As America emerges from the pandemic, surveys by the Center for the Digital Future find significant changes in views about work, relationships, and health
As the COVID pandemic became one of the transformational events of the generation, the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg has identified profound changes in views and behavior, including struggle with physical and mental health among the youngest adult Americans, and broad changes in attitudes about work, privacy, and health care.
September <<, 2021 — “Our findings show that Americans are reconsidering the balance of work and personal lives, and over the next few years we will be experimenting with our lives as we have never done before,” said Jeffrey I. Cole, director of the Center.
“For the first time since the end of World War II, we are rethinking everything in our lives – our careers, our education, our health, how we shop and pay, and our life priorities – likely having a deeper impact than the Great Depression,” said Cole.
The quarterly studies in the Center’s COVID Reset Project explore seven distinct yet related sectors: health, entertainment, homes, learning, shopping, travel, and work – as well as questions that look at opinions about COVID — to understand how the nation changes as it battles and then emerges from the pandemic.
Among the Center’s initial findings on the seven sectors in the COVID Reset Project:
Survey finds deep warning signs about mental and physical health – especially Gen Z
The Center’s survey found that loneliness, anxiety and depression have grown to new and unprecedented levels since the pandemic began — especially among Gen Z (ages 18-25).
We had found serious concerns about the emotional health of Gen Zs before the pandemic,” said Cole. “However, those problems accelerating as COVID persisted.”
Overall, 48% of respondents assessed their mental health as good or excellent. However, less than half as many Gen Z (22%) said their mental health was good or excellent. In contrast, 64% of respondents age 65 and older consider their mental health to be good or excellent.
Equally troubling is the differences between Gen Z and other ages groups in their views about their physical health.
Only 36% of Gen Zs rate their physical health as good or excellent – a stark difference from the 46% of those 65 or older who report their physical health as good or excellent.
“The numbers are staggering,” said Cole. “At a time when people should be the most physically fit, Gen Zs assess their physical health as worse than those 65 and older. Clearly, among Gen Zs, anxiety, loneliness, and depression are having significant impact on how they perceive their physical health.”
Attitudes among Gen Z are also disturbingly negative: only 25% rate themselves as hopeful – this compared to 54% of those age 65 or older. Looking at both age groups, Gen Z are three times more anxious (62% vs. 20%), three times as depressed (40% vs. 13%), and far more lonely (40% vs. 15%).
Women’s mental health suffered more during the pandemic
The Center’s previous studies found that women experienced higher levels of stress and life disruption during the pandemic, and findings from the COVID Reset Project confirm the negative effects. Forty-two percent of women rate their mental health as good or excellent compared to 54% of men; 32% of women rate their mental health as fair or poor compared to 23% of men.
“Women faced unique problems during the pandemic,” Cole said. “Many women had to sacrifice their jobs and careers to be at home while their children were schooled. Those who held onto their jobs found great difficulty in working from home with all their other responsibilities, especially childcare and supervising education. “
Progress coming in mental health and physical appearance?
In spite of high levels of concern about their well-being, Americans are hoping to make progress on their mental health – In the second quarter, 37% said they planned to put in serious effort to improve their overall mental wellbeing, up from 31% in the first quarter.
Physical appearance — In Q2, more people plan to spend more time on their physical appearance (things easily changed such as hair length or color and beard) — 34%, compared with 29% in Q1. Similarly, more people said they would increase their spending on their physical appearance in Q2 compared to Q1 (25% vs. 21%).
Relationships: improvement at home, but less among friends and work colleagues
The pandemic had benefits for relationships at home but consequences for friendships and work colleagues.
While relationships with children and partners improved (26% said their relationship with their children is somewhat or much better and 24% said their relationship with their partner is somewhat or much better), relationships outside the house suffered: only 17% said their relationship with friends is somewhat or much better, and 11% said their relationship with co-workers is somewhat or much better.
