Most of America is itching to get back to normal. And in most ways, it will happen: Once COVID-19 has been vanquished, we’ll get back to doing everything we used to do. But in a handful of areas, the pandemic could change the way we live over the long term.
Think of it this way. Most of the time, it’s a big risk to make a change in the way you run your business or organize your family life: It might pay off, but it might be a disaster, so you quite rationally hesitate. COVID-19, by contrast, forced us to try new ways of doing things, and to make investments in the new arrangements. Some small percentage of the time, for some percentage of the population, those new ways could turn out to be better than the old ways.
Here are a few examples, some pretty speculative.
1. More working from home
For years now, the telecommuting revolution has been just around the corner . . . but actual telecommuting has grown pretty slowly. Cutting out the car ride and renting less office space has its appeal, but a lot of people are convinced that face-to-face interaction and supervision are crucial. Or at least they were convinced until the pandemic forced them to switch to remote workplaces when possible and the sky didn’t fall.
Upwork, a company that runs a platform for freelancers, has been surveying managers on this topic — asking the same questions before and after COVID-19 struck — and its chief economist laid out the results in a recent report. With the pandemic in progress, the share of workers operating remotely has risen from 13 percent to more than half, with 20 percent of workplaces being entirely remote. More than half of these managers said remote work was going better than expected, while only about one in ten said it was going worse than expected.
Managers have also shifted their views of how common remote work will be five years from now at their companies. Before COVID, 17 percent saw themselves running fully remote teams; now, 22 percent do. The share saying there would be no remote work at all fell from 54 percent to 42 percent. These changes would mean a big, sustained hike in stay-at-home work.
2. More homeschooling and perhaps stay-at-home parenting
There’s a similar dynamic playing out on the home front: Kids are home, and while a lot of parents can’t wait for school to get back in session, some are finding that homeschooling works for them. A recent poll from RealClear Opinion Research and School Choice Now asked whether parents were “more or less likely to enroll your son or daughter in a homeschool, neighborhood homeschool co-op, or virtual school once the lockdowns are over.” About two-fifths said they were more likely, more than the roughly one-third who said they were less likely — who presumably didn’t homeschool beforehand, and as a result will just go back to what they did before. If any significant number of parents actually act on their improved opinion of homeschooling, that could be a big boost to the phenomenon. (Full disclosure: I edited a RealClear website, RealClearPolicy, for a few years in the mid 2010s.)
This is a bit more speculative because I can’t find any survey data on the topic, but I also wonder if more couples will find it works surprisingly well to have one parent watch the kids while the other works, between the schools’ being closed and so many parents’ being out of a job.
3. More alternatives to college
Higher education was in a rough place even before the pandemic. We conservatives said it was overpriced and too often overrated; liberals agreed it was overpriced and wanted it to be free. And perhaps most important of all, thanks to declining birth rates, the entire sector was staring in the face of a demographic apocalypse. There’s never a great time for a pandemic on campus, where people live in close quarters and attend classes together indoors, but 2020 was an especially bad one.
A loss of tuition revenue and ongoing social distancing could destroy a lot of small colleges. One doomsayer thinks a fifth of our private liberal-arts colleges could disappear in the next year. Schools of every kind are struggling with serious budget issues.
What happens after the die-off, of course, is anyone’s guess. Maybe employers will still demand the same credentials they always have. Maybe the same share of kids will still go to college, but will cram themselves into the surviving bigger universities, both to satisfy those employers and to enjoy a four-year party.
But maybe, just maybe, we’ll finally see some real alternatives take root, at least for the students who are the least well served by the current system; this could include online learning, which can serve far more students at far less cost. A lot of students have now tried to learn via telecommunication, universities have worked to get those capabilities up and running, and some students are taking a harder look at online universities, so it’s a lot more doable and normalized than it used to be.
We can hope, anyway.