How We Live Next, Top Stories

The Age of the Homebody Has Only Begun

The day we’ll all finally be able to safely leave our houses and apartments will also be the day we’ll no longer need to. That’s because the global lockdowns and social-distancing requirements imposed to arrest the spread of COVID-19 have dramatically accelerated the process of making nearly every possible good or service available at our homes.

We now have available to us more home entertainment options, and of a higher quality, than ever before. With so many top cultural institutions making their performances available to all online, aficionados are growing accustomed to watching the best live performances—from pop stars performing in pyjamas all the way up to opera and ballet—from the comfort of viewers’ own homes. If anything, people lament not having sufficient time to watch all of these excellent offerings.

Many of us have been forced to homeschool our children. In doing so, some of us have been realizing a parenting fantasy or living a parenting nightmare, or both. Either way, we’ve become aware of the many ways in which teaching and learning can take place at home. Even many adults have had time to pursue the wealth of excellent learning materials available for free or limited cost—including classes and lectures from the world’s best universities.

Those among us who are teachers or professors were forced to suddenly adapt to online teaching, even if it hadn’t been part of our professional regimen previously. Content migration processes that were expected to take years, if not decades, have been condensed into a few months or weeks. Maybe some of us have found this new way of teaching quite useful, and even, as one professor at a top university recently confessed to me, more productive. Online courses, language apps and just about anything that can be learned through a computer screen, from cooking to computing, are experiencing a global boom.

The supermom trying to do it all—preparing dinner while supervising homework while managing a conference call and emptying her inbox: She now has become, by necessity, the standard in many households. Whether submitting reports, briefing colleagues, managing teams (or being managed), updating content or liaising with clients, many of us are now working from home. It’s too early to assess the overall effect on productivity, which will differ greatly based on one’s industry, organization and personality in any case. But so far, all of my friends working from home have testified to the greater effectiveness of Zoom meetings compared with the in-person, office-based variety. Those who do not also have to homeschool in parallel seem to find that productivity can go up when daily travel time is taken out of the equation.

Healthcare, too, is going through an accelerated process of digitization. As non-COVID-19 patients avoid going to doctors and hospitals for non-urgent needs, they’re growing increasingly accustomed to using digital health services—speaking to their doctors on video, getting advice and receiving prescriptions electronically (in some cases, even having medicines delivered at home). All this is done without the need to expose themselves or others to sickness.

Beyond healthcare, the entire digital wellness industry is booming. As the Economist recently noted, meditation apps, digital fitness classes and online cookery courses are gaining millions more subscribers, “with kettlebells and yoga mats selling like toilet paper.” Those who made fun of that sexist Peloton ad in December now find themselves wishing they had one of those same networked exercise bikes to keep fit.

Religion, too, has been forced to change with the times. In late March, the Pope led services alone at the Vatican, the Via Delarosa being abandoned on Easter. Haredi Jews are praying alone in enclosed balconies. And the Kaaba in Mecca is bereft of pilgrims.

Even the lumbering machinery of government has been forced into an accelerated process of digitization. With millions registering for unemployment benefits and newly minted COVID-19 relief programs, governments must scramble to get money into people’s hands before evictions and bankruptcies cripple their economies. New York City is even allowing digital registration for marriage licenses. And City Hall is providing electronic wedding services. Digital elections, once seen as an experimental rarity, may soon become the norm.

The activities that are most reliant on mass congregation—traditional religious services, music concerts, major sports events—are also the ones that will take the longest to go “back to normal,” since these are the activities that, absent a vaccine, can put the greatest number of people at risk. Churches will increasingly have digital congregants, just as major sports leagues may play out whole seasons with no one in the stands. In the long term, even some of the men and women who deliver goods to us may be able to do their jobs through drones.

And so the question will increasingly become: If we will no longer need to leave our homes, what are the purposes for which we will want to leave our homes? The bar for opening the door and going outside is simply going to be set much higher.

The very idea of our home as a sort of base from which we emerge into the world every day will increasingly become obsolete. For many, a new presumption will emerge whereby staying at home is the daily default. And those who do need to leave the house every day, because they are, say, cooks, personal care workers, hospital orderlies and the like, may eventually be able to command fairer wages or even salary premiums.