With restrictions on person-to-person visits to doctors for routine care during the pandemic, the use of telehealth (appointment with doctors or clinicians through a video call) skyrocketed.
Before the pandemic, only 10% of Americans had used tele-health; by the second quarter of the year, 75% had used tele-health or were interested in using it. More than half (55%) enjoyed many aspects of tele-health – in particular the lack of commute, no waiting rooms and not being exposed to other potentially sick people.
“Telehealth was almost non-existent before the pandemic,” said Matt Zhou, research director for the COVID Reset Project. “In only months, telehealth became an established aspect of medical care.”
Some Americans support non-medical companies offering medical coverage – but not Facebook
The Center explored Americans’ views about receiving medical care offered (with licensed practitioners) by non-medical companies. The survey found more than 20 percent would be interested in medical coverage offered by Amazon (27%), Walmart (26%), and Google (21%).
Notably, only 6% said they would be interest in medical care offered through Facebook.
“Almost no one wants to see Facebook enter the health care field,” said Cole. “We welcome disruption in medical coverage, but only from those non-medical companies we trust.”
Medical privacy: Americans trade privacy for lower cost
The survey found that a large percentage of Americans (41%) would surrender almost all of their medical privacy – including willingness to ensure 24-7 monitoring by insurance companies – in exchange for reduced costs for health care coverage.
Men are more willing than women to lose medical privacy (44% of men vs. 37% of women) for the exchange.
Streaming is growing; cable is stagnant or receding
In the past year 54% have added one or more streaming channels with majority adding two or more. Only 5% have added a cable or satellite service.
Cable costs — Cable is expensive for the money. The majority of those who cancelled their cable/satellite subscription did so because it was expensive and did not deliver good value (77%). One-third did not watch enough channels and 28% felt streaming offered better choices.
Of those who kept their cable service, 53% said they are satisfied.
Of those who cancelled streaming subscription, the largest percentage said they did not watch it enough (41%). Almost as many (39%) said the service was not worth the cost, while 26% cancelled because of a price increase, or said they had too many subscriptions.
Notably, only 13% said they did not like their streaming services or tired of them.
Entertainment at home – During the pandemic, 64% watched streaming and 52% listened to music by streaming. Fifty-one percent read books, 41% played board games, and 33% listened to a podcast.
Of all entertainment activities, people are the biggest fans of television and streaming (69%) followed by video games (47%) sports (39%), concerts (38%) – this compared to a lower percentage for movies in the theater (35%).
Planning for entertainment — When asked what they will do more of one year from now, 26% of respondents said they will still be watching entertainment via streaming more often, while 31% said they will be going to movies in a theater more often.
Reasons for entertainment outside the home — Large percentages said they want to return more often to events outside the home, including cultural events (50%), concerts (45%), live sports (35%), and movies (31%).
Sports — While sports fans want to attend to get out of the house and for social reasons, 55% miss the excitement of being there, 45% want to show support for their team, 41% do it for the general ambiance of the event (food, music).
Top venues for entertainment — When asked which they attend to get out of the house, at the top of the list is theme parks and zoos (62%) followed by movies in the theater (61%). Music concerts are at 49% and sports at 47%.
Problems with movie theaters — Asked why people will be going to the movies less often, 41% are concerned about being around others, 31% said movie-going is too expensive, 29% said they have lost interest, and 27% said they found better ways to have the experience at home.
Men are more likely than women to say they have lost interest in attending movies (28% for men compared to 23% for women).
Choice of movie viewing — When asked how they would like to see a new movie when it is released, 20% said the theater, 70% through streaming and 10% some other way (DVD).
Streaming surpasses theaters – the seven principal reasons for watching just-released movies on a streaming service include: comfort of home (68%), safety (64%), ability to watch any time (63%), less expensive (56%), not having to be around other people (55%), ability to pause and restart (50%), and access to own food (50%).
