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.

NEXT: The New York Times Recoils at the Predictable Consequences of the Mandatory COVID-19 Precautions It Supports

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

    All fine and dandy… Now wait till they bust you for being self-reliant enough to scratch your own asshole, WITHOUT a proper prescription from a proper proctologist!!! There’s a lot of delicate tissues down there, you might HURT yourself! The proctologists’ union will see to it that you’re hauled off to the hoose-gow for that!

    If’n ye think I am joking, be aware that “coughing” is “dislodging mucus from yourself, using sound waves”, and if you use a cheap plastic flute to assist you in doing this (w/o a prescription), it is, yes, off to the hoose-gow for that, with your criminal ass! Even if you did NOT scratch your own criminal ass w/o permission!

    In these days and nights of terror, stay ye SAFE from the flute police!

    To find precise details on what NOT to do, to avoid the flute police, please see … This has been a pubic service, courtesy of the Church of SQRLS!

    1. I like a pubic service.

  2. My ex-wife is learning to cook, so there’s that.

    1. just in time.

    2. I’m learning to cook my ex-wife.

      1. It still probably came out bitter.

      2. “I’m learning to cook my ex-wife.”
        Is she a long pig?
        Has she been a pig (or a long pig) for a long time?
        I dunno… I can’t really say that I long for a long pig… You can get mad cow disease from that! Why they call it mad cow disease, instead of long pig disease, I just do NOT know!

        Inquiring minds want to KNOW, dammit! does NOT explain!

  3. “Remaining in the wake of the crisis will be hard-learned skills and the confidence and sense of self-reliance for using them”

    My wife and son gave our poodle mix a haircut last night. From the results, I’d say that new skills were learned and no new confidence appears anywhere in sight.

  4. Americans figured out how to boil hotdogs, make a cup of coffee at home, and knit bandanas for immediate use whenever another human being is within sight.

    A real fucking renaissance.

    1. I see you’ve met my ex-wife.

    2. You eat hot dogs? Ugh.

    3. I guess it depends on where you started. As for me, I pulled out the barber set I’d used for 20 years for my boys and figured out how to do it to myself, quite well I’d say. So from now on, I have another $30 per month and an extra 60 minutes of free time every month. And not surprisingly, a lot of parents were forced to an epiphany that educating their own kids actually is something they could do. Fuck the unions. And many found out it wasn’t as miserable as they they’d been told and imagined.

  5. at the edge of my fucking seat waiting for the Mom of the Lockdown Awards

    1. LOL

    2. Gretchen Whitmer?

  6. Ok, some things I actually found time for….

    Baking bread: I blew through french breads in March/April. Lately, I have been exploring artisan breads.
    Home study: Python, r; now looking at Javascript.
    Using Instant Pot: Holy Moly, what a godsend.
    My lawn: Is now a luscious green, with weeds disappearing.
    Prayer: This, not so good. Services via Zoom just don’t do it for me.
    Rebalancing my 401K: 🙂 Oh, did I get lucky with timing.

    1. I started:

      1. Brewing my own beer again with leftover hops and close to expired malt extract. But, after two months, given the length of the fermentation process, all I have to show for it as about 20 bottles of some half-decent red ale. Much easier to just got to the store.

      2. Reading a ton of books, and losing all faith in humanity in the process.

      3. Weening myself off porn.

      4. Tightening the screw on my IKEA furniture.

      5. Binge watching Ozark, which is a fantastic fucking show.

      Hardly the great American revival, and I consider myself an industrious person.

      1. You did #3 while you were locked in at home? Is it possible you’re just bored with it?

        1. Trying to do real sex again. Locked at home with the wife. Have some empathy.

    2. I tried Instant Pot, but used too much water to reconstitute it, and couldn’t get it to light…

  7. 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, … they no longer have to wait on somebody else’s availability or permission.

    They’ll do it because lockdown bankrupted them.

    1. True, but also because they realized that they’d been taught and assumed that they can’t do it themselves. And learned that was wrong. Yeah, I expect the same percent will give up on this as they give up on NY resolutions. But perhaps some will stick. Some will have found something they love to do, and it’s been long enough now where a few of them have discovered a talent.

  8. “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.”