In the pre-COVID-19 world, the ability to work from home on certain days was something you negotiated with your employer. In the post-COVID-19 world, it will be the opposite: Many jobs will come with the baseline expectation of the home as the default workplace, and the prospective employer will be required to negotiate if she requires you to come to an office or some other work location. Certainly, the last two months have made it difficult for many employers to argue that one’s physical presence in their own office environment is truly necessary.

Currently, K-12 schools provide several services: mass babysitting, socialization, and, of course, actual learning. There has traditionally been value in the bundling together of these services. But the perceived value has decreased now that many parents have discovered during these homeschooling months that at least some actual learning can take place effectively in the home. They will then ask themselves whether and how they want the schools to continue providing the other two services—and, if so, if they want them to provide them in the same way.

In some cases, the services might be unbundled. Some parents might want their children to have personal sessions with a teacher, either at home or at a different physical space, according to some agreed upon schedule; and then have the socializing and babysitting provided in a different manner. The line between school, extracurricular activities, and camp might blur in some cases, as different families focus on a different mix of academic learning, physical conditioning, ethno-cultural knowledge, and life skills.

The idea of schools operating at set hours with set age-based classes might increasingly seem anachronistic. As more actual learning takes place at home, using methods that require students to advance by clearing educational thresholds, it will make less sense to group kids together rigidly according to the date of their birth. More children will work individually or in small groups under the guidance of teachers based on their skill level, rather than their age. The socializing aspect, whether it comes in the form of religious instruction, regional cultural programs, or informal forms of peer-group immersion, might be provided through other means.

Colleges and universities, too, will find that their functions and services are becoming unbundled. In recent years, researchers have noted that much of the value of a diploma from prestigious universities originates not in the actual academic content of the course work, but the networking opportunities and prestige factor associated with the diploma. As Ivy League content becomes a mass-consumed digital product, the monetization of the less tangible social and reputational aspects will become more explicit.

One of the most valuable services we’ll all seek is curated, high-quality social encounters. Chance social encounters already have become more rare in recent years due to smartphones and earbuds, which allow us to remain entertained and stimulated in public spaces without having interactions with others. Being based at home will reduce our work encounters as well. But the desire for human contact will remain unchanged. And so the idea of curated social encounters will extend from its current niches in luxury networking conferences and the like, and increasingly become the norm by which we make new friends and acquaintances.

The human need to breathe fresh air, hear the lap of waves upon the shore and feel the sun will remain as strong as ever. Indeed, it may become stronger, since routine exposure to the elements will no longer be hardwired into daily routines. The importance of recreational access to nature will become a more pressing social issue. And question about who controls nature, and our equality of access thereto, will become a larger part of our politics.

In the long term, the repercussions will be enormous and unpredictable. What will it mean for gender relations, for instance, when more men work from home? Will it serve to further equalize the status of men and women, as both establish themselves equally in the home—or will our roles become stratified in new ways? Or will both men and women benefit from the renewed emphasis on the nuclear unit, as parents both work and educate at home while enjoying more family meals together?

As investments, our homes will become even more important than they are today. In particular, we will invest more in the technological infrastructures of our homes, and in every aspect of comfort and productivity. Even small apartments will become more dense with gadgets for entertainment, work, education, athletics, cooking, and gardening. Some of this will be financed with the money we now spend on cars, meals out, and expensive clothes. Demand for all of these will go down.

In pastoral societies, few people worked exclusively indoors, since you can’t raise crops from your bedroom. During the Industrial Revolution, many field workers took jobs in factories, living in cramped, impersonal dormitories or rooming houses. What we are now observing is an acceleration of the process by which we are creating a new, more private indoor ecology. With the pandemic still raging, it is natural that we now long for the day when we’ll be allowed to leave our homes. But in coming years, once that original sense of relief ebbs, we’ll increasingly ask ourselves why leaving was ever necessary.

 

Einat Wilf is a writer and former Israeli politician. She Tweets at @EinatWilf.

