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Redefining Life Priorities in the Pandemic

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Redefining Life Priorities in the Pandemic

Al Waller: The pandemic has changed our lives in ways we, quite frankly, could have never imagined in terms of where we live, how we work, what we do for entertainment, as well as those we lost. As a result of these changes, many have had a decided shift in their life priorities.

Welcome back to ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & WealthSM. I’m your host, Al Waller. With me is Catherine Collinson, CEO and president of nonprofit Transamerica Institute®. Catherine is here to share insights from her team’s recent survey that explored the impacts of the pandemic on people’s lives.

Before we get started, I want to remind listeners to drop us a line at [email protected] to let us know what topics you would like us to cover.

Catherine, welcome back. I’m really looking forward to hearing about what your research has uncovered.

Catherine Collinson: Hi Al – it’s great to be back and I’m looking forward to sharing what we learned.

Al Waller: Good deal – let’s jump right in. I understand that late last year you surveyed more than 5,000 people in the workforce. So, what did you uncover?

Catherine Collinson: We found that more than three in four people (78 percent) said their life priorities had changed as a result of the pandemic.

Al Waller: Well, I can't say I'm too surprised that the majority reported a change in their priorities because I suspect the pandemic prompted a lot of people to do some pretty serious soul-searching. But were you able to put your finger on what ways those priorities did change?

Catherine Collinson: We did. One of my favorite parts of the survey is we have the ability to ask an open-ended question. So, what we did for our open-ended question is we asked people how their life priorities had changed – we got some really fascinating responses. Some of them were actually positive, whereas others really illustrate the challenges people have encountered during the pandemic.

Al Waller: I just bet you had some pretty intriguing responses! So, what exactly stood out for you?

Catherine Collinson: Let's talk about the positives. It's hard to say that there could be silver linings from a pandemic. So many people's lives have been disrupted, and we've lost so many loved ones and our world has changed.

However, there were some glimpses of silver linings that came out of it that I think are really important to spotlight. What I want to do is share a couple of quotes. Our first quote comes from a millennial woman, and she shared:

“I care about life a lot more than I did before and appreciate it. So, I have started working out every day and eating much healthier because life can be taken in a second.” Millennial, Woman

A Gen X man shared with us:

“I appreciate time with the family and children more as a result of the pandemic and I do so [spend time with them] as much as I can now.” Gen X, Man

Al Waller: Yes, those sentiments are pretty insightful, and I suspect many of us now hold similar philosophies as well. Now, did your research explore what steps people are taking related to the issues they brought up?

Catherine Collinson: Yes, and in a number of ways. For example, we had asked a question about healthy activities. We heard in the quote that a lot of people were adopting healthier lifestyles, but our survey findings show that people can be doing even more to safeguard their health.

For example, just 51 percent of our survey respondents said that they're eating healthily and only half (50 percent) said they're exercising regularly.

So, it's great that people are now more focused on their health. The challenge is taking it to the next step, engaging more people in their health, and people (who are already engaged) taking it to the next level.

Regarding the second quote that I shared about the Gen X man now spending more time with his family and friends, that is something that came out loud and clear in our survey findings. We asked a question and learned that 84 percent of our survey respondents said that they have close relationships with family and friends. So, that is a very large majority.

Al Waller: I would agree, Catherine. I can definitely relate to the quotes from those people that you interviewed. As I've related previously, my daily exercise has gone a long way in keeping me physically fit, but also helping me just keep my head clear. In that vein, I'm avoiding the negative influencers with their over-the-top rants and rancor. I mean, come on man – life's way too short. So, I spend as much time outdoors as I can and getting together with family and friends that possess a more positive – and at least, a hopeful and grateful – perspective.

Catherine Collinson: It's like – wow, it took a pandemic. I'll share my own experience – a life priority changed for me and that relates to exercise. When the whole world was shutting down in March of 2020 and I learned that I would be working from home, I made the commitment that I would exercise every day. Here we are almost 2 ½ years later – I have not missed a single day! Now that I'm 2 ½ years in, I cannot break my record. Just a little insight there.

But as we look at the pandemic and as we looked at our own survey findings, we also saw how extraordinarily challenging and difficult it's been for people. If you'll indulge me, I'd like to share from a millennial man who shared with us:

“I've become extremely depressed. I am having a hard time finding a new job. I have a lot of anxiety about the pandemic and really do not want to go back to an office.” Millennial, Man

He is not alone. Our survey found that 46 percent of people in the workforce agree that they “often feel anxious and depressed” and more than three in five (62 percent) are somewhat or very concerned about their mental health. Alarmingly, however, only 19 percent are seeking mental health support when needed.

Al Waller: I'm really sorry to hear that. To a certain degree, I'm not totally surprised either. But taking care of yourself is just so vital in terms of your actual self-preservation.

Mihaela and I have talked about mental health on several occasions. So, I'd encourage listeners to check out past episodes including, “5 Tips to Support Your Mental Health,” and “The Power of Hope.

Well Catherine, what other life priorities have changed – say in terms of changes in their spending and saving?

Catherine Collinson: Well, the pandemic certainly put a bright spotlight on the need for emergency savings. And in those open-ended responses, we heard a lot from people who are now placing more importance on saving for emergencies and others who are placing that importance on saving for retirement. Let me share with you a couple of quotes that illustrate this.

