America came out of the horrific influenza pandemic more than a century ago, then embarked on what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” But our ’20s may roar differently.
The current pandemic, for instance, might change how and where white-collar workers work in a way the Great Influenza did not. A reader of this column deluges me with news stories supporting his contention that remote work is here to stay. Either we’ll see hybrid work, with offices in use part time, or the large-scale death of offices.
I say it’s too soon to make a sweeping conclusion. But maybe he’s right.
For example, The New York Times reported that as of last month only 8% of Manhattan workers were in the office full time, while 28% were still fully remote. Texas cities are doing better, according to an analysis by Kastle Systems. Office workers were stuck at around 34% in downtown Seattle for months, but recently rose to 40%, according to the Downtown Seattle Association.
On the other hand, Microsoft and Expedia have fully reopened with a hybrid model. Microsoft employees will have flexibility but are expected to spend at least 50% of their time in the office. Weyerhaeuser employees returned to the company’s Pioneer Square headquarters in April. Others, including Amazon, are waiting (although I see Amazon buses picking up employees at its headquarters; at least some are in the office).
Elon Musk sent an email to Tesla and SpaceX employees on Tuesday saying “everybody” was expected to return to the office or face termination.
In an email titled “To be super clear” Musk wrote, “Everyone at Tesla is required to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week. Moreover, the office must be where your actual colleagues are located, not some remote pseudo office. If you don’t show up, we will assume you have resigned.”
An important caveat to this discussion is that at least 60% of Americans have jobs that can’t be done from home.
Still, maybe the pandemic has fundamentally changed us, pushed us into a new way of living. Tourism and travel are returning. But as my colleague Paul Roberts reported, tourists alone aren’t enough to support the downtown economy, which is the backbone of the city’s economy.
The 1918-20 influenza killed 675,000 Americans out of a population of approximately 103 million. Yet it didn’t change the trajectory of trends that led to the Roaring ’20s prosperity. About a century later, COVID-19 took at least 1 million lives out of a population of 330 million and our ’20s are muted.
True, the nationwide unemployment rate was 3.6% in April, below what economists consider full employment. In King County, it was an astonishing 1.9%. No wonder workers feel the power to defy return-to-the-office orders. By most measures, the economy is enjoying a stunning recovery from early 2020.
Yet many don’t feel good about it. Nearly 54% of those polled disapprove of President Joe Biden’s performance. Consumer confidence is low. People worry about the stock market’s swoon for most of the year. Inflation has leapt to levels not seen in 40 years.
The Federal Reserve Board is raising interest rates at a similarly aggressive pace to tame high prices. But this comes with the risk of causing a recession.
The inflation-killing recession brought on by Fed Chair Paul Volcker in 1981 led to the highest unemployment spike of the post-World War II era — until the pandemic shutdown in the spring of 2020. His successor Alan Greenspan was a master of the “soft landing” — tamping down inflation while not causing a downturn.
Is today’s Fed Chair Jerome Powell up to the challenge? Volcker, Greenspan, Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen were all economists (and in Bernanke’s case a leading scholar of the Fed’s response to the Great Depression). Powell, who recently won another term, was an investment banker. Make of that what you will.
Other portents bode ill for how our new ’20s will roar, even without the pandemic.
Russia invaded Ukraine as Vladimir Putin seeks to reconstitute the old Russian Empire. It marks the first time since World War II that a European nation has attempted to forcibly take over its neighbor. Ukraine has inflicted serious losses on Moscow’s troops, but the war is ongoing and has been marked by Russian atrocities.
The invasion galvanized NATO, which had been drawing apart thanks to President Donald Trump’s antipathy to the alliance. NATO’s support for Ukraine brings the risk of direct conflict with Russia, whose economy has been wrecked by sanctions but Moscow possesses a huge nuclear arsenal.
Beijing has watched the war closely, drawing lessons known only to the Communist leadership. China has promised to reunify the mainland with democratic Taiwan, by force if necessary. Biden announced this past month that the United States would intervene militarily to protect Taiwan, ending the “strategic ambiguity” that had been previous U.S. policy.
Climate change remains an existential challenge. The pandemic slowed the rise of emissions — they actually fell worldwide in 2020 — but the time to avoid disastrous economic and social costs is running out.
Me? I miss the 1990s. I miss wearing a suit and tie to the newsroom every day, where we practiced journalism face to face. The Cold War was over and liberal democracy was triumphant. We were not so divided or driven crazy by social media.
Since then, we’ve been hammered by a presidential election dubiously decided by the Supreme Court, 9/11, endless wars, the Great Recession and the rise of Trumpism. iPhones are small compensation for all that’s been lost. (And, yes, Seattle did very well in the 2010s.)
This is selective memory, of course. Newt Gingrich sowed today’s political polarization in the 1990s, too.
Also, consider the beginning of the 20th century, where a sense of inevitable progress was lost to two world wars, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the Great Depression and other calamities.
All of which makes a return to the office a trivial thing. We ride on the leading edge of history. Did COVID change us or break us? Stay tuned.