 

Comments

  1. Currently, K-12 schools provide several services: mass babysitting, socialization and, of course, actual learning. There has traditionally value in the bundling together of these services. But the perceived value has decreased now that many parents have discovered during these homeschooling months that at least some actual learning can take place effectively in the home. They will then ask themselves whether and how they want the schools to continue providing the other two services—and, if so, if they want them to provide them in the same way.

    Speaking as someone who is teaching students from home, and who is doing an extremely good job of it, as measured in comparison to the other schools in the area, as well as having followed best practices since day 1 of this lockdown, I’m a little dubious about this one.

    Students learn at a slower Pace at home, partly because they don’t have the instruction that they need, and so often need to figure the way around obstacles themselves. While this isn’t bad, and teaches them self-reliance and Independence, some subjects do not lend themselves to this. I should note that at my school, for example, I wouldn’t object to teaching computer programming this way, but I would object to teaching engineering courses this way or some of the nursing courses. We are a high school, but we do teach some very Hands-On subjects.

    For my own discipline, physics, we have been able to do some labs and activities involving common household objects, but more advanced and Technical labs are impossible.

    So I could see this happening in lower grades, except for the fact that Hands-On science would need to somehow be provided, and that you have a problem when the parent is the teacher , because the parent has this thing called work that they have to do. One of the joys of this quarantine has been parents who might otherwise tell me that I am at fault for their kids not working find out that their kids don’t work even when their parents tell them to. Something is clearly wrong there, and it is not possible for the parent to provide some things either.

    I do think that alternate types of physical activity may be more beneficial, I know that dancing of All Sorts would be a great substitute for gym, at least for those students who are not usually into the team sports. Yoga would also be a good idea, as well as meditation, because it really helps students learn some of the social emotional skills that will help them. I know my school has been working on some of that as well.

    In some cases, the services might be unbundled. Some parents might want their children to have personal sessions with a teacher, either at home or at a different physical space, for according to some agreed upon schedule; and then have the socializing and babysitting provided in a different manner. The line between school, extracurricular activities and camp might blur in some cases, as different families focus on a different mix of academic learning, physical conditioning, ethno-cultural knowledge and life skills.

    I have seen this proposed, the problem becomes when people don’t meet certain standards. That becomes more of a problem in homeschooling because you need to make sure that people can have a certain core mix of skills in order to manage to transition to things like college, where are those core skills are very important, because everyone assumes you have them so that you can build off of them.

    Also, one of the things I should point out is that I don’t know that many teachers, especially at the high school level, who are interested in babysitting. I am certainly not. Students need to be engaged and working, and students need to be learning, and I don’t favor any regime where a student is supposed to be babysat.

    The idea of schools operating at set hours with set age-based classes might increasingly seem anachronistic. As more actual learning takes place at home, using methods that requite students to advance by clearing educational thresholds, it will make less sense to group kids together rigidly according to the date of their birth. More children will work individually or in small groups under the guidance of teachers based on their skill level, rather than their age. The socializing aspect, whether it comes in the form of religious instruction, regional cultural programs or informal forms of peer-group immersion, might be provided through other means.

    This does work, though I think it doesn’t work perfectly for certain groups of kids, particularly those who have disabilities or other issues like dyslexia and the like that do require Support Services.

    The other thing that I have a problem with here is agoraphobia. One of the things that I see a lot with kids is an increase in anxiety, particularly since I was a kid. I went to a very high level high school, and one that should have had huge amounts of anxiety, and yet I think we had less than we see today. Certainly the college rates of anxiety are extremely high compared to what they were when I went to college, and again, I went to an extremely high stress College. I loved it, don’t get me wrong, but one of the things that I don’t want to see is students developing agoraphobia because they rely on the internet for more and more of their interactions.

    Being able to meet people physically, to actually read their body language, to build those social bonds, is critical for developing adults. It is also critical for teachers. One of the things that has really helped us is that this lockdown has happened later in the school year, so that we have that personal relationship with the students that helps us help them, and that helps carry them through. When students are thrust into a situation like this, especially, their levels of Stress and Anxiety are extremely high. They don’t necessarily have the more mature adult ways of coping with it. So having a personal relationship with different teachers, who wish them well and who obviously care for them in a personal way is proving to be very important for our students.