    1. “If you are sick,” the CDC says, “you should wear a facemask when you are around other people (e.g., sharing a room or vehicle) and before you enter a healthcare provider’s office.” But “if you are NOT sick,” it adds, “you do not need to wear a facemask unless you are caring for someone who is sick (and they are not able to wear a facemask).
    2. A randomized trial of face masks involving about 7,700 hajj participants in Mecca had less promising results. At the end of the study, which was reported in The Lancet last year, the subjects who received masks—most of whom used them intermittently or not at all—were just as likely to have viral respiratory infections as those who did not. Last year was 2019; most people in C19 panicked 2020 wear their mask intermittently, or just plain wrong like over their mouth only, or hanging around their neck.

  9. Self-reliance is a prerequisite to liberty and an inducement to broader libertarian thoughts. It was, also, once a fundamental American trait. It’s loss and the dependency that bred invited the losses of liberty that we continue to suffer.

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” ~ Robert A. Heinlein

    1. I think my neighbors would be horrified if I butchered a hog in my backyard.

      1. They probably would, but why are you doing it outdoors when you have a garage for the rough work and quartering? Once it’s quartered, then it’s just a seemingly endless time in the kitchen, with a giant roll of butcher paper or plastic wrap.

        Mystified me, when I moved to Texas, how everyone kept talking about dropping deer and hogs off at “the processor.” I thought I was the processor? Does keep the weekend free though.

      2. Not if you did it right. One good squeal and it’s a done deal. Then it’s just a matter of you not making a big deal of it and properly disposing of the carcass scraps where they won’t stank up the hood.

        I’ve done all of the above with the exception of die gallantly, though I was rather close to that a couple times. The more you can do, the more freedom you can claim and the more of your resources you will retain.

  10. How many of these starting gardening for the first time or raising meat or egg chickens for the first time will stick with it once they realize the time involved and labor involved? You plant corn, it will take 120 days or more to reach maturity. You buy pullet chicks, they don’t start laying until 4-5 months of age. And all the time you need to be weeding the garden (maybe more people will understand the importance and safety of modern herbicides), fight insects (ditto for insecticides) and varmints (especially lagomorphs and rodents). With chickens you have to deal with predators such as cats, dogs, coyotes, foxes, weasels, skunks, raccoons, etc. Yeah it all sounds good, until you can’t go to the beach for a weekend because no one can take care of your chickens (yes, there are work arounds).

    1. ‘Farmers don’t take vacations.’

      Ugh. Agriculture, even the tonier stuff like viticulture, is not a whole lot of fun. (Yay! 3:30 AM dairy milkings!)

      Can be rewarding though, and feels a lot more productive than pushing virtual paper around a screen.

  11. “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,”

    Proof, if any were needed, that our chattering class lives in a bubble far outside the experience of most Americans.

    No asshole, learning to cook for most people is not optional like learning to ski is. It’s not a fun and rewarding hobby. (Though it certainly can be.) We cook because most people, not working in an office job in a major city, can’t afford to eat out for every lunch and dinner the way it sounds like these people do. Christ, and I live in the city with the highest number of restaurants per capita in the US.

    These are the same kinds of people who wonder why people have to drive everywhere they need to go.

    1. I had the same thought. My experience growing up was that restaurants were for special occasions, and cooking dinner was just what we did to eat on the vast number of nights that were not special occasions. I don’t understand how people can afford to eat out all of the time, and you don’t have to be a foodie with a collection of fancy pots and pans to make a decently tasty meal.

      1. It is a running joke in our house that the end of payday is like being on Chopped. Let’s see what is in the mystery basket today. We’ve made some pretty decent meals that way.

        1. We used to watch “chopped”. What used to irritate me to no end was the judges who “didn’t like the cooking” because it wasn’t spiced JUST RIGHT for THEM!!!

          Listen, you bastards and high-and-mighty judges, here’s a tray filled with 15 different spice bottles full of different spices! Now get off of your lazy asses, and SPICE IT YOURSELF to suit! Holy Jesus and Mary!!!! (I think that cooks at private parties know that, actually).

          To “win” you must read the minds and taste buds of the judges! There’s a political lesson in there somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I can tell you exactly WHAT it is!

    2. Except 2Chili doesn’t have a cozy office job in a major city.

      He’s in rural Arizona, home schooling his kid(s).

  12. OTOH our local senior center lends out medical equipment, and reports an increased demand for wheelchairs and knee-walkers, due to DIY projects gone wrong.

  13. And since finding face masks for purchase can be like questing for the Holy Grail


    You’re welcome.

    1. Wear a football helmet and you are, in fact, wearing a facemask.

  14. almost-forgotten habits.

    like believing that cloth face masks will magically keep illness spirits away?

    1. This.

      This face mask thing is the most unscientific shit. A case of seeing just how high the people will jump on command.

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