Markets tend to focus on easily obtainable data like unemployment insurance claims, job reports, and consumer confidence surveys when assessing economic conditions and their effects on human psychology. That works well enough in normal times, where the bright, clear lines of historical data graphs allow us to compare today to yesterday with some confidence the inherent noisiness of the information is at least similar across cycles.
It may not, however, work so well right now; suddenly putting +20% of the US workforce on leave, limiting physical movement, not to mention a public health crisis, all play havoc with the traditional linkages between economic events and how people respond to them. We also have to consider that enhanced unemployment insurance, essentially replacing 100% of base pay for millions of Americans, is a natural experiment without precedent here. As a result, it is hard to lean too heavily on history to predict what happens next.
To try and fill some of this information gap, we looked at scores of Google search volume counts for different queries that might illustrate how Americans are incorporating economic uncertainty into their owns lives. Our assumption is that what a user does or doesn’t google is a truer reflection of their personal reality than any other measure.
Here are the 2 questions we tried to answer with this approach along with several Google Trends charts that provide some insight:
#1: Are Americans focused on finding a new job to replace 1) one they have lost, 2) one they fear losing, or 3) lost household income from someone else losing their jobs?
The grocery, online shopping and food delivery industries are certainly hiring, for example; here is the 12-month Google search interest for “grocery job”, “warehouse job” and “delivery job”:
The takeaway here: last month’s interest in these jobs was short-lived, and Google searches for each currently resemble the pre-COVID labor market environment.
Another vector into the same idea: Google searches for “jobs near me”, a very common online query:
Takeaway: this one is harder to assess than the first example, because most potential job seekers know many businesses are closed. Still, we find it remarkable that search volumes for “jobs near me” are lower now than at any pre-COVID point in time.
#2: Has recent economic uncertainty caused Americans to become more interested in upgrading their skill sets to improve their hire-ability and potential for advancement?
Here are US Google search volumes over the last year for “online college” and “ged” (a credential equivalent to a high school diploma):
And here is the search volume data for “real estate exam” (a popular independent career with good income potential and limited requirements in terms of prior experience) and “career coach”:
Takeaway: we don’t know whether these charts, which show generally less interest in improving employability or changing careers now versus pre-COVID, are 1) a sign of confidence that the US job market will return to normal quickly, or 2) people giving up on improving their standing in that same market. If pressed, we’d say “both”.
Summing up: we would not have predicted how any of these charts look when we started scanning through them (and dozens of others) this morning. As a group they seem to show an American workforce frozen with uncertainty and presumably hoping the country’s reopening will produce an economy very similar to the one they left. We hope so too, because there’s clearly no “Plan B” expressed in the charts we’ve shown you today.