Americans Have Rediscovered Self-Reliance

The lockdowns are prompting Americans to relearn skills and revive almost-forgotten habits.


When state and local governments first issued pandemic lockdown orders as part of their efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19—or to stop it in its tracks, depending on the particular finger-wagging official—pundits debated whether supposedly individualistic Americans would knuckle under. As it turns out, many people initially obeyed, but a lot of us quickly got fed up as restrictions killed jobs and smothered social interactions. If anything, pandemic restrictions fed oxygen to the embers of the individualist, anti-authoritarian tradition. Likewise, the lockdowns have fueled old habits of self-reliance, prompting Americans to relearn skills and revive almost-forgotten habits in ways that, for better or worse, may shape the future.

Cooking at home was the first skill to gain new life in a nation that had become increasingly accustomed to take-out, fast food, and sit-down restaurant meals.

"Until recently, learning how to cook, or learning how to cook better, as an adult was considered an aspirational skill akin to learning how to ski—could be nice, might be fun, but would be daunting and could come with potentially expensive start-up costs," the Washington Post noted in March.

With restaurants closed and budgets squeezed during the pandemic, people found their options limited to the products of often-neglected kitchens. They turned to blogs, YouTube videos, and tutorials of all kinds to learn how to prepare their own meals.

In response, restaurant suppliers "started breaking apart industrial-size packages of bread, paper products and other staples to sell directly to consumers," the Los Angeles Times reported—although pandemic concerns and intrusive red tape hampered the transition.

That meant supermarket shelves were a little bare as suppliers struggled to meet demand and develop new distribution networks, so Americans took new interest in their gardens. "We sold more seeds in March than at any other time in our 144-year history," announced George Ball, chairman of The Burpee Company. And yes, those are "mostly vegetable seeds and plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and beans," according to House Beautiful.

Canning supplies and online lessons in food preservation also took off, as people realized they have to use or store anything they grow. (For the record, you can sun-dry tomatoes almost by accident in Arizona.)

While they were at home with time on their hands, people also dusted off old baking recipes and start cranking out bread and cakes in quantities that would have made grandma proud. "Americans have baked all the flour away," Amanda Mull commented at The Atlantic.

They also baked all the yeast away—and learned how to make sourdough starter as a substitute.

Of course, if you're going to have bread, you should also have it in its liquid form. And demand did rise for homebrewing supplies, too. "Northern Brewer, a major supplier of homebrewing and wine-making equipment in America, says business has shot up by 40% to 50%," according to AP.

Demand also soared for face masks—either by choice or because their use is mandated by some governments and businesses. And since finding face masks for purchase can be like questing for the Holy Grail, people polished up their sewing skills, with the impact on supplies that you'd expect.

"Sewing machines are one of the top 20 items in demand during this pandemic," Singer apologetically tells customers wondering about their delayed orders. "We were not prepared for the number of orders that we have received and we know that we are not serving you, our customer, to your expectations."

While they wait for those sewing machines to arrive, Americans are repairing gutters and building shelving units. Confinement at home with time but little money on our hands has "made us all very handy," says The New York Times. "For many homeowners across the country, the coronavirus-imposed quarantine has presented an opportunity to head over to the local hardware store and launch a few D.I.Y. projects around the house."

By preference and by necessity, people are rediscovering that they can do many things for themselves that they'd grown accustomed to outsourcing. They've acquired or honed skills that they may have never before thought they'd need, but are required in a world where conveniences disappeared overnight and creatively making-do is—as for past generations—how you live from day to day.

Whether Americans want to continue doing for themselves after the lockdowns ease and life returns to some form of normal depends on how much they enjoy the experience; many will pick a life of convenience if that's back on the menu. But harsh reality may dictate an extension of the DIY experiment for some time to come.

"The mean perceived probability of losing one's job in the next 12 months increased 2.4 percentage points to 20.9% in April," the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported last week. Voluntary social distancing efforts and mandatory lockdown orders alike have taken a brutal toll on the economy. Tens of millions of Americans are out of work—the official April unemployment rate was 14.7 percent, with worse to come.

Uncertain about the future, Americans are holding on to money rather than spending. The personal savings rate is now 13.1 percent, the highest level since 1981.

Worried about the future and stashing cash as a hedge against risk, many—not all, but certainly a good number—of Americans will continue cooking, baking, brewing, gardening, and repairing. They'll do so if only because it provides them what they want at lower cost than paying others to do it for them. They'll do it, too, because, having acquired the requisite skills, they no longer have to wait on somebody else's availability or permission. They can make or build what they want—within limits, of course, but much broader ones than before—without depending on the pleasure of others.

And when the pandemic and lockdown restrictions finally pass, something important will be left behind. Remaining in the wake of the crisis will be hard-learned skills and the confidence and sense of self-reliance for using them. We might wish these lessons had come more easily, but learn them we did, and they will help shape the world to come.