    Another problem is that parents who work are often poor teachers, because they don’t have the energy to apply to that job. They don’t have the skill , either. I myself did not have those skills fully developed until after grad school. I couldn’t, at least I don’t think I could have, ever really taught before that time. Some of the lessons I learned then were critical to my development as a teacher. Parenting skills are different from teacher skills, and the parenting relationship is different from the teachers relationship, and it should be.

    So some of those face-to-face skills that teachers learn are really important, and some of those relationships are absolutely critical. We don’t want to throw those away in our urge to distance.

  2. I can see how reliance on the office will change for knowledge economy jobs, and I understand that the current crisis will only accelerate the trend towards retail-to-your-door, but I can’t really see us going through a transition in the social context, unless this a generational thing, based upon the millennial habit of using instagram as a substitute for real social interaction whilst in large groups.

    Besides which, there a growing consensus that we went wrong with the millennial generation, in terms of how we reared them. They themselves take issue with much of what Jonathan Haidt has to say in The Coddling of the American Mind, but the one thing with which they all agree, is that they don’t want to raise their own kids with the same social media pressures that they were exposed to as teenagers.

    Of course, this wasn’t the only poor social conditioning to which they were exposed. Hysteria over the almost non-existent possibility of child abduction, gave them a false impression of a dangerous world which they needed protection from (which culminates in desire to protect society from difficult ideas more broadly). Through concept creep in relation to school bullying policies, we took away the normal processes of peer group negotiation and minor adversities which build emotional resilience- with Jonathan Haidt borrowing Nassim Taleb’s concept of anti-fragility to describe this process.

    But one area that Jonathan Haidt neglects it the impact of teaching styles on their development. They have simultaneously been taught to learn through exploring (an inefficient and bad idea, before university) whilst simultaneously being presented with incredibly simple, and in some cases downright wrong, scenarios on which they are expected to extrapolate solutions.

    In one example they are given highly biased information on intensive and regenerative farming practices, and expected to come to the conclusion that we need more regenerative farming. This is plain wrong, other than in relation to the way we handle grazing rotations in grasslands. It turns out that whilst organic, small or regenerate farming practices might have utility for value-farming to the very wealthy end of the consumer market, the increased land usage required for these approaches would be worse for the climate, not better. Plus, it would make food more expensive for poor people.

    Of course, this brings us onto another way they have been lied to, on the subject of climate change. It’s not that climate change doesn’t exist or isn’t a serious long-term problem, but rather that they have been given an overly inflated view of the immediacy of the problem and an alarmists viewpoint in terms of it’s likely effects. Contrary to mainstream media narratives the actual scientists at the IPCC have evaluated the role of climate change in the various extreme weather events, and have low confidence that any of them have been caused by climate change. This NASA source provides details on the potential effects of climate change:

    The decision to broadcast ‘11 years to change course’ was a political one, arranged by bureaucrats and aimed at galvanising action at a national level, meant to convince populations to demand government-mandated changes to their patterns of consumption. It was intended to counteract the types of widespread civil disobedience seen with the Yellow Jackets, a phenomena which has gone largely unexplored, in terms of motives, in many countries. The decision to limit temperature rises to 1.5 °C was a political decision, and an arbitrary one- not at all based on the science, or what is economically feasible.

    The main reason why it was set, other than for the purposes of changing consumer behaviour, was as a diplomatic salve to those countries with large swathes of their land mass near to sea-level. Best estimates for sea-level rise on our current course, range between 0.8m and 1.5m by 2100- only the worst case scenarios place total sea-level rise at a 2.0m. Unfortunately, this will require both large-scale flood defences in some areas, and major relocations of populations away from at risk areas- to fail to recognise the fact that this is unavoidable, is tantamount to King Canute commanding the sea to withdraw.

    But other than this, most of the more adverse climate conditions don’t materialise until 2.5 °C, and things only really get serious beyond 3.0 °C. Deaths through heatwaves are mitigated by a decrease in cold deaths. Better water systems already exist to mitigate droughts and the potential for flooding through precipitation only exposes the fact that we have habit of building in inappropriate areas, whilst not constructing adequate flood mitigation and allowing for natural soak-aways.

