ECON The China Virus sped up ongoing changes in where/how Americans live & work

MinnesotaSmith

Has No Life - Lives on TB

The Coronavirus Is Changing the Future of Home, Work, and Life


COVID-19 is hitting dense urban areas the hardest, and accelerating the dispersion of Americans that had already been underway.


Joel Kotkin

Apr. 13, 2020





"The COVID-19 pandemic will be shaping how we live, work and learn about the world long after the last lockdown ends and toilet paper hoarding is done, accelerating shifts that were already underway including the dispersion of population out of the nation’s densest urban areas and the long-standing trend away from mass transit and office concentration towards flatter and often home-based employment.

Amid 20 years of fanfare about how big, dense cities are the future, the country had kept spreading out with nearly all population growth since 2010 occurring in the urban periphery and smaller cities. As a new study from Heartland Forward, where I am a senior fellow, demonstrates, both immigrants and millennials—the key groups behind urban growth—are increasingly moving to interior cities and even small towns.

The coronavirus, which has hit major American cities hardest so far, is likely to accelerate that trend.
Both cases and deaths have been overwhelmingly concentrated so far in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and New York. Gotham has been the American epicenter; dense regions seem especially susceptible to pandemics. This has also been the case in Europe. Half of all COVID-19 cases in Spain for example have occurred in Madrid while the Milan region accounts for half of all cases in Italy and almost three-fifths of the deaths.

Suburban, exurban and small-town residents are, of course, vulnerable too, and will soon share some of the cities’ pain but far less than subway riders who live in crowded apartments. The people outside big cities, for example, get around in the sanctuary of their private cars and don’t have to push elevator buttons to get to and from their residences. Most rural areas, outside of some resorts, have suffered far less, benefiting from less crowding and unwanted human contact.

Simply put, pandemics are bad for dense urban areas, particularly those that are diverse and relatively free. This has been very much the case since antiquity. The more global and vital an urban system—Rome, Alexandria, Cairo, Venice, Florence, London, Paris—the more susceptible it is to the pandemics that seem to be occurring regularly over the past two decades. Cities no doubt will recover, particularly if real estate prices continue to fall, but the pandemics limit their upward trajectory and will continue to drive people elsewhere.
In this era, the most prominent physical expression of urban greatness—once cathedrals or great public works—has been the office building and the luxury housing tower. The growth of steel and glass towers reflect the magnetic economic power of big cities. And to be sure, we still see some new ones on occasion in places like New York and Chicago, and even more so in the rising cities of East Asia and the Middle East.

Yet even before the coronavirus, large office buildings were losing their primacy. New technologies make it increasingly easy for companies to work far from the dense megacities, sparking a process that one British writer has described as “counter-urbanization.” Due in large part to technology, we use far less space per new job. In the 1990s companies used 175 square feet of space per new employee, a number that dropped to 125 in the late 2000s and barely 50 square feet today. Between 2016 and 2018, a time of robust economic growth, net demand absorption plunged from 58 million square feet to 35 million square feet.

At the same time, roughly 80 percent of new job growth has already been taking place in the suburbs and exurbs. Rather than concentrate in big cities, notes economist Jed Kolko, the share of the economy controlled by the five largest metros has declined over the past quarter-century. In many key business sectors, such as professional and business services and technology, sprawling places like Austin, Salt Lake City, Dallas-Fort Worth, Raleigh and Phoenix, as well as smaller cities like Madison, WI and Boise, grew their high-end employment far more quickly. In these circumstances massive new office and residential projects, like those being proposed for Sunnyside, Queens, seem quixotic at best.

One key driver is the accelerating trend towards working at home, as evidenced by growing web use, up between 20 to 40 percent, with much of the surge taking place during the daytime. In the United States, there had already been a declining share for transit, while telecommuting has grown rapidly, up 140 percent since 2005. Even before the current pandemic, the benefits of working remotely were apparent in terms of productivity, innovation, lower employee turnover.

Work at home, according to the census, now exceeds transit usage nationwide, accounting for well over 5 percent of the workforce; it could easily employ almost about one in four workers over time, in ways that will reshape cities. Millions of Americans who used to commute to work, whether in mind-numbing traffic or rattling subway cars, now are seeing if they can work at home efficiently. Many may find it difficult to get back to work in an office.

