The Pandemic is Already Changing American Parents' Priorities. How Will it Influence Their Voting Patterns?

Historic events can bring about profound changes in what people value most, reshaping societies and economies as a result. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there's been a lot of speculation about what the cultural repercussions will be and how it will alter our emotional priorities as people, consumers, or voters. Now, we know what some of these changes are.

The pandemic has led to tremendous shifts in people's core values and aspirations—especially for parents, who are looking to provide their children a better future. These changes have broad implications. They affect the brands people buy, the media they consume, and how they spend their time—even if cooped up at home. And soon, these changes will also affect how advertisers and political campaigns try to reach us all.

Every year my company, The Family Room, surveys tens of thousands of people across 12 countries to determine the most important "Passion Points" that are driving their decision making. There are 150 of these points, which speak to people's desire for health, belonging, love, significance, and more, for themselves and their families.

In conducting this research, we ask people to tell us which Passion Points are "foremost on your mind right now" using a "System 1" approach that elicits their immediate and instinctive responses. This way, we get a sense of how current events affect people's emotional priorities.

Before this year, it was 2016 that triggered that most profound change for parents, largely due to the elections. But nothing could have prepared us for the size and scope of the emotional upheaval we are already seeing in 2020. Of parents' top thirty Passion Point priorities, fifteen are in flux—the biggest transformation we've seen in 15 years of studies.

Here are a few of the key takeaways.

Mothers are seeking spiritual growth and 'good leaders' regardless of party

American moms are showing a significant spike in their emotional desire to elect good leaders, without regard to party affiliation. "All I am looking for in our political leaders is competence," one mom explained. "Their party is less important than someone who is realistic, honest, surrounds themselves with real experts, and knows how to get things done."

They're also seeking spiritual peace in a world that seems to have spun out of control. It's little wonder that some publishers have told me they're seeing a surge in book sales on meditation and mindfulness.

Both of these are up 21 percent over our survey last year.

Dads are feeling 'rebellious' and more fearful of terrorism.

The dads we surveyed showed far bigger swings. Their concerns about terrorism more than tripled. The security and safety for their families that they associated with living in America has been punctured. As one father told us, "You hear about the danger of people coming into our communities carrying the virus, and that makes me anxious about terrorists coming into our country as well. The virus has made me feel really vulnerable."

Dads also had an equally big spike in their emotional desire to "rebel." Crucially, this does not mean breaking laws or social distancing restrictions. Dads told us they like wearing pajama bottoms beneath a dress shirt to a zoom meeting or eating sugary cereal for dinner. Confined to their homes and facing new restrictions on their lives, dads are regaining a sense of independence by flouting other expectations.

Moms' desire to rebel and concerns about terrorism also rose, as did dads' desire for spirituality, though these changes were smaller. Interestingly, "electing good leaders" declined somewhat as an emotional priority for dads this year, an indication that they may be more focused on life in their own backyard than Washington.

Emotional priorities around child development and education have shifted

Parents tend to divide child development and learning into two broad categories. The first is educational skills like math, reading, and science, to be acquired in the classroom. The second is "life skills" such as character, grit, determination, and optimism, which they want their kids to acquire "in the real world."

The pandemic has dramatically increased parents' emotional emphasis on life skills, while reducing their focus on traditional education from schools.

To be sure, parents still want their kids to get good grades and get into a good college. But the pandemic has led many to lose faith in the old belief that a great education helps lead to a great job and a great life. Instead, parents see the predictors of their kids' future happiness and success as coming from their ability to stay positive, work hard, and avoid danger. Above all, they want their kids to be what they seek in leaders: "good people."

Having conducted our Passion Points Study through previous episodes of cultural upheaval, we've learned that massive external cultural change, like we are experiencing now, has a nearly instantaneous impact on people's internal emotional priorities. But these internal changes persist well after the external crisis has passed, invisibly governing our consumer, media, and political decisions.

The pandemic is rapidly creating "the new normal" for American families—and we're only now beginning to see the consequences.

George Carey is CEO and Founder ofThe Family Room, a research and brand strategy consultancy

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​