When the pandemic is over, one in six workers is projected to continue working from home or co-working at least two days a week, according to a recent survey by economists at Harvard Business School. Another survey of hiring managers by the global freelancing platform Upwork found that one-fifth of the workforce could be entirely remote after the pandemic.
If white-collar workers are told the downtown office is forever optional, some will take their superstar-city jobs out of superstar cities. That much is obvious. But these shifts, even if they are initially moderate, could lead to more surprising and significant changes to America’s cultural, economic, and political future.
What follows are three second-order predictions—for our economy, our workforce, and our politics. Because predicting the future is, like dart throwing, easily done and often misdirected, each prediction ends with the best argument I can think of for why it won’t actually come true.
1. The “Telepresence” Revolution Will Reshape the U.S. Workforce
Since 2000, as spending on travel, food, and entertainment has surged, employment in leisure and hospitality—a large category that covers restaurants, hotels, and amusement parks—has increased three times faster than the rest of the labor force.
But the boom times for this super-sector may be over, according to the economist David Autor, a co-chair of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future. In a new paper co-authored with MIT’s Elisabeth Reynolds, he forecasts that the rise of remote work—or what they call “telepresence”—will lead to a more homebound life that creates less work for others.
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If business travel falls off by 10 or 20 percent, it could mean fewer jobs across airlines, hotels, and restaurants. “Business travel drives a lot of leisure and hospitality spending,” Autor told me. “Business travelers pay full freight at luxury hotels on weeknights. Their companies pay for business-class seats on airplanes. They use corporate credit cards for limos and lavish meals.”
Businesses aimed at locals could suffer too. “Most of us occupy two spaces, a home and a workplace, that we travel back and forth between throughout the workweek,” Autor said. As more people switch to working from home, that will leave a hole in the metro labor force. Emptier offices mean fewer weekday lunches at restaurants, fewer happy hours, and fewer window shoppers—not to mention less work for office buildings’ cleaning, security, and maintenance services.
A useful historical analogy might be retail. In the second half of the 20th century, retail jobs exploded. But Amazon and its kin moved work out of brick-and-mortar shops. What the e-commerce revolution did for physical stores, the telepresence revolution could do for office-adjacent employment: put downward pressure on the laborers who serve white-collar workers when they leave the house. And there are a lot of those: Roughly 30 million Americans work in restaurants, transportation, and buildings and grounds maintenance.