The Changing Nature of Work and the Death of American Cities?
In the wake of the Covid pandemic, the nature of work has changed. More and more workers are able to work remotely, and those who can have no real desire to return to traditional office-based nine-to-five schedules. On the contrary, many workers have found themselves to be quite productive from afar and have even moved from high cost living metropolitan areas like New York to lower cost areas in places like North Carolina. For those who have been commuting four hours a day, there is little incentive to return to the office if it can be avoided. This, of course, raises an interesting question: with this changing nature of work, are we beginning to see the death of American cities? American cities arose on the basis of what are called agglomeration economies. That is, in order for there to be commerce firms needed to be in close proximity to other firms. To communicate before there were telecommunications people had to be within walking distance of others. Firms also needed to be relatively close to the marketplace because of the high cost of transportation. The first American cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston were port cities because they were developed along the ports where goods could be loaded and unloaded for export and import. It wasn’t until the steam engine was invented and train tracks were laid across the country that mid-western cities arose. Chicago was developed as a train hub. Initially our major cities were relatively small and concentrated around transportation lines in the central business district. But as the cost of transportation decreased cities began to spread out. The problem with being concentrated around a CBD was that land was expensive and workers couldn’t afford to live too close to their jobs unless they were renting in some type of tenement, in which case a plot of land could house more people. As transportation costs decreased workers could spread out and so too could the wealthy, as they too could get more housing for their money. As goods began to be shipped via trucks along the nation’s highways, firms could more easily ship goods to markets across the country. And as advances in technology, first through telephones, made communication such that it was no longer necessary to be in close proximity to one another, firms too could move not only across the country but also out of the country. With further advances in communications technology, mainly satellites, internet, and now zoom, firms could be located in one place and workers, as we have recently discovered, in another. In other words, do we need cities any longer? We don’t need to be in close proximity to conduct normal commerce. Firms in the U.S. now have workers telecommuting from halfway around the world. Which is to say, there need to be other reasons for cities to exist. A city like New York is simply too expensive for most workers to live in. Although there may be reasons to come into the city for cultural events and entertainment, the hassle factor may simply be too great for many. Consider, for example, a couple living in northern New Jersey. To come into the city to see a play involves a couple hours of travel on either end, plus the high costs of parking. The same couple could go in the other direction and see plays in Princeton with much less hassle. Add to this the growing crime wave in New York City and the desire to come into the city no longer exists. In fact, the growing crime wave could be a factor in many workers saying that they would rather not come in at all. Increasingly more workers are refusing to come back to the office despite calls by local officials across the country to come back. It isn’t only office workers who are refusing to come back. Workers in the hospitality industry are also refusing to go back on the grounds that their pay is low, and their working conditions aren’t great. From the employer’s perspective, they want employees around so that they can be in control and ensure that work is being performed. Some might argue that productivity is less through remote work. And yet, productivity could be higher because employees not wasting large swaths of time commuting can devote more attention to their work. Also, the increased morale that may attend to allowing workers to continue to work from home will result in greater productivity because they feel better about their jobs. Employers in high-cost cities like New York City are also discovering that if they allow workers to work remotely, they can save considerable amounts of money on office space. They can move into smaller spaces and save millions of dollars in rent a year. None of this necessarily bodes well for the survival of the city. If the nature of work is changing, with fewer people “returning” to work and more people moving out because they work remotely from several hundred miles away, or even more, we might be seeing the beginning of the process of the death of great American cities. As more businesses over the years have moved out from the core (central cities) to the periphery (suburban communities) cities have already lost the draw they once had. Now more people can work and live in the suburbs, and the only time they come into the cities is to enjoy the arts. But many arts centers along with restaurants have been moving to the suburbs. If we add to that the manufacturing activities which defined many cities, particularly in the northeast and midwest industrial belts, the advances in technology which have now changed the nature of work, only finishes off many of those cities. Remember that cities as we have known them formed out of necessity. But that necessity no longer exists. Large cities like New York, Chicago, and L.A. will survive in some form, but we may be seeing the death of mid-size cities. These trends can only exacerbate much of the poverty and decay left behind, and many of the social pathologies that have been plaguing American cities for decades now. It is ironic, then, that the technological advances which have been the source of our cities' strength may also be the source of their destruction as well.