Our first quote is from a millennial man who tells us:

“I was spending more money on entertainment but during the pandemic I started saving more and reduced spending on unnecessary things to have the ability to spend on emergency cases.” Millennial, Man

A millennial woman shares her perspectives on retirement savings, as well:

“My retirement savings is more important to me. I want to make sure I have enough, also my emergency fund needs to be refueled.” Millennial, Woman

Al Waller: That's pretty encouraging to hear that your respondents are in fact, now placing more emphasis on their saving. Was this practice of increased savings consistent across the board with most of your respondents?

Catherine Collinson: Let's look at the good news and the not so good news. What we learned in our survey about people's current financial priorities is this – about half cite saving for retirement as a financial priority – that's 52 percent. Of course, I would love that number to be higher. But as we think about it – in the middle of a pandemic, where people are encountering excruciating, competing financial priorities, the fact that more than half are focused on their future retirement is actually quite encouraging.

We see that slightly fewer than four in ten (39 percent) cite building emergency savings and this seems to be an uptick from prior surveys.

As the economy picks up and people are going back to work and refocusing on longer range financial priorities, it is really important to focus on both emergency savings and retirement savings – keeping in mind that saving even small amounts can really add up over time.

Al Waller: I would agree with you. I think it is really tough at this stage to basically keep your head above water, especially if through no fault of your own – you've been laid off or furloughed – those things can really make for a challenging situation.

But as my friend Christina reminds me– “Al, breathe…and by the way, don't forget to breathe.” It may sound trite but breaking things down and taking small steps can go a long way.

Anything else that stood out in your research?

Catherine Collinson: I'll share with you one final quote, which I really feel like sums it up. This quote comes from a Gen X woman who shared with us – again, this is how her life priorities had changed. She sums it up as:

“More family and fun time.” Gen X, Woman

Al Waller: Perfect. Well, Catherine, as you think about what you've learned from this study and the others you've conducted during the pandemic – anything else you'd like to share before we wrap things up today?

Catherine Collinson: I've given a lot of thought to my own life priorities. And they've changed – I shared the exercise example. But they've changed in other ways as well. For our listeners, I encourage you to think about how your own life priorities have changed. What have you learned from the pandemic – both the good and the challenges that you can take with you?

Another thing to think about – are my new life priorities aligned with my actions and how I am spending my time and resources? Or is there some misalignment? And how can we be successful? We have learned so much. There is a future ahead. How do we move into that future being wiser because of the pandemic and focused on those things that are truly important for us? The answers to these questions are very unique and personal for each and every one of us, and they are evolving.

Al Waller: Catherine, I agree you've given us a lot to consider and reflect upon in our own lives and that's a good thing. Before we close, any final suggestions for listeners who want to find out more about this topic?

Catherine Collinson: Yes, I have 5 tips that I would like to share with our listeners. These changes in life priorities – these are big and far reaching in our lives.

Here are the five tips:

First, take some time to write down how your life priorities have changed and codify your new life priorities. Ensure that they are truly in alignment with how you’re spending your time and your time with others.

The second tip – share your new life priorities with family, close friends, and trusted loved ones. They may not know your priorities have changed unless you tell them. It's important to share them for a couple of reasons. One, they may get confused if you're doing things totally differently and they don't know where you're coming from. But also, they can share insights. Sometimes those who are close to us know us even better than we know ourselves – they can help you do some sanity checks. Also, it opens the line of conversation to learn about how their life priorities have changed and ways that you can support them.

Tip number three is take a test drive. If you're thinking about a really big change, as many people have during the pandemic – if it's at all possible before doing something drastic, consider a test drive. The example I'll give you is moving. I know so many people who have packed up their home, canceled the rent, sold the house, and moved somewhere completely different. In some cases, it's worked out well. Others may have some regrets about it. Consider going to that place you think you're going to love and renting an Airbnb for a few days or a week – and make sure you really love it before you make that really big change.

Another tip is – if you're employed, many employers offer employee assistance programs. These programs generally offer personal counseling, and this is an important employee benefit. If you're thinking about a change or are confused – or are like the individuals we've spoken of that are feeling anxious and depressed – that's a really important benefit to take advantage of that can be really helpful in terms of moving forward in your life.

Then last but not least as we talk about doing our homework…I always seek insight and comfort in books. So many books have been written about this topic. Those books can be our friends too. We don't have to take all the advice in these books, but they're super helpful in learning about different perspectives and what resonates with us.

Al, those are my final five tips. Thank you for having this conversation.

Al Waller: Well, Catherine, thank you for this abundance of information, as well as just some very valuable and sage insights. As always, great to be with you.

Here's hoping you'll join us for future episodes.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about retirement security and the intersections of health and financial well-being. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s website and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

If you have ideas for future episodes, comments, or feedback, please let us know! Email us at [email protected].

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Catherine Collinson is the founding president and CEO of nonprofit Transamerica Institute and its Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, and she is a champion for Americans who are at risk of not achieving a financially secure retirement. With two decades of retirement industry-related experience, Catherine is a nationally recognized voice on workforce, aging, and retirement trends. She was named a 2018 Influencer in Aging by PBS’ Next Avenue. In 2016, she was honored with a Hero Award from Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER) for her tireless efforts in helping improve retirement security among women.