    Yes, ecosystems will change and many species will have significant areas of their habitats threatened, but just as life finds it’s niches reduced, it expands into new niches as they present themselves. Much is made of the threat to tundra and boreal forests, but this ignores the fact the temperate forest which will replace them are more biodiverse, better heat sinks and sources of carbon sequestration, and produce more oxygen per acre. They are also better economic resources.

    The food security issues are a joke. The potential threats to crop yields in our four main bread baskets, ignore the fact that we are getting better and better at extracting higher yields. We have also constructed a global infrastructure of food storage, meant to protect and mitigate against volatility in food production and commodity prices. India for example, has seven years of food storage to protect its rice dole, and many other rice-producing nations has followed suit. Ironically, it is the type of economic shocks that we are currently experiencing that are the greatest threat to our supply chains and food security, which tends to argue against the more radical demands for climate action.

    There are very real major threats. Ocean temperature rise, and ocean acidification are serious threats to aquaculture and fisheries. The former is a temporary problem, as aquaculture migrates over time. The best thing we could do about acidification that I’ve come across, is promote a once-a-week shellfish day in wealthier nations, especially with shellfish like mussels, whose production naturally sequesters carbon from our seas and oceans. But beyond this, there need to be concerted efforts to expand successful onshore and inshore aquaculture, as well as to protect our coastal nurseries. Apart from anything else, the former is a great commercial opportunity.

    But by far the biggest threat from climate change, is the potential for an increase in the risks of vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever. No surprises, there- given our current situation. Of all the four horsemen, pestilence seems the most stubbornly resistant to human intervention. It only highlights the need for increased research and action to combat dread diseases in warmer climes, because over time these threats may be making an appearance in some of our countries.

    The reason for this rambling digression from the major point of this article, is that I believe that our young people aren’t being equipped with the facts, or the means to challenge them. What this crisis is forcing us to do, is understand how major changes might affect our economies, and the broader world. In some countries it has exposed glaring weaknesses in supply chains, and generally it has highlighted that our economic security and prosperity is an altogether more tenuous and fragile thing than many of us had been led to believe.

    But the greatest threats to human populations have inevitably been exposed in the Developing World, where concerns over the threat of COVID-19 are dwarfed by the threat to livelihoods, food security and general health and well-being entirely unrelated to the risks of COVID. Potentially, half of all jobs in Africa are at risk and we could see a doubling of those exposed to food insecurity from 130 million to 265 million.

    Critically, this gives us a window to the adverse consequences we might see from more drastic actions on climate change, which could potentially disrupt global trade. The last thing we want to see happen, is a reversal of the more than 1 billion people raised out of absolute poverty between 2000 and 2012, and overwhelmingly empowered by free trade and free markets. Capitalism is, after all, the only way we know of that can increase human wealth and well-being, even if there may ultimately be an S-curve to the limits of what is currently possible. These two Guardian articles provide context on the looming crisis in the Developing World:

    To borrow an analogy from the climate handbook for regenerative farming in relation to agro-forestry, we need to develop an understanding of the ecosystem we wish to change- in this case the global economy, before we seek to change it. COVID-19 serves to illustrate how changes to Western markets might adversely affect the most vulnerable in the global community. In the past two months, we have realised just how interdependent we are, both in terms of supply chains, and in terms of overseas markets to sell our goods.

    Th next stage will give us front row seats to the negative impacts that will be seen, through the destruction of jobs and incomes. We already know about rises in domestic abuse, mental illness, public disorder, political fragmentation, people not seeking treatment for life-threatening conditions and suicides. The next wave will be the an escalation in drug use, epidemic suicides in specific demographics and yet more economic disruption, as we realise that it may not be easy to coax the more worried to return to their normal routine of frequenting bars and restaurants.

    All of this is dwarfed by the concerns emerging in the Developing World. One can only hope that a threat to their lives and livelihoods might convince the more alarmist activists to see that far from global equity, major changes to our economic system can only bring misery and suffering the World’s most vulnerable. We need change that is reasonable, rational and above all focused on innovation to increase all our wealth and well-being, and a failure to recognise the potential pitfalls and misteps could lead to the types of humanitarian disasters we might shortly see unfolding. Unfortunately, whilst the ability to supply to global markets might help lift people out of the most desperate and degrading poverty, when circumstances take those markets away from the most vulnerable, their return to destitution is all but assured.