The future of the office may include adding office space to new homes and apartments as the late Al Toffler’s concept of the “electronic cottage” becomes ever more common. One has to believe that companies like IBM and Yahoo, which sought to ban at-home work, are busily wiping the egg from their faces.

White House Pushes Staff to Slam China for Virus ‘Cover-Up’

The firms that can rely on dispersed work will benefit most while some jobs—notably in hotels, airports and theme parks—may wither for violating the new norms of “social distancing.” Yet this transition is a veritable gold mine for companies like Slack—now the fastest growing business application on record—Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams, all of which manage real-time collaboration on documents, spreadsheets, presentations and conversations. Other clear winners include Amazon, which is hiring 100,000 new workers, streaming entertainment services, telemedicine and online education providers.
Education until now has followed industrial age models, with learning on fixed schedules in classrooms. The experience was highly hierarchical and in-person, and, in recent years, unfathomably expensive outside of the public schools.

Even before the virus there was a strong movement to online learning. At the grade school level it included an estimated 2.5 million home-schooled students whose numbers have been growing at between 2 to 8 percent per annum. Homeschool advocates, who include many religious conservatives, claim that students, a third of whom are minorities, do considerably better in terms of achievement than their public-school counterparts with only a fraction of the public funding. Now that most public schools are online for the time being, it seems likely that some districts, particularly those concerned with costs, may seek to employ these systems more readily.

The impact on colleges could be even more profound. College debt has become a plague to the current millennial generation, and more parents find they cannot afford to pay expensive schooling. Online instruction is not always optimal, but neither is spending a fortune to sit in a lecture hall with 300 other students while interfacing only with graduate students.

In the U.S., online college courses have more than quadrupled in the last 15 years. It is an approach that works in particular for non-traditional students, such as those seeking a new career and skill. Some schools, such as Arizona State University, are now defining much of the future of mass education. The school’s president, Michael Crow, has been pushing on-line education for over a decade and today ASU offers more than 175 online degree and certificate programs serving more than 46,000 undergraduate and graduate students and learners.
There is almost no part of our society that will emerge unchanged from this moment.
One profound shift may be in how people get information as the already battered media’s response to the virus is ranked far below not just hospitals or state government, but even President Trump or Congress, according to Gallup. Rather than turning to the news, many people are going straight to the CDC or John Hopkins’ COVID-19 dashboard as a better way to access “just the facts.”

The shift to online services may be a boon to the already much-too-powerful tech oligarchs, as big companies, quasi-monopolies and chains hold [out] while small businesses are wiped out by a month or two without revenue. By the time that we are done sheltering in place, expect that some of your local spots will be closed, and not all of them will be replaced.

Yet at the same time the pandemic could provide, as one British writer put it, “a social stimulus,” a reawakening of the vast apparatus of local, charitable and communal institutions.
The nature of the crisis—its shattering effects on jobs, where we work, and revenues—will force communities to rely on local resources, volunteers, churches and clubs. The new models may not be driven by oligarch funders or even governments but by grassroots assistance that has been central to the approach taken by states like Utah.

The new home-based, localized culture could even address global issues like climate change. Rather than see the solution as ever more density, a shift to people working from home, and dispersing, could prove effective as a way to reduce greenhouse gases without enforcing an agenda of greater privation, an idea embraced by some in the environmental community who see the shutdown as a “fire drill” for future actions.

Rather than a nasty era of reduced expectations, we could be on the cusp of creating a more humane and sustainable urban culture. Many primary functions—food service, media, business and professional services, finance—will operate mostly free of unwanted human contact. Rather than Le Corbusier’s super-high-density “Radiant City”, our metropolises may come to resemble Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia, a sprawling, low-rise, family-friendly environment.

In the end, the pandemic could lead us to rediscover the essential value of family, something that is often seen as reactionary or outdated by some progressive thinkers. Indeed, as researcher Sam Abrams notes, surveys show that it’s millennials and Gen Z who suffer most from isolation and alienation. Perhaps returning to the family home may allow them to see the advantage of this most ancient of affiliations.

