Hardly working

Does the remote work vs in-person work dichotomy explain much?

One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to feel smart is to try and figure out what the new social classes in modern society are, what the emerging ones might be, and how they all interrelate. I do it in the shower all the time. The pandemic has accelerated this particular form of pontification to fever pitch, with many pointing to a new dichotomy: those who can work from home versus those who can’t.

During lockdown — which I am currently in! — this division becomes quite visible, and not just by watching clusters of delivery riders winding through largely empty streets. A disproportionate number of Sydney’s in-person workforce lives in the eight local government areas most affected by Covid (including forty percent of its construction workforce, for example). Other variables aside, this matches the contours of Melbourne’s major outbreak last year, which spiralled out of control when the virus spread into the parts of the city populated by a highly mobile working class who actually make the whole urban agglomeration function.

The New South Wales government’s early failure to clearly identify what an ‘essential worker’ actually was led to a vacuum into which frantic discourse seeped, led by a media and professional class comprised of people who could comfortably make pronouncements from their home office chairs on who is and who is not vital for the continuing operation of Greater Sydney. (Some did venture out onto the city’s arterial roads to count cars.)

But even before the pandemic, it was clear the world was meandering towards a remote work future, and that the pandemic had merely accelerated an existing trend. And entrenched it: per a recent Australian Bureau of Statistics survey, a full eighty percent of companies which currently allow employees to work remotely expect the trend to continue long-term.

As I mentioned in my reading list this week, I’ve been enjoying Ed Zitron’s newsletters, which are exploring the coming remote working war and the various vested interests and psychologies driving it. It’s an intramural conflict within the professional class, obviously, but it has broader societal implications as well. For example, if some of the more radical predictions of cities reshaped by remote work bear out and the professional classes move away from central business districts to more affordable provinces, that will obviously have an impact on service workers who support these enormous urban cores, at least in the short-term. There’s good reason why state and local governments invested big money in trying to get people back and spending in city centres.

But where this conversation gets interesting, I think, is when we really try and drill down into what this framing actually means practically. It’s easy to think about it in very simple terms, where there is an elite work-from-home class living in grand suburban estates or sparkling apartment developments (with ‘Zoom zones’) supported by an in-person class who build the former group’s domiciles, handle their freight, produce their food and goods, and deliver their packages.

But this new order has instability built in on both sides. One of the prevailing high-level arguments from the pro-office contingent is more like a threat: if a job can be done remotely, it can also be outsourced. There’s definitely a kernel of truth there. Due to Australia’s closed borders, skilled labour markets have gotten tighter, leading to some tech sector roles seeing a blowout in salaries. This has led to a surge in companies which offer outsourcing to Southeast Asia, where a large, highly-skilled workforce can benefit from recent advances in remote working tech and culture. The next wave of outsourcing comes as those economies which have developed middle classes from doing manufacturing for the developed world start doing more work further along the developmental pipeline.

Both the remote work and in-person classes contain the modern precariat, those whose economic existence relies on unstable casual and gig work, often pieced together from multiple sources. As more traditionally white-collar work is proletarianised and then integrated into the gig economy1, the economic relationship between remote and non-remote workers becomes much fuzzier.

Another piece of the puzzle is where all this intersects with the foundational aspect of Australian wealth: home ownership. It goes without saying that many remote workers do not own the homes they work from, and pay punishing rents in overheated housing markets for the privilege of doing so. Those who actually invested in the promise of remote work during the pandemic by moving away from the big smoke are now faced with surging rents, with a CoreLogic data in July pointing to an 11.3% increase in regional rents over the past year. Locals who aren’t being paid city money have to contend with those increased rents too.

In a newsletter this week, Noah Smith writes about an emergent class he calls the “haut precariat”, which he describes as middle or upper-middle class people who “have failed to get on either the income ladder of high-paying yuppie jobs or the wealth ladder of homeownership” and therefore risk stagnating or backsliding2. It ties into the theory of elite overproduction, which explores how educational systems continue to pump out over-skilled workers for elite jobs that simply do not exist. It’s US-centric analysis, but you can obviously see parallels in Australia, which contains several of the most expensive housing markets in the world.

All of this is not to say that the remote workers (of which I am one right now) are particularly hard done by, or that this emergent mode of class analysis isn’t beneficial. It’s to say that there are grander and older forces at work here, and if there’s a coarsening of human life, it’s going to be felt across this new divide — even if the effects aren’t always evenly distributed or experienced in the same way. I’ll leave you with a quote from French writer Michel Houellebecq from the very beginning of the pandemic:

I do not believe for a half-second the declarations that 'nothing will be like it was before’… We will not wake up after the lockdown in a new world. It will be the same, just a bit worse.

1

Think pharmacists crowded out by Amazon’s efforts, or graphic design industry being sucked up by platforms like Fiverr and Airtasker.

2

I won’t go into it too much here because it’s probably worth its own writeup at some point, but there’s a looming political question in what happens when Australian millennials and Gen Z, many of whom are locked out of the housing market by skyrocketing prices, start inheriting boomer property. Smith describes a “depressing” future where they simply start “moving back to the suburbs and morphing into their homevoter parents”, but who knows.