Story at a glance

  • The values of Americans in 2021 has shifted from 2017, according to a report from the Pew Research Center.
  • U.S. adults are now more likely to value principles like freedom and independence than material things.
  • Far fewer adults find meaning in work and travel, likely due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The United States we live in today is a far cry from what it was four years ago, and a new administration and a deadly pandemic that has upended day-to-day life, among other, smaller changes, have altered what Americans find meaningful, according to new research.

Two surveys from the Pew Research Center, one conducted in September 2017 and the other in February 2021, asked respondents to answer, in their own words, what they found meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying about their life.

“What keeps you going and why?” the survey asked. The responses, from nearly 5,000 adults in 2017 and roughly 2,600 adults in 2021, shifted dramatically in some cases.

In 2021, Americans have become much more likely to mention society as a source of meaning in their lives, but it's mostly negative, according to the survey.


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The share of Americans who mentioned society, places and institutions  both local and national  grew to 14 percent in 2021 from 8 percent in 2017. That increase was mostly driven by individuals ages 65 and older, whose mention of society rose to 24 percent this year from 10 percent in 2017.

Like 2017, roughly half of adults who mentioned society brought up something negative, like economic concerns, distrust of government and partisan animosity, according to the report.

“My hope is dimming because I see no light at the end of the tunnel,” one respondent said about growing political extremism in the U.S.

Along party lines, Republicans in 2021 were much more likely to mention freedom as a source of meaning in their life, with 12 percent of Republican respondents mentioning freedom or independence compared to 5 percent in 2017. 

That spike isn’t totally surprising, and Republicans this year have been vocal advocates for “personal freedom” movements in the U.S., protesting against mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates they say are a government overstep.

There was no significant change observed in the responses of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents, according to the report.

Despite the pandemic that has disrupted the financial security of many Americans, fewer Americans now compared to 2017 find meaning in finances, jobs or travel.  

The share of adults who mention their material well-being dropped to 18 percent in 2021 from 29 percent in 2017. That decline was mostly driven by married adults and white Americans, according to the report, which were both among the most likely to value their material well-being in 2017.

Less meaning found in jobs and travel in 2021 compared to 2017 were likely due to the pandemic, which has upended Americans’ working lives and severely limited the ability to travel.

Compared to 2017, fewer Americans in 2021 mentioned spouses or romantic partners as a source of meaning, and only around 9 percent of respondents mentioned their romantic life, down from 20 percent in 2017.

That represents one of the largest declines overall, according to the report.


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Published on Nov 19, 2021