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We Are Never Going "Back To Normal"
New York City Mayor Eric Adams has declared that he “needs his city open”:
"We must get open. Let me tell you why," Adams said. "That accountant from a bank that sits in an office, it's not only him. It feeds our financial ecosystem. He goes to the cleaners to get his suits cleaned. He goes to the restaurant. He brings in a business traveler, which is 70% of our hotel occupancy. He buys a hot dog on our streets, I hope a vegan hot dog, but he participates in the economy."
Adams is engaged in the widespread thought process that millions of people are going through - denial. While New York City’s economy is somewhat dependent on office workers (and their companies leasing real estate), the assumption being made here is that New York City can function only if we get people back in offices. Adams, who loves to talk about his bold steps for New York City, says explicitly that he wants to “invest in a shared economy where everyone can work with dignity,” insists that the only way to move forward is to stay exactly where we are.
Adams’ approach is one of utter fantasy. Remote work is happening. In November, 54% of Manhattan workers remained fully remote, with only 8% of them working in the office five days a week. There is no going back unless people are forced to go back, and doing that for some participation in the economy is both contrary to “working with dignity” and good sense.
While I’m sure powerful forces are screaming at Adams to declare that people must return to the office, two years of remote work has, if anything, proven that there are many ways to get work done without always being in the office. And what, indeed, is Adams even asking? Do we need to return to the 5-days-in-the-office routine for his magical New York to work?
The problem is that nobody - myself included - really knows what the future holds, and I’d argue many people are lying to themselves that there will be a time when everything is exactly how it used to be. We may eventually reach a point where COVID is tolerable - but when is that? What number do we have to reach? How many variants are there left? And when all is said and done, when do we simply stop talking about it?
In some theoretical COVID-free or COVID-contained world, we have graphically, painfully shown how little regard we have for our workers. We have realized that millions of extremely selfish, petty people consider things like masks and vaccines “personal choice,” a thing that existed before but has never been as evident as it is today. We have realized that there is another way to work a lot of white-collar jobs, a way that is both more productive and better for the workforce, and have watched as extremely rich and powerful people have worked together to try and suppress it.
We Live In A Society, I Think?
And it’s shown us in vivid detail exactly how unprepared we are societally and governmentally to deal with something of this magnitude. We’ve all seen disaster movies where governments - and opposing parties - work together to fight a common enemy. Our disaster movie showed how little one side - we’re talking about the Republicans, if you disagree, please kiss my ass - really cared about life and liberty’s meaning other than “you can go outside if you want.” You can be a worthless goon and start blaming this on “both sides,” but there was only one side that decided that masks were a political thing, only one side that pushed vaccine hesitancy and “personal choice,” one side that chose to lead their people to the slaughter.
The net result is a polarized society. One side has chosen the path of patriarchal hegemony and “the American Dream,” where the only real calling cards are feeling like victims or victimizing others. The other is fractured between those trying to keep the status quo and those trying to find some little tiny way to improve a single thing and those who want to burn it down and start again - and justifiably so!
Sidenote: Yes, I know many of these problems were becoming very obvious under Trump, and under Obama too. COVID just massively accelerated them. And yes, I could trace a line back to 9/11 and the Bush Administration too. But I am but one man, and there are only so many hours in the day.
I’m not calling for unity - this is not my “I am now a centrist” newsletter. I am just saying that there is no returning to normal because COVID gave everybody the glasses from They Live. We all saw our total lack of unity, a lack of real support from the government, and actions like sending teachers back to school during a massive wave of COVID, but some of us chose to see this chaos as a testing ground for moral and physical strength. And while people can say that the media, or the government (or perhaps it’s more accurate, or COVID itself polarized us, the reality is that it just told us who we were friends with or who we worked with or for.
I will say that when I say “government” I am referring to those in power - the government or the law existing is not the problem, but those who are actively trying to challenge (or ignore entirely) the law itself, or those who have acted (and are acting) with disregard for (and actively worked against) the safety, health and prosperity of others.
We immediately saw who jumped to the right-wing dogma about “sending the kids back to school" in 2020 or those complaining about people “asking for handouts” when they received a little over a fifth of a month’s liveable wage before taxes. It’s a cop-out to say that people became a certain way because of COVID because it’s far more obvious and likely that these people were always selfish and always held right-wing views. They just finally found a home as it became a public stance to throw people into the path of the virus with as little support and protection as possible. They were not hypnotized by Ben Shapiro or Peter Pham or Dan Bongino or JP Sears - they just finally heard someone speaking the selfish, oppressive language that spoke to the privilege they so badly want to protect themselves from acknowledging.