Margaret Mead once remarked, “no matter how many communes anybody invents, the family always creeps back.”
In social isolation, we are not only stuck with each other, but we also learn how we depend on each other. Life in a studio apartment, or dorm room, is far less attractive in a pandemic era than being close to hearth and home.

If we learn something about what really matters, it may not make up for the current tragedies, but perhaps it will mean that our suffering will not all have been in vain."
 

Plain Jane

Has No Life - Lives on TB
With my siblings and their spouses, there is not a one who is going to work at their place of employment. Only one has been laid off (niece) and she is working on an online program to be certified in another area. The children are all in online learning. I was able to observe only the review exercises, which were OK but I think that face to face time with the teacher would be needed for some things. I do worry about all of the screen time. But none of them are in a densely populated area. They are in suburban neighborhoods. The children have yards to play in.
We are very fortunate in many ways.

As far as the trendline goes, I frequently run into former high school students who either have achieved that more rural setting or were on their way to it.
 

Blacknarwhal

President-Elect
With my siblings and their spouses, there is not a one who is going to work at their place of employment. Only one has been laid off (niece) and she is working on an online program to be certified in another area. The children are all in online learning. I was able to observe only the review exercises, which were OK but I think that face to face time with the teacher would be needed for some things. I do worry about all of the screen time. But none of them are in a densely populated area. They are in suburban neighborhoods. The children have yards to play in.
We are very fortunate in many ways.

As far as the trendline goes, I frequently run into former high school students who either have achieved that more rural setting or were on their way to it.
With the rise in telecommuting we've seen, you might look for more rural development. The biggest problem of any rural setting is finding work, and with telecommuting taking off, you're much more likely to find it.
 

raven

Has No Life - Lives on TB
people act like this "shutdown" will go on forever.
it won't.
that is an absolute "it won't"
they were not able to shutdown over flu, not over HIV, not over Ebola, not smallpox, not measles

Corona is not the threat.
The debt bubble is.
The lives of Americans will change permanently because of the availability of credit.
Lives will change more in the direction of "third world shithole countries" and less in the direction of "utopia"
 

Melodi

Disaster Cat
This is from a friend in my Middle Ages Club (SCA) whose getting a doctorate in historic Irish food and Agriculture - one thing the pandemic did is a learned after knowing him for years that he is also a prepper and today his blog is a more local take on the same topic.


Hello. This issue is about the near future. It's a future that includes likely and possible outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic, plus speculation about other pandemics, as well as climate material, so if that's going to bother you, I won't be the least bit offended if you put this aside for later, or don't read it at all. One of my other newsletters, Commonplace, is about food and isn't even a little bit apocalyptic (unless bread-making counts), so that might work for you instead. You can see the archive (all two issues of it) at that link.

A few things before I get properly started. Ospare, in Scattered Signal, had this to say:
We learn through experience, not prediction.
Even with a plan, unknowns foster.
Which is a very useful point, or pair of points, but they go on to say that having a plan, a map, a consideration of what's ahead, is still useful, and that we should update our maps as we go. I sent the first issue of Gentle Decline in August 2018, and I like to think I've learned some stuff since. So we'll look at updating the map in view of a new-ish world.

Next, I was giving out vaguely in the last issue about the response to the pandemic being what we need for climate crisis, but it has since become clear to me that part of the issue is that we reckon - as a species, apparently - that we can get through this by consuming the right things, which is not going to work for the other. I can't claim to have come to this realisation all by myself - it was voiced most precisely by Corey J. White in Nothing Here (to which I recommend you subscribe; it's extremely good value) but in a few other places too.

And Laurie Penny does an excellent collation of how the apocalypse maps we have had do not really describe the territory in which we find ourselves. To be fair, they won't ever - I've been trying hard here, but nothing I've written is going to ever describe the real world as it will be (or if it does, it'll be complete coincidence; the advice about being flexible is here for a reason).

