What Social Trends Taught Us About the 2023 Economy

This year, the world learned that some men just can’t stop thinking about the Roman Empire. Over here at The New York Times, we can’t stop thinking about what social trends like that one tell us about the American economy.

We had no shortage of viral memes and moments to discuss in 2023. Americans flocked to Paris (and overseas in general). Millennial women stocked up on the Stanley thermoses their dads used to use, one of a range of female-powered consumer fads. Thanks partly to Barbie, Birkenstocks also came back harder than a ’90s trend. People spoke in Taylor Swift lyrics.

Social developments like those can tell us a lot about the economy we’re living in. To wrap up 2023, we ran through some of the big cultural events and what they taught us about the labor market, economic growth and the outlook for 2024.

‘He’s Just Ken’ Had Labor Market Tiebacks

“Barbie,” the movie that launched a thousand think pieces, hit theaters this summer with a telling promotional catchphrase: “She’s everything. He’s just Ken.”

This, clearly, was a movie about the labor market.

The film pictured Barbie trying to grapple with the harshness of a real world that was not dominated by women, and Ken trying to find his footing after realizing that he lacked a clear place in Barbie’s fictional world.

That was more than just social commentary. As in Barbieland, America has seen a real divergence in outcomes for young and middle-aged men and women in recent years — specifically in the labor market. Younger women were working at historically high rates before the pandemic, and they bounced right back after the 2020 downturn.

Men were a different story. Younger men’s employment bounced back, but they are still working at much lower rates than a few decades ago. Men in the 35- to 44-year-old group in particular have been working less and less over the years, and have recently failed to recapture their 2019 employment peak.

In 2023 specifically, women gained 1.4 jobs for every one that men did (through November).

What is behind the long-run decline in male work? Economists and sociologists point to a number of causes: A shift away from marriage and the decline in childbearing have eroded one traditional social rationale for work. Men may be having something of an on-the-job identity crisis in a modern economy where many new jobs tilt toward “pink collar” service industries like child care and nursing.

“Ken is trying to find his place in the world,” said Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan, explaining that it ties back to a world of different opportunities that have left some men searching for a new footing. “We moved from an economic model where the median job is making stuff to an economy where the median job is taking care of somebody.”

Men are also less educated than today’s young women, which may leave some with less marketable résumés. (In the movie, Ken tries to get a job on the shoreline but is told he lacks the skills. He laments: “I can’t even beach here!”)

Taylor Swift and Beyoncé Showed America’s Willingness to Spend

It wasn’t just the labor market that women dominated this year: It was a year of female-centric consumerism. Take, for instance, the two musical events of the summer. Both Beyoncé and Taylor Swift had huge concert tours that spurred lots of economic activity. They also released films of their shows, bringing the fun (and the money) to the box office.

The concert spree itself was an example of a broader economic trend. Consumers continued to spend strongly in 2023, especially on services like live music and international travel. That was something of a surprise because forecasters had thought that much-higher interest rates from the Federal Reserve were likely to tip the economy into recession this year.

‘Girl Dinners’ Ranked Among Cheapish Food Trends

Another place where ladies led the way in 2023? Culinary innovation. Young women posted viral TikToks about what might have, depending on one’s demographic patois, been termed a charcuterie board (millennial), a Ploughman’s (Brit) or a lunchable (Oscar Mayer). But to Generation Z, it was Girl Dinner.

This, much like the Roman Empire and men meme, was an instance of a gender’s being applied to a pretty broad and basic concept. Girl dinners came in many shapes and sizes, but they were essentially just meals constructed from relatively affordable ingredients: Think leftover cheese chunks, boxed macaroni or chicken nuggets.

What they did clearly echo was a broader economywide trend toward greater food thriftiness. Big retailers including Walmart and McDonald’s reported seeing a new group of shoppers as even comfortably middle-class consumers tried to save money on groceries after years of rapid food inflation. Overall price increases slowed markedly in 2023, but several years of rapid inflation have added up, leaving many prices notably higher for many basic necessities.

Ozempic Worried Big Food

Consumer grocery trends saw another big and unexpected change this year. Some big food companies are worried that people are on the cusp of buying less food because of products like Ozempic and Wegovy, which rose to prominence this year as part of a new and effective set of weight-loss drugs. While that was a hopeful moment for many who have struggled with obesity and its health effects, it was one that caused consternation and adaptation at some retailers and fast-food chains. Walmart has said it already sees an impact on demand.

ChatGPT Raised Eyebrows in Economics

Health care wasn’t the only sphere to see a big breakthrough in 2023. OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot rocketed to prominence this year for generating humanlike writing, and its competitors put up their own offerings (including one that fell in love with a Times columnist).

Such technologies could have major economic implications, reshaping how we work, replacing some jobs and potentially boosting productivity. For now, office workers have used it to write emails. Students have used it to write papers. Your friendly economics correspondent tried to use it to write this story section, but artificial intelligence and Times editors have a different understanding of the term “brief.”

The freely available version of ChatGPT is working from 2022 data, so it also declined to comment on another key development from this year.

“If ‘rizz’ refers to something specific, please provide more context or clarify,” the chatbot responded when asked if it possessed Oxford’s word of the year, a Gen Z shorthand for “charisma.”

With a little more prodding, it admitted, “I don’t have personal qualities.”

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