People feel less strongly about the reasons for preferring to see a movie in a theater. The top major reasons are: better screen and/or sound quality (42%), better immersive experience (38%), excitement of the experience (33%), and watching at home is not the same experience (32%).
Only 24% believe a movie is meant to be seen primarily in the theater.
Movies at a theater – Although respondents cite many reasons to watch movies at home, more than two-thirds said they would prefer to watch a just-released movie at a theater because the experience of watching at home does not compare to being there in person.
Diversity in content – viewers want diversity in films, but not regulated by government or industry. Forty-five percent overall said they want film content that reflects diversity, including: 41% of whites, 64% of blacks, 62% of very liberal, and 38% of very conservative. Only 23% feel the government should require diversity while 33% believe the industry should require diversity (highest is blacks at 38%).
News sources — broadcast, cable and local TV stations are ranked as the most important sources of news. Very liberal and very conservative rely on the same types of news sources, but different channels. Looking at primary sources of news, local stations lead (15%), with search engines at 13%, and broadcast and cable at 12%. Printed newspapers barely register as news sources, with daily printed national newspapers at 9% and daily printed local newspapers at 11%.
CNN leads as news source – the top-ranking is CNN as the primary source of news within cable (35%), but the combination of conservative news sources Fox (30%), OAN (2%), and Newsmax (3%) equals CNN.
Anderson Cooper is top anchor — 46% rely on Cooper, followed by Rachel Maddow (28%), Don Lemon (22%), Tucker Carlson (21%), and Sean Hannity (20%).
Americans report extreme political divisions about media – 65% of the very conservative agree that “mainstream media are the enemy of the people” – this compared to 15% of very liberal and 32% overall.
However, more than a majority (53%) believe mainstream media have an even more important role to play in today’s political environment (74% of very liberal and 41% of very conservative).
3. Homes, Buildings and Communities
We don’t know our neighbors very well and we want to keep it that way — Only 22% know their neighbors very or extremely well, while 43% know them not very well or not at all.
Forty-one percent have neighbors’ phone numbers or e-mail addresses, 22% accept deliveries for their neighbors, and only 7% have their neighbors’ keys.
Twenty-four percent want to know their neighbors very or extremely well while 31% don’t want to know them very well or not at all. Forty-five percent want to know them somewhat well.
Neighborhood needs — People want their neighborhoods to be safe, quiet, walkable, and close to medical care.
One-third said that living in a diverse neighborhood is a priority (32%). Diversity is most important for those between 25-34 (42%), and to African Americans (48%), Asians (47%), and Hispanics (44%) more than whites (29%).
Ten percent said they are interested in moving in the next six months to live in a more diverse neighborhood.
Online appearance and cameras raise new issues for students – 33% dislike being on camera during online classes and 30% feel awkward with the camera. Thirty percent of students said they are required to turn the camera on, but 14% students said they turn off the camera if they have the choice.
About one-third of students (34%) put the same effort into their appearance remotely as they do in person. Of those who put in different amounts of effort, by 5-1 they put in less effort than in person. Eight percent put in more effort remotely than in person.
Remote learning has caused problems – Only 17% said they enjoy online classes more than in person. Thirty-nine percent said they have to work harder online, 39% said they learn less online, and 40% feel isolated form their learning community. Only 9% said it is easy to build a relationship with a teacher online.
Most parents prefer in-person classes, but notable percentages prefer online — By 2 to 1 (54% to 27%), parents prefer their children learn in person. Nineteen percent have no preference, meaning almost half (46%) prefer remote learning or have no preference.
Women prefer online for their children (30% of women compared to 22% of men).
Safety is the most important reason for remote learning — Of those who prefer their children to learn remotely, two-thirds (66%) cite safety as their reason. Thirty-two percent are concerned about in-person social issues such as bullying, 16% like that remote learning allows child to assume family responsibilities, and 16% said their child didn’t “fit in” at their school.
