What TikTok Told Us About the Economy in 2022

The unemployment rate has hovered at 3.7 percent for months. But it is the TikTok-famous “quiet quitting” and live-tweeted resignations that really explained what was going on in America’s job market in 2022, a moment of renewed worker power and remarkable upheaval.

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

Negroni sbagliatos catapulted into fame and onto cocktail menus, underlining the fact that people were ready to get back to spending on fancy happy hours. Instagram feeds filled with beach and mountain pictures as “revenge travel” took flight. We collectively learned what “vibe shift” means just as we realized that the economy was experiencing one.

Below is a rundown of a few of the year’s more colorful memes and moments — and what they herald for 2023.

Between high inflation and years of workplace flux — including pandemic firings, work-from-home burnout and most recently a plodding return to office — the economic status quo seemed like an increasingly bad deal to many Americans in 2022. Beyoncé imprinted the discontent on your favorite music app, releasing an instant hit titled “Break My Soul.” Its lyrics included “And I just quit my job, I’m gonna find new drive,” inspiring the internet to ask whether Queen B was encouraging everyone to join the Great Resignation.

In fact, people felt so conflicted about work this year that they needed new words to describe it. The TikTok discourse gave us “quiet quitting,” a trend in which workers do the bare minimum. Then came “career cushioning,” discreetly lining up a backup plan while in your current job. At the same time, employers reported “worker hoarding,” in which they avoided firing people after getting burned by long months in which open jobs far outnumbered applicants. The jobs data made it clear that the labor market was out of balance, but it was social discussion that showed just how much.

The Federal Reserve reversed two years of rock-bottom rates this year, raising borrowing costs at the fastest pace in decades in a bid to control rapid inflation. Actual prices have been slow to react, but Reddit wasn’t. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, formerly featured in memes that sported the tagline “money printer go brrrr” and showed him cranking out cheap and easy cash. In 2022, the memes got an update — to Shrek. Today’s memes compare Mr. Powell to the 2001 movie character Lord Farquaad, who famously declared, “Some of you may die, but that is a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”

The crankiness on the Reddit discussion boards came as the Fed’s actions cost many investors money. Prominent cryptocurrencies tanked, and asset prices in general swooned, with stocks down about 20 percent from the start of the year. Financial markets are likely to remain on edge into 2023: Inflation is slowing but remains high, and the Fed is poised to raise rates at least slightly more to control it. The memes, in short, are likely to remain grim.

TikTok spent part of this year going crazy for butter boards: slabs of the spread covered in flowers, fancy salt, honey or other flavorings. Was this a delayed reaction to the low-fat, no-fat fads of decades past? Evidence that influencers can make us do anything? One thing we can say for sure: It was expensive.

That’s because prices for food — and especially for dairy products — have jumped sharply this year. Butter and margarine costs were 34 percent higher in November than 12 months before. Food overall was up 10.6 percent.

But as the butter board’s enduring popularity underscored, people buy food even when it is getting costlier. In fact, while retailers reported that some lower-income consumers began pulling back on discretionary purchases and giving priority to necessities, spending in general has been fairly resilient despite a year and a half of rapid price increases and months of Fed rate moves.

So far, inflation also remains heady, and it extends well beyond the dairy aisle. A popular price index is still 7.1 percent above its level a year ago, far faster than the typical 2 percent annual pace.

Americans continued to shop in 2022, but what they are buying has been undergoing a quiet change. Americans had been snapping up goods like couches and clothing early in the pandemic, but they are now slowly shifting their purchases back toward services.

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

As the world reopened and Americans returned to spending on experiences, restaurant tables, in particular, became a hot commodity. Walk-in tables were down 14 percent compared with 2019, while tables with online reservations increased by 24 percent, according to data from the table booking app OpenTable. The figures confirmed what denizens of New York and other cities could tell you (and did, in various media dissections): It was a battle to get a table in 2022 as waitstaff shortages collided with hot diner demand.

OpenTable’s data show that happy hour especially surged in 2022. People are dining earlier, and, after years of missed work drinks, this is the overpriced cocktail’s comeback tour. It’s one added reason that Negronis made with Prosecco, popularized by a promotional video for the show “House of the Dragon” on HBO’s TikTok account, are having a moment.

It turns out people missed the beach just as much as they missed that 5 o’clock martini. Cue the “revenge travel.”

Vacationers made up for pandemic-delayed trips en masse in 2022, and as they splurged on big adventures, air traffic rebounded sharply, getting close to its 2019 levels. Hotel revenues fully recovered. At the same time, some travel-related sectors skated by on extremely thin staffing. Employment in accommodation stands at just 83 percent of its February 2020 level. Air transport employment overall is up, but industry groups have complained of worker shortages in key areas like air traffic control.

As hotels, motels and airlines struggled to operate at full capacity, room rates and fares rocketed higher and major disruptions became commonplace. Air travel service complaints were more than 380 percent above their 2019 level as of September, according to the Department of Transportation. The mismatch underscored that key parts of the American economy are struggling to reach a new equilibrium after pandemic-induced tumult, even if people want to be in #vacationmode.

In some instances, pandemic trends are colliding with demographic trends — and nothing showed that more clearly than the many wedding photos that filled up Instagram feeds this year. After years of historically few 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.

The pop, the combined result of pandemic-delayed nuptials and a big group of marriage-age millennials, translated into booked-up venues and vendors. It has also raised questions about the economic ripple effects: Will those couples have children, sending up birth data, which already ticked up 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 forming their own households and buying houses in greater numbers since the start of the pandemic. In the process, they have helped to fuel strong demand for houses and popularized interior decorating trends — including “grandmillennial,” also affectionately called “granny chic” on Pinterest, in which the young-ish repurpose floral wallpaper and old-style lamps for a cozy but updated look.

But many millennials, who are roughly ages 26 to 41 and in their peak home-buying years, may be losing their shot at becoming real estate influencers. As the Fed lifted interest rates to stifle rapid inflation this year, a wave of would-be homeowners began to find that the combination of heftier mortgage costs and high home prices meant they could not afford to buy. New home sales have declined notably. Fed rates are expected to continue climbing in 2023, which could make for a tough road ahead for a generation struggling to make the leap in homeownership. And after a year of serious economic changes and major policy adjustments, it’s uncertain what is coming next: A recession? A benign inflation cool-down?

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

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


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