The staying power of the stay-at-home economy
The pandemic proved a large swath of the population can produce services and consume goods without leaving their homes — if supported by other workers.
Why it matters: We risk becoming an even more divided society — with Peloton-riding, Amazon Prime-ordering office workers living within a convenient, luxurious stay-at-home economy and essential workers servicing that lifestyle while scraping by themselves.
The big picture: Income inequality was a huge — and growing — issue before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, but the last year widened the chasm between rich and poor.
- In Q1 of 2020, the top 1% of Americans held 29.9% of the wealth and the bottom 50% held 1.9%. The gap grew to 31.4% for the top and 2.0% for the bottom by the end of the year, per Fed data.
- "Let’s not kid ourselves that this is a new problem," says Richard Reeves, the director of the Future of the Middle Class Initiative at the Brookings Institution. "The pandemic was just a flash of an X-ray bulb exposing these fractures."
What's happening: Remote work has become the ultimate privilege, giving those who can work from home sovereignty over time and place, Reeves says. Going to work every day used to be something of an equalizer. The pandemic dismantled that.
- Remote office workers can come and go as they please, spend more time with family, or even work from exotic locations. In-person workers, who tend to be lower-skilled and lower-income, still have to deal with the rigidity of clocking in and clocking out — and juggling child care, health care and life around it.
- For example, the Ford Motor Company recently announced all of its office workers can telework as often as they like. But all of the workers in production don't have that option.
"We’re going to keep seeing this growth of home being the epicenter of life," says Zara Ingilizian, an expert on the future of consumption at the World Economic Forum. "And not everyone will have access to this at-home future we’re discussing. That has tremendous implications."
We're already seeing the far-reaching effects of telework on businesses and individuals alike.
- As the stay-at-home economy pushes independent restaurants and shops to shutter in droves, retail behemoths who can offer delivery, like Amazon, Walmart and Kroger, have had blockbuster years.
- Jobs in hospitality and tourism are still down 25% compared with February 2020, while jobs in software development and finance are up 13% and 12%, respectively, according to the jobs site Indeed.
Yes, but: There are silver linings.
- Flexibility was always an option for workers at the top, Reeves says. At least now it's spreading to all workers who can telework. "I’d rather leaders have to justify that inequality rather than it being unspoken that managers can come in later than everyone else," he says.
- And we could see companies offer new perks to their essential workers to hold onto them. "One implication is companies feel pressure to compensate people who work in-person higher because that is now seen as a detriment," says Jonathan Rothwell, chief economist at Gallup.
What to watch: Workers in jobs being created by the stay-at-home economy — in food delivery, warehousing and trucking — face a double whammy, says Ingilizian.
- Many of these roles are gig jobs, without stability and with low pay. And they're also on the automation chopping block. Per a recent WEF report, 40% of retail job activities and 54% of consumer goods production job tasks are subject to automation.
- Automation is poised to make the inequality induced by the stay-at-home future even worse, Ingilizian says.