Our AEI colleague, Yuval Levin recently published an article in Commentary Magazine exploring how the COVID-19 moment might affect social solidarity. Will it lead to increased cohesion or fuel polarization?
Yuval points out that it is too early to know — a function of what another AEI scholar, Nicholas Eberstadt, has called the “fog of war.” As pattern-seeking primates, we are nonetheless compelled to speculate.
It is likely that the economic impacts of the pandemic will reverberate for years. More than 30 million new unemployment claims have been filed in the past six weeks, resulting in a potential unemployment rate in the mid- to high-teens. Some analysts have suggested unemployment might not drop below 10 percent until the end of 2021. This “recession of choice” was the trade-off for slowing the spread of the disease and protecting the capacity of the health system. Essentially, we are paying people to stay six feet apart. While relatively easy to shut down, rebuilding the organic and complex web of exchange we call “the economy” will be far more difficult. Various federal stimulus initiatives will keep many businesses alive in an induced coma. Others businesses simply won’t make it. Fragile supply chains will have to rebuild themselves in adverse circumstances.
This means there will be potentially millions of Americans seeking new jobs simultaneously in an uncertain job market as state governors begin to slowly open up their economies. As other nations are showing us, it seems far more likely that our economic recovery follows a gradual “U”-shaped shape rather than the “V” rebound initially hoped for. Uncertainty will be increased as governors open and close state, regional and local economies to deal with COVID-19 flare-ups. This will rattle business leaders, workers, and investors and stress public systems (e.g., unemployment insurance, workforce development and job training, mass transit) forced to cope with on-again, off-again economic conditions.
Another big unknown is how the experience and presence of COVID-19 is likely to impact work itself. Democrats in Congress are already pushing expanded Occupational Health and Safety Administration powers to establish mandatory standards for COVID-related workplace safety. As with every other regulatory push, there’s danger of government going too far and imposing unnecessarily stringent conditions that act as barriers for business start-ups and expansions. Since “safety” can justify almost anything, such policies will be hard to resist — especially if a more regulation-friendly president and administration are installed. Under-shooting on workplace safety is a recipe for a different disaster that feeds the epidemic and heightens social tensions between essential and non-essential workers.
The professions will also likely change with ongoing need for social distancing and modified office practices to contain and reduce viral infections. Will the much-loathed (by employees) “open” office plan survive? Millions of workers are entering their sixth week of telework. Some of them will develop new life rhythms that will be difficult to forget (and leave), ever more so as the weeks of telecommuting lengthen. Employers are likely to identify certain benefits as well, such as how work-from-home may improve corporate resiliency to natural disasters, cut back on exposure to illness that lead to sick-time, and reduce the need for expensive office space. Other legacy practices that have marked employment for years — carefully monitored 9 to 5 schedules, in-person meetings, and regular travel — may seem increasingly antiquated and superfluous as workers and employers discover they can both skip the commute and improve productivity with Zoom. Advances in internet communications technology, including “hologram meetings” will continue to drain the “virtual” out of virtual reality. What happens when these technologies and practices move from being temporary responses to COVID-19 to being preferable to workers and employers?
Moving work back home, a common experience in the pre-industrial era, might have downstream effects on the role of work in meeting social needs. For the better part of 50 years, the decline of civil society has been widely lamented most memorably, in Robert Putnam’s formulation, as “bowling alone.” People, however, did not cease to be sociable — they simply aimed their social instincts elsewhere. For many, television, gaming, social media, and, to a large extent, work, have become alternate forms of community and social interaction replacing the close, personal contact of religious communities, fraternal organizations, softball leagues and civic groups.
To some degree, this hollowing out of social and community life is related to increased commitments to work. The average hours worked of prime-age, wage-earning American adults have increased since the late 1970s, leveling off for most workers in the early 2000s. This increase in work hours has held particularly true for women and high-income, college-educated men. A 2014 Gallup poll found that full-time American workers work 47 hours per week on average, a remarkably high number among wealthy nations that has held constant in Gallup surveys since at least 2001. Long work hours coupled with lengthening commutes necessarily leave less time for family, neighborhood, and community. The fact that these trends have coincided with social ennui and the ongoing breakdown of the family suggests these negatives may be part of the price-tag of extra work denominated in social health and well-being.
There is at least some hope that a new work landscape might also produce a new “community-work equilibrium.” Shelter-in-place rules have forced many families and roommates to spend more time together over the last few weeks than they otherwise would have spent in a year. Or two years. Next-door activity has exploded as neighbors do more casual checking in to see how others are doing and offer assistance and simple comforts like food. Churches and other religious communities have innovated to maintain connections with online prayer and social gatherings. Even the cocktail hour has moved online. Zoom and FaceTime have provided platforms not only for work meetings but also for reaching out to long-neglected relationships on otherwise uneventful evenings. The combination of a less frenetic work life and renewed emphasis on other forms of social relationship may harden into new ties that bind us — but in a different way than before. We’ll have to wait and see. And hope.
Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he conducts research on workforce development, criminal justice reform, and social theory. Caleb Seibert is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.