All Is Proceeding

All is proceeding exactly as Joel Kotkin predicted.

At least a decade and half ago, urbanist Kotkin predicted…the present. Even then, urban growth patterns were trending away from the core-city/bedroom suburb model of the 1950s-1980s; most real growth was occuring on the fringes of the cities, and in medium-sized cities at the periphery. Most immigration was to the suburbs, not the fabled tenements of now-unaffordable major coastal cities. Indeed, cities were returning to their historical roots; European cities like London, Paris, Berlin and Rome, and even New York City and Boston, are mazes of smaller neighborhoods, built around settlement patterns, markets and industries (“Steinway”, in Queens, was a piano-building company town), rather than a general agglomeration of businesses.

Kotkin’s thesis – that eventually, today’s cities will become three concentric patterns:

  1. An inner core of incredible wealth, as the 1% enjoys easy access to big-industry offices and core amenities.
  2. A middle donut of intense poverty, a convenient place for Social Services to warehouse people on assistance.
  3. An outer, exurban ring blending into the hinterlands, where most of the actual people and growth are happening.

The pandemic, and the explosive acceptance of remote white and pink-collar work, is accelerating this.

The whole piece is worth a read. This pullquote in particular grabbed me:

Referring to the internet as an “information superhighway” is retro in the most cringeworthy way. But here, the metaphor seems apt. Decades after the construction of the U.S. highway system allowed high-income families to move from downtowns to the distant suburbs, Zoom might do the same. Remote work could do to America’s residential geography in the 2020s what the highway did in the 1950s and ’60s: spread it out.

Today, the term supercommuting is often used to describe the punishment inflicted on lower-income workers who have to live far from their job because of the scarcity of affordable housing. But the remote-work revolution could spawn the rise of something a little different: the affluent supercommuter who chooses to move to a big exurban house with the expectation that she’ll make fewer, longer commutes to the office.

“Historically, people who work from home don’t commute less overall, because they just drive longer distances,” Autor told me, referring to a Federal Reserve study from 2019. One shouldn’t put too much stock in a survey of pre-pandemic behavior. But the logic of fewer-but-longer commutes should lead to small towns and suburbs experiencing the fastest price growth. And, lo and behold, that’s exactly the story the online rental data are already telling us.

I left rural America for a reason; there were things about urban life that could not be found out in the hinterland. And I’m in a career where it genuinely helps to be where the work is. Will either of those factors change when – if – this pandemic ever sunsets?

No idea.

The big winners so far are Zoom, and Joel Kotkin.

17 thoughts on “All Is Proceeding

  1. I suspect working from home during the pandemic is more about temporary fear and virtue-signaling than a permanent change in how work gets done. The question is how will management react when the pandemic is over?

    My wife worked for Mn/DOT years ago. A new governor, a new commissioner, a new plan to avoid building more lane-miles: tele-commuting. Everyone would be encouraged to work from home, thus freeing up roads for those who needed them (truckers, police, etc) and save a bundle in construction costs.

    Great concept, didn’t happen. Management had to decide who could be trusted to work from home. How do we know you’re working every single minute if we can’t keep an eye on you? How do we know you’re not doing a load of laundry on company time? Big-shots and people who were ‘connected’ to the new administration got approved; everybody else drove to the office.

    During the pandemic, management has to let everybody work from home, both because the governor’s house arrest orders required it and also because managers didn’t want infected employees coming to work spreading the virus to kill everyone in the office. But once the vaccine is administered, case numbers fall off, and Covid deaths become merely background noise in mortality charts, the fear of death is gone and the fear that somebody might be getting away with something will rise again. I suspect the company announcement will read:

    “The President, CDC and most importantly, Two-Mask Tony have declared there is no longer any danger from the Covid-19 virus. The temporary measures needed during the pandemic are no longer needed. Now, we must have hands-on management to proactively reach creative solutions to employee productivity, and so we can leverage the synergy of diversity to better serve our customers; therefore, everybody back in your chair.”

  2. If this happens this way, it could be wonderful for small towns and rural communities that have in the past experienced a lot of young people/families leaving.

  3. people will be back in the office because of the 10yr leases on office spaces that management is still committed to.

  4. I started working from home six years ago when my management was shifted to a city 600 miles away, and when my internal clients were spread across Europe, the Middle East and South Africa. My company at the time was loathe to ok “telecommuting” but agreed that there wasn’t any reason for me to commute to downtown Minneapolis when I wasn’t going to have much face-to-face interaction anyway.
    Then came the COVID and within three weeks my company had everyone in our global offices working from home…and discovered people like it and there are some important business advantages for us in reaching our clients in the “new normal”. Last month I was even asked to edit/rewrite a company guidelines manual for future Work-from-Wherever requests (two years after my own request to work from Prague was turned down because of tax and benefits complications).

    A large chunk of my fellow employees like the convenience and productivity of not commuting, and I certainly don’t miss the hassle (and risks) of coming to downtown Minneapolis. I’ve read between some lines that the company is definitely considering the investment made in downtown real estate, not only here but in other urban centers (executive parking fees in downtown Amsterdam were around 3000 euros a month, for example). I really like working from home, especially on bad weather days, but I LOVE seeing people removing themselves from the whims and Fabian clutches of the downtown central planners.

