With Donald Trump’s stunning victory, a sense of change is sweeping across nations and financial markets worldwide—change that has citizens feeling more unsettled than ever about the future. This is likely to further boost an industry with a uniquely dark outlook on America’s future. Although “survivalism” (a movement defined by active disaster preparation) has been around since the 1930s, the latest wave has reached a fever pitch thanks to two distinct drivers. The first is widespread anxiety about the future. The second is generational change. Boomers and Xers have created today’s survivalist frenzy—marked by extreme individualism and institutional distrust. But as Millennials age, this version will give way to a more community-oriented one. Looking back, the ebb-and-flow of survivalism should hardly come as a surprise—it’s been years in the making.
Since the Great Depression, survivalism has gone through three waves. The first began in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, when rampant inflation fueled fears of economic collapse and energy shortages, and peaked in the ‘80s as concerns shifted to nuclear war. The second wave peaked in 1999—coinciding with the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the Y2K scare, and the deepening of the “Culture Wars.” The third wave was triggered by 9/11 and has continued to surge with every natural disaster, national tragedy, and presidential election.
The latest wave has transformed survivalism from a hobby to a lifestyle. Survivalists (or “preppers”) take disaster preparation seriously. Some own bunkers located “off the grid” (particularly in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming) stockpiled with MREs, gold, weapons, and alternative power sources. Others simply keep a stash of canned goods, water, and medical supplies—usually in a “bug out bag”—and take wilderness training courses.
The rise of survivalism is good news for a wide range of industries. From 2007 to 2015, the annual revenue of Cabela’s doubled from $2.1 to $4 billion, while Dick’s Sporting Goods revenue rose from $3.1 to $6.8 billion. The same story applies to gun makers: Annual revenues tripled for Smith & Wesson (from $237 to $723 million) and Sturm, Ruger & Company (from $157 to $551 million). These firms’ stock prices have soared to record highs. Private companies are also cashing in. Emergency food sales from brands like MyPatriotSupply have tripled in the last few weeks. And Rising S Bunkers—the largest US bunker manufacturer—recently reported a 150 percent YOY sales increase.
This burgeoning trend is propelled by two distinct drivers.The first is widespread anxiety about the nation’s future. America’s increasingly polarized election cycles have been a boon for survivalism staples. According to Google Trends, interest in “emergency food” and “guns” spiked in the months around Obama’s election in 2008 and re-election in 2012. This election cycle has been no different.
Much of this anxiety is fueled by a conservative, red-zone worldview. Interestingly, though it’s easy to see how populism could further fan the flames, most industry spokesmen believe that their sales would have been even higher with a Clinton victory. (Nothing unites red-zoners and militia groups more than the belief that government will take away their guns and institute a P.C. culture.) But not all survivalists fear political danger. Some are progressive blue-zoners, anxious about climate change and untamed capitalism. Both sides fear an imminent financial crash and subsequent depression.
The second driver is generational. Today’s heads of households belong to two highly individualistic generations—Boomers and Generation Xers, who fetishize independence and harbor a deep distrust of institutions. Young Boomers took a leading role in the first wave of survivalism. Boomers’ Culture Wars (abortion, gun control, and environmental regulation) have stoked paranoia in both political parties—particularly evident among conservatives over the past three election cycles.
Xer survivalism is less of an ideology than an outlook that prioritizes resilience and self-reliance—attitudes that resonate with these former latchkey kids. For Xers, survivalism is all about being physically and mentally prepared for chaos—and testing themselves by getting out of their comfort zones. They flock to “survival schools” that teach them how to live in the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They read books like Antifragile that emphasize the benefits of stress and turmoil. But Xers aren’t just training for themselves anymore—they want to protect their children and teach their children to protect themselves.
This highly individualist brand of survivalism, however, won’t last forever. More than their elders, Millennials trust institutions and value community. As Millennials grow older, their softer tone will limit the expansion of today’s hardscrabble version. In the long run, this mentality will create a more community-oriented form of survivalism that will slowly foster renewed trust in institutions.
These generational differences are reflected in popular entertainment. There is no shortage of survivalist TV programming for do-it-yourself Xers looking for inspiration (Doomsday Preppers, Apocalypse Preppers, Fat Guys in the Woods). And for hardcore Xers, survivalism at its most bleak and violent can be found in movies like The Revenant and The Grey and TV shows like The Walking Dead. Survivalist entertainment, however, is already experiencing a generational shift. Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen-X captures this transition in the first episode: While Xer contestants bicker over who’s in charge, team-oriented Millennials take a vote.
Some brands have already prepared for this generational shift. As we’ve discussed elsewhere (see: “Activewear is in Excellent Shape”), Millennials don’t focus on competition as much as Xers do. Activewear brands like Nike have dropped all-black ensembles in favor of neon and pastel options. Even Tough Mudder races have gone soft: Today’s competitors just want to reach the finish line together.
What does this generational shift in survivalism tell us about the future? Historically, the emphasis on individual and familial survival peaks when the nation is anxious about financial market valuations, the future of the economy, civil order, and the competence of political leaders. Survivalism keeps rising so long as people see no floor to these worries. Only after the nation enters a period of regeneracy—when people discover leaders and institutions they can trust again—can society feel less fearful (or at least less fearful that the community won’t look after them). That’s when the survivalist frenzy begins to ebb. In the last century, the most dramatic instance of such an ebb happened between the end of the Great Depression (1937) and the end of World War II (1945).
Over the next six months, the demand for survivalist goods is likely to hit a record high—and it may grow even higher if the economy enters a new recession without any effective policy response from public leaders. But the clock is ticking. In the coming years, today’s extreme survivalism is due to be pulled down by generational turnover. In time, the desperate tools and slogans of Boomers and Xers will become a cultural backwater—replaced by a milder, more community-oriented outlook on America’s future.