  3. Amen! The age of the Electronic Cottage has finally come. Alvin Toffler was prescient, if a little premature, forty years ago.

  4. I read through a third of it and couldn’t stomach anymore. What an entitled piece of sh***. Lounging in his pajamas enjoying digital media and taking cooking classes while plebs out there delivering his groceries, stocking Amazon shelves and making sure servers, network equipment, water treatment plants, power stations and all the other infrastructure don’t collapse around the teleworking “elites”.
    Home-f-in-body, GFY and your “new normal”…

  5. I think that’s a very possible future, Gal: educated elites living in walled cities of ecotechnic beauty, with solar panels and creeping flowered vines and monorails, and outside the city of elites, slums where semi-literate people mine landfill and go to day jobs delivering, cleaning and cooking for this elite. Think modern Mumbai with an environmentalist socialist gloss in the middle.

  6. I don’t think so. The only claim to fame for those “elites” is the platform that they now have, thanks to social media. The ignorance, inaptitude with combination with lack of any self-reflection and enormous condescension of modern elites (just look at the “Models”, I’d be given a boot if I ever put up anything such low quality at my workplace, but we now shape our global policies around this crap) will never produce anything close to the shining city on the hill, but yeah, medieval slums are not out of the questions.

  7. These two statements contradict each-other. If we now have to shape our global policies around their views, then they are in a good position to retain their elite position as resources and our civilisation decline.

    It’d be more like the castle on the hill, with the peasant huts around. And they wouldn’t be the ones to build the castle, it’d be us peons :slight_smile: They would, of course, bless us with their guidance, and when we staggered off to bed at night, they would discuss our moral weakness over a nice wine.

  8. I don’t think many people who live in tiny condos the size of motel rooms, the ones with ‘kitchenettes’ would want to spend more time there than possible, Netflix or not. I’m not in the habit of making predictions but I don’t think things change unless there’s enormous pressure for them to change. As far as schools go, where I live the schools were in chaos before the virus hit, due to rotating strikes. If the teachers resume this behavior when things settle down, I think parents will be more emboldened to start asking for different types of schools that better suit their needs.

  9. No, the world is not about to become one giant Finland.

    It is basic human nature that we need social interaction. We find that movies are better experienced at home, but we want to eat out, to meet with our friends at the lake and in bars, join clubs for every kind of activity, go to concerts and conventions, and worship in the congregations we know. A lot of tasks at work can be virtualized, but if people at the office never meet at a physical workplace, your company’s culture will die of dry rot and we become a nation of contract workers.

    Staying socially isolated forever is not even a good idea medically. Without those everyday whiffs of other people’s microbes from every hug and handshake, our immune systems will atrophy from lack of those constant small challenges. If that happens, the next pandemic will just kill us all.

  10. I largely disagree with this prediction.

    Particularly on the topic of work: many organizations are functioning well under the current situation precisely because of the relationships between co-workers that have been built up by spending years seeing each other face-to-face at an office. There may be some shifts to more office workers having the ability to work from home one or two days per week, but the history of widespread work from home has been decidedly mixed with many large companies deciding to reduce its use after finding problems with it over time. (IBM and Yahoo both immediately come to mind.)

  11. Einat Wilf, aka Debbie Downer.

    What a gloomy view of the future. Let’s cancel sex too, since there’s artificial insemination. They’ve already canceled comedy, because feelings.

    Plug in folks, welcome to the Matrix.

  12. Let’s face it, comedy’s a dead artform. Now tragedy, heh, that’s funny.

  13. Not having read every comment here I apologize if someone has already pointed out this elephant in the room. While much of the examples in this article are work or leisure related it seems to omit the very basic need people have for being in each other’s physical company. I don’t see bars, for example going anywhere. Why else would someone pay a 400% markup for a drink you can make at home? There have already been oodles of online “clubs” that go nowhere and now we see an even greater hunger for in person activities - yes, the demand has been made desirous by it’s very disallowance. Tell people they can’t do something and they want to do it even more. Yes, it will push some things into the digital world but I think the neighborhood bar will still be there long after other online activities have disappeared.

  14. I thought that was sex?

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