundup of how the great recession has affected American life. The business cycle is one of those forces that does indeed affect everyone, so perhaps it makes sense to examine what the paper had to say.
The trends are gleaned from US Census data, which provide a look at how economic downturns can devastate a society, and offer a glimpse into a theme that the Austrian tradition has long emphasized. Economics isn’t just about trade statistics, retail sales or GDP. It is the very pith of life.
What the Census data indicate is that our mobility has been drastically curtailed from what it was a few years ago. The number of people who have not moved from one home to another, from one community to another, has risen substantially.
From an economic point of view, this makes sense. Maybe people are afraid to put their houses on sale for fear of discovering what price the market will bear. Many people sunk vast sums into their houses under the assumption, alive for decades, that homes would forever go up in price. This turns out to be the great myth that has devastated family finances across the country.
Another factor affecting mobility has been the tight labor market. Jobs are just not easy to come by, and it is especially difficult to transport a boom-time salary to another location during the bust. Market pressures during recessions are always downward. The safest path is to stay put.
Another trend is the delay in marriage. For the first time since the data have been tracked, the share of women 18 and older who are married fell below 50%. The share of the population age 25 to 34 that is unmarried jumped from 34.5% in 2000 to 46.3% nine years later. This is a massive social trend, dictated by economic realities.
There is a general tendency to marry in secure economic times, and to put this decision off during periods of economic uncertainty. Moreover, falling incomes and tighter labor markets give women, in particular, less to gain from a marriage, because there is far less likelihood that a household can get by on a single income.