Will we reenter the economy as penguins or lemmings?

Two myths from the animal kingdom can shape our preparations

The author(s)

  • Matt Carmichael What the Future editor and head of the Ipsos Trends and Foresight Lab
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Diving into waters, metaphorical or literal, can be a scary proposition. There’s a well-known (but false) idea that when penguins gather at the edge of the ice, they push a couple of their friends into the water before the whole group follows. The rest wait and see. If no leopard seals or other predators eat them, they will then feel it’s safe to jump in.

When people think of lemmings, the vision of them diving off a cliff pell-mell comes to mind. Lemmings, it’s falsely believed, just go for it – regardless of potential dire consequences.

Ipsos research offers some clues as to which approach consumers will take when it comes to reentering the economy. Like so many pandemic issues, people are divided.  

Nearly half (44%) agree with the cautious, penguin-like statement, “I am going to wait until other people return to pre-COVID activities and see what seems safe.” There’s about a 15-point difference between households making over $100,000 (54%) and those making less.

how will we re-join the economyRoughly one in four (24%) take a more lemming-like approach. They say that once they’re vaccinated, they’ll return to activities – regardless of what others do. They will essentially volunteer to be the guinea pigs or the canaries in the coal mine, to further mix our animal metaphors. (Canaries were actually used to detect carbon monoxide, by the way. That’s true, and referred to as an example of a “sentinel species.”)

An equal number (25%) think we should take the lemming approach and return to pre-COVID normal right now.

  • Half of America thinks we should wait until infection rates are near zero in each state before restrictions are lifted.
  • 37% think that we should merely wait until rates fall before lifting all restrictions.
  • But 58% think that if we re-open now it will just lead to reclosing.
  • The level of threat you feel from the pandemic profoundly impacts your views, as does whether you have or plan to get the vaccine or not.
  • Democrats (57%) are much more likely to take the wait-and-see penguin approach than Republicans (33%) or independents (38%).

What are the lemmings and the penguins eager to get back to? Since the start of our tracking, almost a year ago, restaurants and bars have held steady as one of the top three most-missed activities. 57% of people in the most recent wave of the Ipsos Coronavirus Consumer Tracker listed it in their top three, followed by movie theaters and concerts (33%), trip planning (27%) and shopping centers (24%.)

What we miss mostSo what does all of this mean? For one thing, it’s important to realize that despite the exhaustion most feel with the ongoing pandemic and the profound desire to “return to normal” many are going to be somewhat cautious in how they return. That said, our research shows a persistent group of between 15% and 20% who are basically living their pre-pandemic lives already. While people are warming schools reopening and some other basics of pre-pandemic life, brands, retailers, venues and other places people gather should continue to do everything they can to make people feel safe to come back and stay back. 

Because bear in mind that in the myth, when the penguins feel safe they all dive back in and go for it. We're already starting to see some signs of this – when the economy comes back, it might well come back quickly. So take steps to clear out the potential predators for the penguins, while also giving the lemmings a soft place to land.

The author(s)

  • Matt Carmichael What the Future editor and head of the Ipsos Trends and Foresight Lab

Society