Keeping Remote Work In Perspective


As workers, employers, and analysts try to understand the pandemic-induced increase in working from home, there’s a vigorous debate on remote work with economists like Adam Ozimek, Matthew Kahn, and Nicholas Bloom arguing the data show a major change. Although we don’t know the long term implications of these trends, some popular commentators may be going too far, too fast.

Take a recent article by Karla L. Miller, who writes the “Work Advice” column at the Washington Post. Miller said “I can barely make sense of the present state of the workplace” in an article that goes on to make sweeping claims about working remotely and its effects. (Miller doesn’t cite any of the current empirical analyses of remote work, including ones that would buttress her case.)

Miller in turn favorably quotes Julia Hobsbawm, a consultant and commentator on workplace issues. In her new book The Nowhere Office, Hobsbawm says that a person’s “working life is being shaken up more than at any point in the last hundred years.”

But it’s questionable whether working lives are changing “more than at any point in the last hundred years.” Looking at a few major workplace changes from the last century helps put the homework issue into perspective. There are several big changes that were much more significant than the current shift of some office workers to hybrid or full-time working from home.

Let’s start with something that began over a hundred years ago—the transition from agriculture to manufacturing. The invaluable website Our World in Data documents the US transition beginning around 1840, when 63.1% of workers were in agriculture compared to 14.5% in manufacturing. By 1920—about one hundred years ago, Hobsbawm’s time frame—agriculture had dropped to 25.9% of workers while manufacturing rose to 32.7%. And by 1960 only 7% of the workforce was in agriculture.

This workplace change was accompanied by massive population movement including the “Great Migration” from southern states to northern cities. The Census Bureau tells us “between 1910 and 1970, an estimated 6 million Blacks left the South” with a second wave between 1940 and 1970, driven by World War II production needs. Large numbers of displaced whites also came north. Those shifts of jobs and population surely are more significant than our current working from home numbers.

Or consider the Great Depression of the 1930s, well within Hobsbawm’s hundred year time frame. In 1933, about 25% of the workforce was unemployed. Federal programs created jobs, built the unemployment insurance and other social welfare systems and instituted Social Security. Labor unions grew in number and power, spreading affluence more widely and affecting American life and politics for decades.

Other big workplace changes in the past hundred years? There’s women’s increasing entry into the paid labor force. Economist Claudia Goldin has documented several phases, starting with poor single women working in manufacturing. The rise of teaching, clerical and other gendered occupations brought in more educated women.

26% of married women were in the labor force in 1930, and that almost doubled to 47% by 1950. Working outside the home for wages intersected with changes in fertility patterns, women’s earnings, family and household formation, and advocacy for anti-discrimination and equal rights legislation. Women have increased their share of many professions while still suffering pay and promotion gaps relative to men.

In addition to gender, there’s race. Throughout the past hundred years (and longer) structural racism harmed and continues to harm Black workers, who were denied equal employment and educational opportunities both through formal legal barriers and widespread racism in the workplace and society. Black workers were excluded from the welfare state changes of the Great Depression and postwar aid for housing and education, generating a continuing struggle for full inclusion.

A central demand of the Civil Rights Movement was increased and fair employment opportunities and anti-discrimination laws. And even with formal anti-discrimination laws, we still see significant economic gaps for Blacks of equal education and experience when compared to whites.

I could list other major workforce changes in the past hundred years—the decline of manufacturing and rise of services, computerization and technology in the workplace, the huge impact of immigrant workers on the US economy, globalization and international outsourcing—but the point should be clear. However pandemic-induced working from home ends up, it won’t be nearly as significant as many labor market changes we’ve seen in the past one hundred years.

We need a robust, well-informed analysis and debate over working from home. But sweeping ahistorical claims about the significance of pandemic-induced homework won’t help us understand it or deal with it. Commentators like Miller and Hobsbawm, and all of us, need to keep things in perspective.

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