Working from home vs. commuting, a slow social trend we thought might be temporary, but which may be inevitable, and for the good.
I have a laptop connected to two big monitors, but otherwise this photo is apt. My cat Potsticker — not unlike this cat, but with more orange — lies on my computer table as I work. Usually in the late afternoons when he’s expecting his dinner.
We often don’t notice the big trends of history as they slowly pass over us, dragging us along, given our necessary attention to daily life. It’s useful to pause once and a while and reflect on what’s changed over the decades since we were children. When I was a child there were cars and airplanes and spacecraft launching into orbit and even reaching the Moon. But since then there have been social revolutions about the roles of women and gays in society, there has been the creation of the Internet with its access to the entire world of information and to its hosting of social media, there’s been an increasing political divide in the United States likely exacerbating by that social media, which perhaps aligns with my own realization that outside academic and professional worlds there are so many people who don’t know much of anything or who believe things that simply aren’t true. The last one was likely true when I was growing up, but it wasn’t until past decades that social media brought that situation into the light.
So here’s a trend of history discussed a couple days ago by Paul Krugman. It’s about how Covid drove people to work from home, how people are not eager to return to work, and how this has led to the near-evacuation and desolation of big city downtowns (not just San Francisco, which gets attention because conservatives love to hate it).
NY Times, Paul Krugman, 22 May 2023 (in print on the 23rd): Working From Home and Realizing What Matters (Print title: “Working From Home and the Meaning of Life”.)
The U.S. economy has experienced a remarkable recovery from the Covid recession of 2020. The much-feared scarring effects of the pandemic never materialized: Employment, labor force participation and gross domestic product are right back in line with projections made before the pandemic struck.
We’re still waiting to see whether House Republicans will squander that achievement by pushing America into a completely gratuitous debt crisis. But today I thought I’d take a break from the anxiety and talk about one important way in which the U.S. economy is doing even better than the standard numbers suggest. For one silver lining of the Covid crisis has been a major change in the way Americans work; we’re wasting a lot less time and fewer resources on commuting.
That is, people not commuting to work is a *good thing.*
A few days ago, my colleague Farhad Manjoo wrote an excellent article about the benefits of reduced commuting, which inspired me to take a deeper dive into the issue. Although it has its downsides — what doesn’t? — the shift to remote and hybrid work is, overall, a very good thing, even if (or maybe especially if) Elon Musk hates it.
The shift to remote work is also a teachable moment, in at least two ways. First, it’s an object lesson in the fact that taking advantage of new technological possibilities often requires major changes in how business operates. Second, it’s a reminder that economic numbers like G.D.P., while useful, can sometimes be misleading indicators of what really matters in life.
Perhaps an aside, but here’s another example of calling out the GDP as being misleading as a measure of societal health.
Krugman discusses statistics about commuting time for average Americans, and how reductions in that time, while beneficial to individuals, aren’t reflected by the GDP:
One thing [the rise in remote work] won’t do, however, is show up as a rise in measured G.D.P.: The time Americans waste in traffic jams isn’t subtracted from national income, and the time they spend with their families isn’t added.
And Krugman points out that this shift isn’t due to new technology (as so much progress in the past has) but to circumstances, i.e. the pandemic.
What’s interesting is that this transformation of the way many Americans work wasn’t driven by new technology. True, it wouldn’t have been possible if many people didn’t have fast internet connections, but the big surge in home broadband took place from 2000 to 2010, then leveled off. It was only under the pressure of the pandemic that businesses learned to take advantage of the technological possibility of remote work.
The thing is, while the pandemic economy is now behind us, the change in how we work is looking permanent. Overall, work from home looks like a classic example of an infant industry — an initially uncompetitive industry given a temporary boost (typically provided by tariffs or subsidies but in this case by a virus) that learns by doing and remains competitive even after the support is removed.
Now we’re seeing major gains at home that aren’t captured in G.D.P. True, these gains are accruing largely to higher-income workers, which is unfortunate; however, we’ve also seen large wage gains at the bottom, somewhat alleviating the unfairness.
And one implication is that if we look at what an economy is for — namely, to serve human needs, not generate favorable statistics — America’s bounce back from the pandemic has been even more impressive than you may realize.
Thinking back on American, and European, culture. It used to be common for craftsmen to have their shops adjacent to their homes. Even today, owners of restaurants and hardware stores, at least in the denser parts of big cities, live in apartments directly above their businesses. So the idea of people working “from home” is not new. What’s changed is that people can now work “from home” doing almost anything, as long as they have computer connections. Which undercuts one of the biggest problems of big city living, in countries where the land is vast and suburbs extend in every direction, and so requires cars for commuting into the city.
In science fiction visions of the future, you rarely read about the hassles of commuting. There might be broad elevated highways, or there were visions of moving roads, as in Heinlein. SF writers assumed the hassles of commuting by cars would be solved, eventually, one way or another. And the idea of simply staying home and working from there, was one of their solutions.
So again, are we in the middle of a big trend, toward people working from home, the centers of cities being converted from office buildings into high-density housing?
A related piece:
NY Times, Farhad Manjoo, 19 May 2023: Office Workers Don’t Hate the Office. They Hate the Commute.
First let’s address why folks aren’t coming back and why they probably won’t unless we fix a big problem with office work that few C.E.O.s seem to mention: getting to and getting home from the office. Survey after survey bears this out. If we want people to go to the office more often, we have to do something about the daily commute, a ritual of American life that’s time-consuming, emotionally taxing, environmentally toxic and expensive.
I think it’s safe to say that this aspect of American culture is dysfunctional, certainly in the long run. And the advent of work-from-home culture is the alternative, and likely to become a new norm.
I am fortunate enough to have never had to endure a long commute in my entire life. I worked for 30 years for the same engineering firm in southern California, where I never lived more than a 20 minute commute away, usually on surface streets. My partner has not been so lucky; in SoCal he often had hour commutes to his job in Glendale-adjacent, and in NoCal his first job on the peninsula required an hour+ drive, across one of the bridges, to and from work.
And now we both work from home. Of course the issues with working from home, when there are two of you, is that you’re always in the same house, a few feet away, and you never have any feeling of personal privacy. In our case we’ve tried to create separate little ‘offices’ a couple rooms from each other. But it’s not the same as having a room with a door you can close, as Virginia Woolf expressed.
A relatively late Preisner piece I was not familiar with until recently, when I discovered it on YouTube. It doesn’t seem to be on CD.