The Surprising Effects of Remote Work

Working from home could be making it easier for couples to become parents—and for parents to have more children.

Photo showing a person working on a laptop, sitting on the floor next to a baby
Miguel Pereira / Getty

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In the past half century, Americans have had fewer and fewer babies with almost every passing decade; in 2020, the U.S. reported the lowest official fertility rate on record. But last year, statisticians observed a surprising baby bump. Researchers weren’t entirely sure what had happened. Maybe this was random noise. Maybe, like so many pandemic effects, it was a weird one-off phenomenon.

A new paper puts forth a fascinating theory: Maybe remote work is making it easier for couples to become parents—and for parents to have more children.

The economist Adam Ozimek and the demographer Lyman Stone looked at survey data of 3,000 American women from the Demographic Intelligence Family Survey. They concluded that female remote workers were more likely to intend to have a baby than all-office workers, especially if they were richer, older, and more educated. What’s more, remote workers in the survey were more likely to marry in the next year than their nonremote counterparts.

Remote work might promote family formation in a few ways. Remote workers can move more easily, because they don’t have to live within commuting distance of their job. This flexibility might result in more marriages by ending the “two-body problem,” where romantic partners find employment in different cities and must choose between their career and their relationship. What’s more, remote work reduces commutes, and those weekly hours can be shifted to family time, making it easier to start or grow a family.

Fertility is an awkward topic for journalists, because starting a family is such a complicated and intimate decision. But fertility rates aren’t declining simply because more people are choosing not to have children—American women report having fewer kids than they want, as Stone has documented in previous research. If remote work is subtly restructuring the contours of life to enable more women to have the families they want, that’s great news.

Indeed, the paper found that the biggest effect of remote work on fertility was on older women who already had a child, or several. The authors concluded that “remote work doesn’t necessarily trigger women to initiate childbearing,” but it might help older mothers “balance the competing demands of work and family.”

Remote work isn’t a skeleton key that unlocks the long-running mystery of declining fertility rates across the developed world. These results are not overwhelming, and they are concentrated among a minority of the U.S. population.

But this study reaffirms the fact that we’re only just beginning to grasp the consequences of remote work for the U.S. economy. Other countries, such as Japan and France, are seeing return-to-office rates in major cities climb to 75 percent. But in the U.S., the largest coastal cities—New York; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; San Jose—all, as of late February, show weekly office-occupancy rates of below 50 percent. Half-empty offices in many American downtowns are translating to plummeting transit usage and depression-level demand for commercial real estate. Meanwhile, remote work is pushing many Americans to buy bigger and bigger homes to accommodate home offices and gyms, which is leading to higher house prices, especially in the suburbs. We’re starting to see the ways that remote start-ups might scramble the distribution of talent in America, allowing more tech workers to find a home—and even build a hub—in cities away from the coasts.

Bigger families, bigger homes, struggling downtown economies, endangered transit treasuries, and a more evenly distributed white-collar workforce: That’s a lot of things happening at once. Media critics have a tendency to place emerging technologies in discrete affective categories—to decide, for example, that AI chatbots are either incredibly useful or terrible and dystopian. But technological revolutions such as the persistent increase in remote work are messier than that. Remote work, too, has proved to be a bit of a mess. But for some families, it might be something perfect and unexpected: the soft tailwind behind another stork.