During the pandemic, a lot of Americans had to stay home — and many discovered that they preferred staying in to going out.
A hip and sophisticated friend, a longtime New Yorker, complained to me recently about a potential date. “He wanted to meet at 6 o’clock for dinner,” she said. “Can you imagine? I don’t leave the house until 7:30 at the earliest!” I nodded sympathetically, but as someone who has been known to have an early dinner myself, I couldn’t help but wonder: “What does she think this is, 2018?”
While many things are getting back to normal, the pandemic profoundly changed American life — sometimes just by speeding up prevailing trends. The technology already existed to allow many Americans to work from home, for example, but the pandemic normalized it. Americans also shop online far more than they did before Covid.
One other way the pandemic altered America: It has created what might be called the Introvert Economy. The time at home made Americans less fun. 2023 was a year for daytime office holiday parties, after all, and in general Americans are going out less. And odds are it will stick: It is the youngest adults who are going out less, and when they do go out, it is earlier.
Take New York City, known for fashionable restaurants and cosmopolitan diners who don’t dare arrive at their table before 8 o’clock. Since the pandemic, however, 5:30 p.m. is a more popular time for a reservation than 8. And it’s not just New York: Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, post-pandemic, younger Americans (under the age of 50) are starting their public evening and drinking activities earlier.
Younger people had already been going out earlier, but the data show they are also less likely to drink. Gen Z is shaping up to the most sober generation in US history. Singles are also less likely to approach each other in public, preferring the anonymity and clear social boundaries of online meeting. This means less need to be out.
Older generations are still drinking, probably too much. This may explain why spending on alcohol continues to rise, though a smaller share of it is in bars and restaurants.
Technology has also speeded changes in social habits. There is evidence that TV schedules once had a big impact on people’s schedules. Now that more content is streamed on demand, people may be thinking about their time differently. More choices of at-home-entertainment also may decrease the desire to go out or stay out. This is another trend accelerated by the pandemic — perhaps because when more people work from home, they save time on commuting and can go out to dinner earlier. Or maybe they’re just more anxious to get out of the house.
There was a bit of a bump in socializing in 2022, probably in response to years of pandemic isolation. Yet the long-term trend is clear: more time watching TV or playing video games.
What does this all mean for the US economy? As usual, there will be winners and losers. The market for going-out tops and tight V-neck sweaters may well crash, for example — but the outlook is good for athleisure wear. Many bars and restaurants, which depend on alcohol and late nights to remain profitable, might have to find more creative ways to earn a profit and invest more in delivery. The result could be more chain restaurants, which can better leverage economies of scale.
More seriously, and more long-term, if the younger generation continues to drink less, they will be physically healthier. But if they continue to socialize less, they may end up less connected. The result could be a decline in mental health and social cohesion. That could be the best argument against today’s introvert economy: If you don’t have fun now, you’ll pay for it later.
© 2024 Bloomberg L.P.