Sour U.S. economy has put 40% of Americans on edge

Allison Busch says her anxiety about the economy began to rise in September: The stock market careened, and she watched the collapse of Lehman Bros., a financial giant.

By November, she says, her hopes lifted when Barack Obama was elected president. But they dimmed as Christmas approached. In January, her worrying rose again.

So although her husband has a good-paying job as a real estate developer, Busch is planning for the day he does not.

"I told my husband, when he calls me to say he was fired, I'll probably cry and fall apart for 24 hours," says Busch, 39, a lawyer who lives in South Orange, N.J. "Then I'll calm down, and we'll figure it out."

The year 2008 gave Americans an unending supply of dizzying and jaw-dropping events that affected jobs, businesses, personal fortunes and nearly every facet of our lives.

A year-long poll conducted by Gallup and Tennessee-based health management company Healthways, taking the daily pulse of Americans' physical, emotional and economic well-being, found that worries about money grew sharply as 2008 progressed: 14 million more people worried about money at the end of the year than at the beginning, says Jim Harter, a chief scientist for Gallup who oversaw the research on workplace and well-being.

"It's moved from about 3 in 10 to about 4 in 10 over the course of the year, so ... it's a pretty significant finding," Harter says.

Worries grew steadily in 2008 before a sharp drop in December, likely due to the holiday season, he says: "I imagine people did worry less because they were with family and friends... They probably took some time off from their worry."

The poll shows those ages 30-49 — often raising young children while assisting aging parents — were the most likely to worry. Those 18-29, just starting to build their financial futures, followed.

Americans 65 and older worried the least, their senior years cushioned by traditional pensions and government benefits such as Social Security and Medicare, says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

Among ethnic groups, Latinos were the most anxious, just ahead of blacks.

Excessive worry can affect not only individuals, and families, but the entire economy, analysts say.

"Life stressors such as losing a job can really lead to emotional states such as depression," says Joseph Priester, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Southern California and former president of the Society for Consumer Psychology.

"But then there's a second aspect where being indirectly affected or just hearing about it in the news a lot can shift you into a defensive stance.

"That, in turn, influences how we consume, which, in effect, reinforces the recession."

Anxiety and second jobs

Joe Cuker, 33, a father of three in St. Louis, became his family's sole breadwinner when his wife, Jennifer, was laid off by Anheuser-Busch in December.

A bank manager, he works seven days a week, selling furniture on weekends to supplement his income.

"There's definitely anxiety," says Cuker, whose employer is cutting his salary by 5% this year.

His worrying began last summer, when economic tremors had begun to ripple across the country.

In May, Disney said it would close nearly 100 stores. American Airlines became the first airline to charge passengers for checking a single piece of luggage on trips. In June, the average price of a gallon of gas topped $4 for the first time in U.S. history.

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