THE GROWING TIDE OF ANXIETY

The elections are finally over. And there are a lot of unhappy people in America right now. And it doesn’t all have to do with politics.

Let me begin by introducing myself. I’m an anthropologist - I study people and things for a living. Through the work of my company, I have had the unique pleasure of studying over 400,000 American people in the last 15 months. My team has worked with all kinds of organizations, and studied the beliefs, values, and motivations of Americans in numerous contexts — politics, social issues, personal finance, food, beauty and grooming, healthcare etc.. While the purpose for each study was very different, with each passing analysis, our team began to see some shared patterns emerge. I’m here to talk about one such pattern that I think highlights a cultural problem that the President-elect, Donald Trump cannot ignore.

Breakfast has something to do with it.

Our journey began 15 months ago when we were studying the breakfast consumption habits of about 8000 Americans. During the study, we repeatedly saw patterns of behavior that just did not match up with all the other research being reported on the topic. First, we saw an emerging trend shared by over a quarter of the American population. They were making a conscious decision to choose heartier (higher caloric count) breakfast options like a sandwich at a Quick Service Restaurant, over a healthier, lighter home-made option. This went counter to the increased health consciousness that the same population group was reporting in many other studies.

Second, we saw a lot of anxiety reported by the consumer, around 10 in the morning, especially on weekdays. Upon further examination, we found that those who reported feeling anxious shared one common trait - they were all hungry. They had either not had any breakfast at all, or had consumed a light breakfast and were starting to feel hungry, and consequently, unprepared.

As the study went on, these patterns became more and more clear. We soon realized that for a growing number of people (~25% of population) in the United States, the first meal was solving an inherently emotional problem - it was making them feel a little bit less anxious about their day ahead. And a little bit more prepared to take on challenges. What was more interesting was that this emotional “energy anxiety” wasn’t just being solved for with food. It was also being solved for with Caffeine - which was a go-to solution for another 18% of the population. Together, approximately 43% of the American population was suffering from energy anxiety.

Retail Therapy To The Rescue.

A few months later, while conducting another anthropological study to help some struggling mid-tier retailers, we found some very familiar stories emerge. We saw examples of consumers who were choosing to “game” the system when it came to their retail purchases. That is, they were choosing to cut costs on everyday clothing retail purchases in order to save money for occasional, luxury goods. And in the process, they were abandoning the mid-tier retailer. They made up 22% of the population. They were “gaming” the system in order to feel a sense of progress. They were tired of their stagnant incomes and lifestyles. And retail purchases allowed them to feel a sense of movement, and alleviate once again, an inherent sense of anxiety they felt around how their lives were turning out.

Anxiety is holding young people back from saving money.

More recently, our team examined the beliefs of Millennials towards money and personal finance, in collaboration with the fantastic team at State Street. And yet again, the thread of anxiety persisted. We found a third of the Millennial population, especially those with university degrees, in white-collar professions, struggling to put money aside for the future. And it had nothing to do how responsible they were with money.

Instead it had to do with an inherent sense of anxiety they felt about the opportunities ahead of them. They were anxious about whether they’d ever be seen as being successful, because a lot of traditional markers of success felt out of reach - owning a home, a luxury automobile, putting their kids in private school etc.. So they were doing everything in their power to redefine what it meant to be successful. And one of those ways was to over-spend on day to day experiences such as food, art, music, travel, and accumulate the kind of knowledge that puts the typical successful American to shame.

Conclusion

Anxiety is now a cultural phenomenon. Just like the punk rock movement, we now have the energy anxiety movement on our hands. And the President Trump needs to be concerned. Because the next four years aren’t just about the issues. They’re also about taking measures to address a culture that is already impacting consumer markets. It’s affecting what people buy, where they buy them from, how much they save, and how excited they feel about their future. These are all inherently critical issues affecting the future of the world’s economic leader.

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