What TikTok told us about the economy in 2022

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The unemployment rate has hovered at 3.7 percent for months. But it’s TikTok’s famous “silent quits” and live-tweeted resignations that really explained what was happening in the US job market in 2022, a time of renewed worker power and remarkable upheaval.

While government data can tell us the world is changing rapidly three years after the pandemic, Internet trends — the ones that took off and the apps we’ve come to rely on — illustrate how people are responding to an evolving new normal.

Negroni sbagliatos catapulted to fame and onto cocktail menus, highlighting the fact that people were ready to splurge again on chic happy hours. Instagram feeds filled with photos of beaches and mountains as the “revenge trip” took off. We collectively learned what a “vibration shift” means once we realized the economy was going through one.

Below is a rundown of some of the year’s most colorful memes and moments — and what they represent. 2023.

Between high inflation and years of workplace flux — including pandemic layoffs, work-from-home burnout and, most recently, a slow return to the office — the economic status quo looked like an increasingly bad deal for many Americans in 2022. BeyoncĂ© printed discontent on her favorite music app, releasing an instant hit entitled “Break My Soul”. Its lyrics included “And I just quit my job, I’m going to find a new path”, inspiring the internet to ask if Queen B was encouraging everyone to join the Great Resignation.

In fact, people were so confused by the work this year that they needed new words to describe it. The TikTok rant gave us a “quiet layoff,” a trend in which workers do the bare minimum. Then came “career dampening,” quietly lining up a backup plan while at your current job. At the same time, employers reported “worker hoarding,” where they avoided laying people off after being burned through long months where job openings far outnumbered applicants. Employment data made it clear that the labor market was unbalanced, but it was the social discussion that showed how much.

The Federal Reserve reversed two years of low rates this year, raising borrowing costs at the fastest pace in decades in a bid to rein in rising inflation. Actual prices were slow to react, but Reddit was not. Jerome H. Powell, the chairman of the Fed, has previously appeared in memes that displayed the slogan “money printer go brrrr” and showed him producing cheap and easy money. In 2022, memes got an update – for Shrek. Today’s memes compare Powell to the 2001 film character Lord Farquaad, who declared, “Some of you may die, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”

The irritability on the Reddit discussion boards arose when the Fed’s actions cost many investors money. Prominent cryptocurrencies have plummeted and asset prices across the board have plummeted, with equities down around 20% since the start of the year. Financial markets will likely remain tense in 2023: inflation is slowing but still high, and the Fed is about to raise rates at least a little more to bring it under control. Memes, in short, are likely to remain dark.

TikTok has spent part of this year going crazy for sticks of butter: slabs of paste covered in flowers, refined salt, honey or other scents. Was this a belated reaction to the low-fat and no-fat fads of previous decades? Evidence that influencers can make us do anything? One thing we can say for sure: it was expensive.

That’s because food prices – and especially dairy – have risen sharply this year. Butter and margarine costs were 34% higher in November than 12 months earlier. Food in general rose 10.6 percent.

But, as the enduring popularity of the butter board underscores, people buy food even when it’s getting more expensive. Indeed, while retailers have reported that some low-income consumers have begun to back off discretionary purchases and prioritize needs, spending overall has been quite resilient, despite a year and a half of rapid price increases and months of in Fed rates.

So far, inflation also remains strong and extends far beyond the dairy sector. A popular price index is still 7.1 percent above its year-ago level, much faster than the typical annual pace of 2 percent.

Americans continued to buy in 2022, but what they are buying has been quietly changing. Americans were buying goods like sofas and clothing at the beginning of the pandemic, but they are now changing slowly your purchases back to the services.

Social media popularized the over-the-top fashion in 2022, including “Barbiecore” (very pink, named for the doll and the upcoming movie) and “apocalypse avant,” which paid homage to sartorial for the coming final days. But another big trend of the year — buying used clothes, #thrift stores — may have more accurately captured the year’s shift in economic energy. Clothing store sales are slowing, official data shows, and falling completely if you subtract apparel inflation.

As the world has reopened and Americans have returned to spending on experiences, restaurant tables in particular have become a hot commodity. Ticketed tables are down 14% compared to 2019, while tables booked online are up 24%, according to data from table-booking app OpenTable. The numbers confirmed what New Yorkers and other cities could say (and have said, in multiple media dissections): It’s been a battle to get a table in 2022 as waitstaff shortages collided with demand for hot diners.

OpenTable data shows that happy hour is especially up in 2022. People are eating dinner earlier, and after years of wasted drinks at work, this is the comeback tour of the pricey cocktail. It’s all the more reason why Negronis made with Prosecco, popularized by a promotional video for the “House of the Dragon” show on HBO’s TikTok account, is having a moment.

As it turns out, people missed the beach as much as they missed the 5 o’clock martini. Cue the “journey of revenge”.

Tourists made up in droves for travel delayed by the pandemic in 2022, and as they spent on big adventures, air traffic rebounded sharply, approaching 2019 levels. Hotel revenues fully recovered. At the same time, some travel-related industries were floundering with extremely understaffed. Employment in accommodation is just 83% of its February 2020 level. Employment in air transport has generally increased, but industry groups have complained about shortages of workers in key areas such as air traffic control.

As hotels, motels and airlines struggled to operate at full capacity, room rates and rates skyrocketed and major outages became commonplace. Air travel service claims were more than 380% above their 2019 level in September, according to the Department for Transportation. The mismatch highlighted that key parts of the US economy are struggling to reach a new equilibrium after the pandemic-induced turmoil, even as people want to be in #vacation mode.

In some cases, pandemic trends are colliding with demographic trends — and nothing has shown that more clearly than the many wedding photos that have filled Instagram feeds this year. After years of few historic ceremonies leading up to the pandemic, this was probably the biggest year for weddings since 1997, based on data and forecasts compiled by the Wedding Report, a trade publication.

Pop, the combined result of pandemic-delayed nuptials and a large pool of marriageable-age millennials, has translated to crowded venues and vendors. It also raised questions about the economic effects: Will these couples have children by submitting birth data, which has already increased slightly in 2021? Will they buy houses? We could start to find out in 2023.

America’s younger generations are doing more than getting married. They have been starting their own families and buying homes in greater numbers since the start of the pandemic. In the process, they helped fuel a strong demand for homes and popularized interior decor trends – including “grandmillennial,” also affectionately referred to as “granny chic” on Pinterest, where young people repurpose floral wallpapers and old light fixtures to a cozy yet updated look.

But many millennials, who are between the ages of 26 and 41 and in the prime of buying real estate, may be missing out on becoming real estate influencers. As the Fed raised interest rates to stem rapid inflation this year, a wave of would-be homeowners began to discover that the combination of higher mortgage costs and high prices meant they couldn’t afford to buy. New home sales have dropped noticeably. Fed rates are expected to continue rising into 2023, which could be a rocky road for a generation struggling to make the leap into home ownership. And after a year of serious economic changes and major policy adjustments, it’s unclear what comes next: a recession? A benign easing of inflation?

On the bright side, we’ll have social trends to help us interpret the data, and occasionally to help us find your lighter side. To quote the corn kid, a precocious vegetable lover who ascended to TikTok royalty in 2022: “I can’t imagine anything more beautiful.”

The report was contributed by Lora Kelley, Isabella Simonetti, Sapna Maheshwari, Emma Goldberg and Lydia DePillis.


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