About the same percentage of women and men said in the second quarter that they support remote learning for safety reasons (65% women vs. 66% men), a large decline from a much broader gap in the first quarter (72% women vs. 51% men).
Are schools responsive to remote learning? – a large majority of students and parents said their school has been at least somewhat responsive to students’ needs. Eleven percent said their school is not very or not at all responsive.
Parents who identify as liberal are much more likely than conservatives to view their school as responsive (72% vs. 42%).
Most parents look forward to in-class instruction – Even while considering negative issues about in-class instruction, almost all parents (89%) said they were looking forward to their children returning to schools.
Satisfaction with online education – In the second quarter, 59% of parents and students are satisfied with their online educational experience, a slight increase from 55% in the first quarter.
5. How we shop and how we pay
More than one-quarter of Americans shopped in new ways for the first time because of COVID — Of those who had never made an online purchase, 37% made an online purchase for the first time during the pandemic.
New methods of online buying — 32% of respondents used curbside pickup, and 28% ordered groceries online for the first time in the past year.
Buyers returned to physical stores primarily to see people and products – and not necessarily to buy – Shoppers go to physical stores less to buy or look for deals than to see and touch products (67%), and it gives them something to do (39%). Speaking to a salesperson is important only to 21%, but immediate gratification does appeal to almost half of in-person shoppers (45%).
Shopping to have something to do is especially important to 18-34 (51%), much less so for 65+ (28%).
Cash is no longer king — Before the pandemic, Americans did not want to stop using cash, but COVID changed that.
In the early days of the pandemic, many shoppers (40%) did not want to touch cash because it might carry the virus. Now, the preferred payment is credit and debit cards (58%), apps and contactless payments (22%), cash (20%), and checks (4%).
Fewer carry cash – outside the home, 10% carry no cash and 47% carry less than $40. Twenty-nine percent carry more than $100.
Cash at home — 30% have less than $20 and 52% have less than $60 but 47% have more than $100 with 21% having more than $300.
Loyalty programs for travel will be severely tested and go through changes.
Importance of loyalty programs — Forty-four percent of respondents are members of at least one loyalty program, with 27% in an airline program and 31% in hotel. 78% of travelers said loyalty programs are important when making travel plans.
Free and discounted travel – more than half of loyalty members (56%) said free and discounted travel is the most important benefit of their program. Twenty-six percent of members have traveled just to earn loyalty points. General perks are important to 30%.
Maintaining loyalty status — 48% said that after COVID they will travel with the same companies to maintain loyalty status, while 52% said they will travel with whoever offers the best price regardless of loyalty.
Twelve percent traveled during COVID just to maintain their loyalty status.
“We are moving toward a society with two classes of workers: those who can work at home (with higher salaries) and those who cannot,” Cole said.
The Center’s survey found significant changes in views about behavior and work – not only opinions about working from home, but also in attitudes about job satisfaction and career goals
Who can work at home — Two-thirds of workers can do at least some of their job remotely, while 33% can do all or most. Thirty-four percent can do none of their work remotely.
Interest grows in remote work – in the second quarter, 23% said they were very eager or extremely eager to work from a location other than a traditional office, up from 19% in the first quarter.
Job satisfaction — 50% of employees are satisfied with all aspects of their job. More than 70% are satisfied with work location, their current company, and their current position.
A large percentage (58%) are least satisfied with their wages/benefits.
Career planning and job searches — Forty-six percent said they will not or are not sure if they will work in the same industry in 5 years.
In the second quarter, 39% were actively looking or planning to look for a new job in the near future, up from 32% in the first quarter.
Commuting — Most of workers do not have oppressive commutes; 75% said their commute is not very stressful or not at all stressful.
The Center for the Digital Future: revealing disruption for two decades
For more than 20 years, the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg (digitalcenter.org) has explored the impact of digital technologies on the behavior and views of users and non-users. The center also studies disruption in the lives of Americans and the corporate world.