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The real reason Americans don’t feel good about the economy

We can point to one economic statistic after another that shows things really are good today. So why do people feel so bad?

We keep hearing people say they don’t “feel good about the economy,” and they don’t seem too hopeful for the future. Recent polling from NBC News found only 24% of registered voters believe the economy will get better over the next year. Yet we can point to one economic statistic after another that shows things really are good today, even after last week’s disappointing inflation report. Unemployment has been at or below 4% for more than two years, something we haven’t seen in decades. And despite near universal fears last year of a pending recession, the U.S. economy actually grew 3.1%. Compared to the rest of the world, America is doing great. 

But if you’re like a lot of people, those numbers don’t matter. And we see that message repeated in story after story after story

So maybe the question itself needs reframing: Is it the “economy” Americans are talking about, or is that code for life itself? In other words, how do people feel about life right now? Because there’s a lot out there to leave many of us feeling “meh.”  

Unemployment has been at or below 4% for more than two years, something we haven’t seen in decades.

Here’s an example: Connecting with friends and family. How, where, and when we connect with one another today is very different compared to past generations. After the pandemic, it’s only become worse. It’s been widely documented we are in a crisis of loneliness. The Surgeon General called it a public health crisis that can lead to an increase in premature deaths. Great Britain has designated a minister for loneliness

One county in California, home to Silicon Valley, has declared a public health emergency, which is pretty spot-on considering tech is a major reason why people feel so disconnected. Social media makes it extremely easy to stay in touch with people, but it also can make us feel like we aren’t keeping up with the Joneses.

“We are constantly evaluating ourselves relative to our peers,” said Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at the University of Santa Clara. “This has always been going on, since the dawn of time, but social media makes it on steroids because we are constantly being presented with the filtered, wonderful lives of everyone around us.”

Then there’s the impact of remote working. Working from home has done so much to create job opportunities for people around the globe, but it’s also led to hollowed out city centers and empty office buildings where there are not a lot of people or chances to connect. 

Add to that, fewer Americans are attending church in person or participating in their local community. Today, over a quarter of Americans live alone, compared to just 8% in 1940. And it’s not just adults who are spending less time with other people; student absenteeism has soared across the country since the pandemic.

“We are now more alone in our little world, so we don’t have the community that we used to have,” said Plante. 

This all means voters are experiencing greater isolation and loneliness as we head into the 2024 presidential election. With a likely re-match between a 77-year-old former president and the 81-year-old current president, it’s not surprising that polling shows neither candidate inspiring a feeling of newness or optimism in the way that Barak Obama, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan did. 

When you consider all of that and then add to it higher prices on the everyday things that give us joy — say, going to a concert or a sporting event — or when a Happy Meal doesn’t make you happy, then it makes sense that people’s outlook will be impacted.   

To top it all off, we’re dealing with our divided and grievance driven media, the feeling others are getting ahead, worries about Gaza and Ukraine, global warming, if AI will take your job… so when a pollster calls and asks how you’re feeling about the economy, despite the facts and the data, is it really a surprise people don’t feel good?

This is an adapted excerpt from the February 14 episode of “11th Hour.”