"The idea behind this book," writes Felix Salmon, "is that the unexpected isn’t over." A pronouncement like that offers both great hope and caution, and acts as an important reminder.
The Phoenix Economy: Work, Life, and Money in the New Not Normal by Felix Salmon, Harper Business
Yesterday marked the official end of the COVID-19 public health emergency in the United States. The World Health Organization made the same call last week. Most of us have had our hopes dashed too many times during the pandemic to get too excited about this arbitrary official ending of it, but it is still welcome news. The disease is, of course, still with us. We know it will remain a reality in our lives. We also know the effects of the pandemic will be with us for a long time to come. But what exactly are those effects, and how will they shape our future? In his first book, renowned journalist Felix Salmon helps us parse what has happened over the course of the past three years and the long-lasting ramifications these events will have on our lives, both public and private.
The pandemic changed how we experience, and how we value, time and space. As we continue to emerge from it, everything that happened during its duration suddenly feels like it happened either three months ago or three years ago—or both. Time didn’t seem to move like it used to, so it was hard to measure. In terms of space, it suddenly didn’t matter where you lived anymore, because you were no longer required, or even allowed, to physically head into the office every weekday anymore—which meant you weren’t really required to live near it. As Salmon notes:
If you can work from home, after all, you can work from anywhere.
At the same time, the most important thing became where you lived, because your home was now your office, too.
We were confronted with an endless series of such contradictions. For working parents, who could once easily determine which hours of the day would be devoted to what responsibility, every hour suddenly became an unwieldy amalgamation of every responsibility from which there was little relief and no escape. And yet, most don’t want to be forced back to the office. People want to retain the flexibility in the good times that was demanded of them during the emergency.
Salmon is not dogmatic in his dissection of such issues, eschewing easy answers and bold pronouncements (unless insisting that New York is not dead counts as a bold pronouncement) for nuance and the notion that two seemingly contradictory statements can be true at once. For instance, soon after detailing the substantial benefits of working in an office space with others and the contact that confers with our human beings, he notes that:
The financial case for giving employees the option to work from home was well known by the time the pandemic hit. Back in 2013, Stanford economist Nick Bloom authored an important paper showing a 13 percent performance increase when you forced workers to work from home, and a 22 percent increase when you gave them the option whether or not to work from home.
Salmon is not an organizational psychologist or prognosticator of the workplace, though. He is a financial journalist, and one of the best there is. So, when he writes about how the pandemic changes how we value space, he eventually gets around to how we literally value space. While discussing how office buildings emptied out and many people left America’s larger cities, Salmon notes that “demand for New York property was increasing even where the population was decreasing, because of how the pandemic changed the arithmetic of workspace.”
If the average household has one person who can work from home, and that person is accustomed to having about 150 square feet of space for working in, then the household is going to feel more cramped that usual unless it expands by about 150 square feet, or 15 percent. A 2 percent population decline will never be enough to counteract the effects of the people staying in New York demanding 15 percent more space than they had previously.
It wasn’t just New York, though. Housing prices soared everywhere as people decamped to the suburbs and exurbs in search of more space and larger homes to work from. I have talked often with younger people here in Milwaukee about how the housing market just isn’t as affordable as it was when my wife and I were looking for our home 12 years ago. On the other side of that proverbial coin, as office buildings emptied out and the labor market tightened, younger workers were more empowered than they have been in recent memory. As Salmon looks at what this could mean for the future of employer/employee relations and the economy overall, he also takes time to remind us that pandemics are not the only reason office buildings are emptied of a company’s employees.
Think also of the stunning memorials to themselves the corporations leave behind. I can’t imagine New York without the magnificent Woolworth or Chrysler buildings, for instance, even though Woolworth barely lives on, ignominiously trading as Foot Locker, while Chrysler has become a Netherlands-headquartered franken-corporation known as Stellantis. Neither has any presence in either of those glorious pre-way skyscrapers.
When you see the corporation that way, it becomes easier to understand how hard it is for humans to change them. We’re the inputs, not the outputs.
Uncertainty and change are constants in business and life, but the pandemic didn’t just affect the fortunes of a few corporations. It changed the way we—and the products we produce and consume—move around the world. It tragically ended millions of human lives. “Involuntary unemployment,” in Salmon’s words, “skyrocketed,” and for the world’s poorest populations, “the bottom 10 percent … things were dire.” So, Salmon writes early how:
In that context, it seems to me that concentrating on a handful of bright spots—the rise of telecommuting, say, or a newfound appreciation for homemade bread—would be tasteless at best. “Never mind the death and immiseration of millions, have you thought about how great this pandemic has been for dogs?”
But there are some bright spots. Yes, the pandemic was devastating, and COVID is still with us…
And yet, as the ashes piled up, it became increasingly easy to see the outlines of the phoenix emerging from them, certainly in the United States.
The damage the pandemic did to international supply chains has refocused our attention on domestic manufacturing and supply chains—which could help reverse decades of decline in regional economies like those surrounding the smaller cities of the Industrial Midwest. Regional economies were also strengthened somewhat as the population spread out and people moved to places like Boise and Des Moines. Coming from a family that fled the closing factories of Rockford, Illinois, in the early ’80s and decamped to rural Wisconsin where my farm-raised mother could trade her agricultural labor for a rent free apartment in an old farmhouse while my father drove truck for a nearby lumberyard for a few years until we got back on our feet, I find the prospect of small cities and regional economies rebounding an inspiring and hopeful prospect.
But these trends, if they continue, could also make the entire country more competitive with the regions that have captured the bulk of economic growth over the past few decades, and with the rest of the world. Is it too much of a stretch to say that it could lessen the political divide that has widened over that time within the country? Probably. The point is that we still don’t know the distant, and likely dramatic, ramifications of the COVID-19 era. As Salmon says:
The idea behind this book is that the unexpected isn’t over.
I have focused mostly on my own hopes and interests as an office worker, parent, and lifelong resident of the upper Midwest in this review, which gives only a glimpse at the breadth the book contains. I am sure there are sections of the text you'll connect to more personally. But we are all connected to and through the reality of living through a global public health emergency, and we all still have but one life to live in its aftermath. Making sense of, and meaning in, our lives is our only real imperative. Felix Salmon does us the invaluable service of helping us do that, parsing what has happened to us personally and as a species during the pandemic years, preparing us for what might happen next, and ultimately reminding us to enjoy the ride and each other in the time and space we have.