If COVID were eradicated in its entirety tomorrow, we would still know which of our friends fell into these buckets. While Trump was a catalyst for this kind of thinking, COVID has been the real test of true generosity and empathy by asking people a simple question: do you care more about wearing a mask or getting a free, safe vaccine, or do you care about nobody telling you how to live? We will always know who made these choices, the people on our feeds that talked about people “not wanting to go back to work because of unemployment benefits,” or that “we got $1200, that’s all we need” because they had never experienced a real moment of hardship in their lives. We know the people who ranted about inflation the moment that Joe Biden got in office, despite not really knowing what inflation was and it having no real effect on their lives.
We cannot go back to normal because our normality was somewhat predicated on not knowing if we knew anyone who lacked emotional object permanence. We assumed that everybody we knew had an unspoken level of community - even the most cynical of us believed that, in the face of death, the vast majority of people would choose to do the right thing. But the state of American society is such that most people cannot choose to stop working, as there is no safety net, and we have a privatized healthcare system. Those who can afford to be sick the least are the ones that were most likely to be exposed to COVID - and the cycle is repeating with Omicron, which may be milder if you’ve vaccinated but is still potentially deadly if you get it or spread it to someone else.
“Back To Work”
And as I’ve said, in whatever way we “beat” COVID, we will still remember what happened and who acted in what way. There’s a famous (and uncited) quote that says that “inside every person you know, there is a person you don’t know,” and I’d argue that the pandemic has shown us a great many people we didn’t know. I have said multiple times that COVID has been the chance for people to really show their empathy - now is the time that you’re lax on firings, lax on suspensions, where those with resources should be more generous with them - and conversely, it’s also a time where many chose to do the exact opposite.
This was - and is - the time to build trust. Every single anti-remote op-ed author has shown that their primary kink is power over profit and control over cash. Remote work is a terrifying idea when the reason - even if you never really thought about it before - you hired someone was so that they could make you money and make you feel good about yourself. Those banging the “back to work” drum aren’t even concerned about work - they are concerned about keeping things exactly how they were for as long as possible. They do not care about the future unless it directly benefits and resembles their beliefs in every way, even if those beliefs are built on the ideals of abuse and manipulation.
As I’ve said previously, these were all things that existed before COVID, they were just not quite as obvious, and never quite as public. We talked about “bad bosses” almost as if they were rare - as if we were just the unlucky few - despite so many of us being repeatedly unlucky. Like COVID tested society, it tested the empathy and pragmatism of many businesses and saw the depressing results that should have been far more obvious than they were.
And there is no putting that toothpaste back in the tube. It is blatantly obvious that most companies that could work remotely were successful in doing so, improving the lives of workers and reducing costs for the business. Instead of widespread applause about this situation that would vastly improve both sides of the employer-employee transaction, we have seen corporations work tirelessly to gaslight the white-collar workforce into believing that you can only use the computer correctly if your supervisor is there.
It’s also essential - and man, writing this feels like I should’ve published it on New Year’s Eve not January 10th - to recognize how bad America’s management problem is. My first Atlantic piece still has people randomly emailing me about their passive aggressive do-nothing managers and how remote work has removed their ability to stomp around and give workers anxiety. Remote work is causing executives to reflect painfully on whether they’ve hired a bunch of people to be hall monitors, something that only sort of made sense in an office, with the additional perk of being able to scare and humiliate people below you.
In many ways, corporate America’s struggle against remote work is similar to Eric Adams’. The change to a hybrid or flexible situation requires a great deal of painful organizational introspection, including but not limited to firing a bunch of managers you hired to mentor people and getting out of multi-year leases. Adams’ problem is similar yet even more difficult - to begin moving New York away from an office- dominant culture will involve pissing off a lot of people, and require a reimagining of financial centers (a similar issue to the one British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing) and, indeed, whether financial centers will exist in 20 years.
They likely will on some level - what with stock exchanges and all - but I refuse to believe that the amount of kvetching by government figures about “needing to go back to the office” is not indicative of a genuine fear of the work required for progress to happen.
But there is no “back to normal.” This is our normal. Normal is a constantly-evolving state. But it’s one we’re now going to operate in with a great deal more clarity about those around us - those we rely or relied upon, those we trust or trusted, and those we choose - or choose not - to align ourselves with.