  5. My wife works for a global company in Bloomington. She has been working from home since March 2020. In October, people that felt they would be more productive in the office, could sign up to do so. This process ensured that not too many people and/or people who were connected by cubes, wouldn’t be in at the same time. Their timeline for being back in bigger numbers is now May 1. Productivity has actually improved, according to the CEO. Her group is in a building where the company leases half of a building. Now, they have said that they may not renew the lease on that building, because there is space in their HQ building a mile away, to accommodate 75% of them, which they feel will be sufficient. Cutting out some overhead, may even prevent layoffs.

    In another case, two years ago, my sister accepted a position with a company in Florida. Since they had no children, they moved. My brother in law worked for a company in Mendota Heights. When he went to his boss’s office to resign, she told him that he could work remotely from FL, which solved 2 problems for her; 1. She retains a good employee and 2. She frees up an office for adds to staff. Once COVID disappears, he’ll be required to fly up to attend a couple of meetings per year.

  6. Why can’t Gupta do it from Bombay for a lot less money and no benefits at all?

    This, in particular has been tried, and failed miserably. I use a lot of stuff from a very large US manufacturer of automation hardware and software based in Wisconsin. Despite my having used their products for many years, they manage to come up with new and ever more frustrating “undocumented features” as we like to call their bugs.

    Throughout the 00’s, when we finally got through the lengthy triage process we would be connected to a Gupta in Bombay. For the most part, they knew what they were doing, but you couldn’t understand a fucking thing they said. It was infuriating; especially given what it costs to have this service.

    The company must have finally gotten the message.

    As of the past 5 years or so, we have been connected to people with the necessary technical and very good English skills, matched with a wonderful accent; Polish. As a bonus, it’s often a female.

    There were also other tech support services I make use of that used to be based in India, but I have taken note that not too many remain.

    I’m sure the ‘skis are paid more than the Gupta’s, but still less than a Smith.

    As for myself, I do not foresee returning to an office for the remainder of my career. With Skype, we have instantaneous collaboration, and beer for lunch.

  7. This, in particular has been tried, and failed miserably

    So true, Doctor. There is only one belief that is as tough to kill as “socialism has never really been tried” and that is getting to Gupta to replace western workers. When I retired, my company that should know better was in the process of trying it. One. More. Time.

  8. Urban flight is loss of control. That will NOT stand. I expect the new great society to be rebuilt a la opening credits of Futurama – vacuum tubes ferrying people about, one at a time to follow Wuhan orders, to individual sterile cubicles in the office towers. But bring the sheople to the CIty™ they WILL!

  9. There has to be new level of pressure on management to keep/offer remote work to keep/obtain talent. I should think today’s work force entrants would view remote work a valuable incentive.

    Also, recently retired as I am, my HR during employment relied on Indian telephone support. I dreaded calling them every time. However, the retiree benefit telephone support has been contracted with well spoken American sounding staff. Have spoken with them several times and marvel each time how helpful they are (stopped having to repeat “pardon me, pardon me…”). Either the company is very considerate of their old retirees or they fear their wrath!

  10. Predictions are hard. Especially about the future. Biden will work hard to resuscitate AFFH program in order to distribute low income voters to the suburbs. This will anchor the move to smother Red suburban communities. It’s the Magic Dirt theory at work. Like the efforts to prop up home ownership with subprime mortgages it is destined to fail.

  11. If you distribute low income voters to the suburbs, the existing population will move.
    I can not express how inhuman this forced relocation by ethnicity is. It is the tool Stalin used to destroy ethnic and national identity in the USSR. In the end the USSR broke up on ethnic/national lines anyway.
    The people pushing this plan are evil.

  12. Kevin Williamson on the radical destruction of Minneapolis:
    But Williamson has never lived in Minneapolis. What he has missed is the role played by the UM in pushing the politics of the Twin Cities in an ever more radical direction. Not officially, of course, but the U has provided cover for all manner of political extremism — as long as by “all manner” you mean Maoist.

  13. I’ve been noticing the hollowing out of big cities since I was a kid, as Chicagoland is a great example. The South Side used to be a mosaic of ethnic neighborhoods until the sixties, then those neighborhoods moved into the first ring suburbs, then those who could get out moved to second or third ring or (for those without kids) back to the area around the Loop. Gary is the same way–steelworkers moved first to Hobart and Merrillville, then further out, and those Gary residents who could afford to went to Hobart and Merrillvile and such.

    And the ugly fact is that just like many Californians found to their horror that when their child moved to Denver, he already was a Crip or Blood (that’s how the gangs got to CO), these first ring suburbs are learning that some of the new kids are indeed Gangster Disciples or Latin Kings, but with parents who have a decent job.

    I think the only way out is to re-fund the police and start helping people understand that there are certain things that need to be in place to have a society.

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  15. My company’s local offices are located in downtown Minneapolis, about a brick’s throw from the Government Center. Today we received a message from our building’s property manager. Basically, everything’s buttoned up until the trial is over. Not a huge disruption since very few from the company have even been in the building since last March, but I’m wondering how many will want to go back even after this is “over”.

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