As job losses mount and bailout costs run into the trillions, the social costs of the economic downturn become clearer. But there is also a broader set of questions about how this downturn is changing our lives, in ways beyond strict economics.
All recessions have cultural and social effects, but in major downturns the changes can be profound. First, consider entertainment. Many studies have shown that when a job is harder to find or less lucrative, people spend more time on self-improvement and relatively inexpensive amusements. During the Depression of the 1930s, that meant listening to the radio and playing parlour and board games, sometimes in lieu of a glamourous night on the town. These stay-at-home tendencies persisted through at least the 1950s.
In today’s recession, we can also expect to turn to less expensive activities — and maybe to keep those habits for years. They may take the form of greater interest in free content on the Internet and the simple pleasures of a daily walk, instead of expensive vacations. In any recession, the poor suffer the most pain. But in cultural influence, it may well be the rich who lose the most in the current crisis. Recessions and depressions, of course, are not good for mental health. But it is less widely known that in affluent countries, physical health seems to improve, on average, during a downturn. Sure, it’s stressful to miss a paycheck, but eliminating the stresses of a job may have some beneficial effects. Perhaps more important, people may take fewer car trips, thus lowering the risk of accidents, and spend less on alcohol and tobacco. They also have more time for exercise and sleep, and tend to choose home cooking over fast food.