Finally, I've gotten a ko-fi account, so if anyone wants to throw a coin to their witcher local doom-monger, you can do so at: https://ko-fi.com/drewshiel

So. I continue to believe that a lot of people will get almost aggressively back to normal once the pandemic is deemed over, and as much as they can as restrictions are gradually lifted. In some cases, this is going to backfire; I guarantee you there will be some or even many nightclubs that turn out to be hotspots for a second wave, and if the governments in those places are following the Hammer and Dance approach, restrictions will slam right back into place. Eventually, though, there'll be a vaccine, and we can start trying to get back to normal, modulo the anti-vax eejits.

But there's going to be one major difference: we now know (at the experiential level, not the vague conceptual one) that pandemics can happen, and that lockdown is a likely response from the authorities. A lot of our future choices are going to be made with that in mind. If you go away somewhere, can you get home in time if a lockdown is announced? If you're getting a new place to live, would you be able to spend six weeks there non-stop without going barmy? If you're getting a new housemate, are they someone you can stand to be locked in with for weeks? If you're moving out on your own, can you handle nothing but your own company for a prolonged period? Do you have stores (and room for stores and money to buy stores) of the things you need and the things you like? If you're changing jobs, does the new job allow working from home, and if not, what did they do for their workers during this episode? And so forth. Even if there isn't another pandemic for years, this will still shape our thinking.

There will also be panics in the future when there aren't pandemics. Just as people go out and buy the shelves bare of bread (and presumably hereafter, now that we all know how to make it ourselves, flour and yeast) when there's a possibility of snow in places that don't often get it, so there'll be a rumour of a particularly virulent flu or vaccine-resistant measles or whatever, and people will promptly start getting ready for things to shut down. This will fade out over a few years, unless the vaccine takes longer to come through than expected, or there's a different pandemic within that time. We've been incredibly lucky not have any such for about a hundred years, given the number of people on the planet now. If it doesn't fade out - or is stronger to begin with because the lockdowns last longer or recur a few times this time around - then the things I'm describing below will be stronger effects.

As is, most of these will be mild tendencies, not mass movements, and even if they are, not everyone will do them. There will always be some people who are trying to maintain things exactly as they were, and there will be others who just don't think enough to do things any differently. Both of these can be seen in the two groups of people most noted for breaking lockdowns at the moment - the moderately to very rich, who don't think the rules apply to them, and teenagers, who... are being rebellious, really.

People are going to look for living arrangements suitable for lockdowns. They're probably not going to go out of their way for this - unless they had a downright traumatic time during this one - but if they need to move for other reasons, this will be a factor. Apartments will be much less attractive, unless they have roof gardens, extensive balconies, or other access to a private outdoor space. Even within the context of apartments, people are going to look for bigger kitchens, more storage space, laundry facilities, and so on, possibly at the expense of number of bedrooms or size of bedrooms. The same applies to houses, but people will also be looking at how much of a garden there is, whether it has walls, is overlooked, and so on. Then there's location, and it'll be a slightly different approach than the current. In Ireland, this will certainly be "what's within 2km?" Proximity to public transport will be considered less important; proximity to parks and forest areas more so. The 2km circle will also, ideally, contain some shops, a medical centre of some kind, a post office, and so on. These are conditions which are mostly well served by any large village in Ireland, mind, but there are areas of Dublin that can't properly do so - in some cases due to large areas of suburbia, and in others due to population density.

Next, people are going to be paying more attention to who they're living with. Many people in their 20s and 30s are currently living with their parents still (or again) due to absolutely batshit property markets. In some cases, that will have worked out well; older people will have been able to avoid exposure to shops, and so on. In other cases, families who haven't spent more than a few hours together in a decade will have gone quite mad by the end of the lockdown, and be looking for any other accommodation. And some other arrangements of shared housing will have gone well, or not well, and those involved will want to either hang on to them or make adjustments. Hitherto, it has been possible to treat the place where you live as sleeping and storage space, and not really living space, and plenty of people in cities have done just that at various points in history - that's not true right now, and a lot of people are pretty uncomfortable because of it.

