The Pandemic Disrupted How the Wealthiest Americans Spend Trillions on Leisure
The three months of economic lockdown in the US spurred a change in how Americans choose to spend leisure time. COVID-19 shifted trends away from social leisure spent with groups, moving toward solo activities.
The New York Times says the pandemic “shut down the experience economy.” Bank of America noted that COVID-19 steers consumer spending away from traditional entertainment, such as amusement parks, movie theaters, and tourist attractions, and toward solitary leisure, such as golfing and marine sports. Google Mobility data agreed with Bank of America’s findings.
The modern economy was not designed for solitary leisure. In the early 21st century, consumer spending drove the US economy, creating service jobs for social activities in big cities. The “experience economy” depended on high-net-worth people traveling, dining out, and enjoying culture. Leisure spending has historically relied on varieties of consumption, never leisure in solitude.
However, according to Daniel Yoder, the department chair of the Recreation, Park, and Tourism Administration at Western Illinois University, “As long as people have the discretionary money, the experience-based economy will continue to grow.”
Before the coronavirus outbreak, the ultrarich took on a new strain of inconspicuous consumption: focusing on intangible concepts like health, wellness, and education. Higher classes emphasized discreet wealth as the new status symbol of “social, environmental, and cultural awareness,” says Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, who originally coined the term “inconspicuous consumption.”
The pandemic era brought layoffs, furloughs, and slashed salaries, shrinking discretionary spending for many. Additionally, half of American respondents to a TruePublic survey said they would not attend large events, such as Coachella or Comic-Con, until there is an available vaccine.
Yoder believes that the uptick in solitary leisure will not last long and social leisure will resume if the pandemic ends sooner. "I think if we can get control of this within a year or year and a half, the forces of the economy are just so incredibly powerful that I think we won't see a lot of changes," Yoder said. "When restrictions are lifted, as we're seeing now, there is a lot of pent-up desire to engage in social events."
The rise of solitary leisure creates a wider gap in the economy. The consumption of the top 10% consist of around one-third of US GDP, a void that solitary leisure cannot fill. "Working people can't cut spending; the rich can and will,” tweeted Ted Fertik, former Yale history and global affairs professor. If rich people stop consuming, there is a high likelihood of a stock-market bubble.
Yoder expresses concerns about the social drawbacks of solitary leisure trends. "I think human beings do better when they're involved with other people...if solitary leisure really increases greatly, I just think that's a weakening of the bonds that hold society together."