Then, work. The pandemic has demonstrated pretty categorically that knowledge work can be done from anywhere, and a lot of people in the West do knowledge work. Whole companies are operating perfectly well from people's homes, and were it not for the necessity to pick up the post from the office, it's pretty clear that they could just be got rid of. Some places, for whom the office rent is one of their major costs, may be looking at this possibility right now. Even in companies that do need physical presence in some areas don't need the accountancy department in the office all the time, or the marketing people. And while middle management has generally reacted with horror - how will they know they're managers if they can't see their underlings? - the actual data of work continuing perfectly well, particularly when you allow for a global crisis unfolding in real time, will make it hard for anyone to argue that it doesn't work.

It's also worth noting that this exposes massive hypocrisy in the management of many companies, who have denied work-from-home permission to people who have needed it for disability, for family, for health, etc, over the last decade or so (while in many cases allowing it for the C-level people or particular favoured employees). Not that exposure of hypocrisy actually does anything to most corporate entities, but they don't like it pointed out.

But distributed work, work from home, work from not-the-office, is going to be a more important factor from now on. Remote meetings work perfectly well (and a number of people have noted that they're in fewer meetings these days, because makework meetings are much more evident on Zoom or similar media), and if remote interviews were to be become a thing, a great deal of the offline could smoothly become online. The extroverts can, optionally, go in to the reduced-floorspace office if they really have to.

These things have knock-on effects and impacts on life after-and-during climate crisis. Much of it has to do with living space, which has been one of the long-running themes of this newsletter. So we can now say, "Move inland, plant potatoes, and make sure you like the people you're living with". Being slightly less facile about it, the vast majority of the advice I've been giving is valid in a post-pandemic, pandemic-capable lifestyle - you want to have secure, safe housing, not be completely dependent on external supplies of food, be able to educate and entertain yourself, and to have a network of people you can rely on. I don't know that I've really hit on the concept of liking the place in which you're living, though, so let me poke at that.

There's a certain concept of post-apocalyptic interior design that I like out there. It involves a lot of recycled and upcycled goods, low lighting, curtains over doors, rag rugs, blankets, wood-fired stoves, wind-up record players, and so forth. For example, have a look at these. There's a strong overlap with the "cabin aesthetic" here, and for fairly solid reason. But your climate-secure residence doesn't have to, and very likely won't, look like this. For a start, the wind-up record player is likely not to be a going concern; the solar-powered Spotify-enabled device is much more likely. Likewise, solar and wind power (whether on the grid or right there on the property feeding back into the grid) will be much more likely than the wood-burning stove and accoutrements. Although that said, I've been honestly amazed at the amount of firewood that we've pulled out of one small back garden in the weekend's cleanup, so having a useful way to dispose of that and get some heat from it seems like a useful thing too. I'm in full support of the recycled and upcycled furniture bit, but I don't expect Ikea or other large-network flatpack providers to go away. I do think that an eclectic, comfortable, lived-in look will be very much in, though.

Other aspects of liking the place you're living in might involve a good view (although if you've taken my previous advice on getting a southward-sloping sheltered place, you may well have that already), having a good level of tree coverage in the area (prevents landslides and other erosion in heavy rain, prevents flooding in general), and having decent infrastructure locally. And I know it sometimes sounds like I'm recommending a cottage way out in the sticks, but our current place is meeting a lot of requirements in what's more usually a dormitory town for the Greater Dublin Conurbation.

There's a lot of stuff out there saying that the world has changed. In that context, I'd refer anyone reading back to William Gibson; "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed." Nothing about the ways in which the pandemic is being handled are new; disabled or immuno-compromised folk, or those living in remote areas, have been living more or less like this for a long time now. There's just a different distribution of living arrangements.

This issue brought to you by the continued Irish lockdown (now until May 5th), a vigorous bank-holiday-weekend clearing of the back garden, and the delivery of three boxes of beer and cider. I have absolutely no idea what will be in the next issue, so we can find out together.

If you feel that Gentle Decline would be useful to someone else in your life, please forward it on and/or show them the subscription link at https://tinyletter.com/gentledecline - and there's also an intermittently updated Twitter feed at @gentledecline. I'd love to have more people reading this and being, in some sense, better prepared for what's slowly coming.

And if you're inclined to support this newsletter in a monetary sort of way, feel free to use my ko-fi link: https://ko-fi.com/drewshiel
Gentle Decline by Drew Shiel​
Kingsbry Maynooth, Ireland
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