In July of 1845, Henry David Thoreau began living on Walden Pond just outside Concord, Massachusetts. His two years of living in the woods were, in part, an experiment in economics. His account of his experience, On Walden Pond, was published in 1854. The first chapter is titled “Economy” and catalogues every expense related to his experiment. He spent $28.12 and ½ cents to build his cabin.
Thoreau observed that many farmers in the Concord area were becoming consumers in an economy created by the population’s response to the industrial revolution. New products introduced to the local marketplace, such as shiny copper pumps and Venetian blinds, motivated farmers to acquire more land, work longer hours, and earn more income for their consumer-driven dreams. Was all this extra time and work worth sacrificing a leisurely walk through the woods with their sweetheart? Thoreau: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
Thoreau moved out of town to his cabin so that he could work remotely, discover what was essential for him to live a good life, and to continue working as a writer. Given the cultural relevance Thoreau still holds to this day, it is hard not to draw parallels between his comments and those being shared around (sometimes virtual) water coolers in the last two years. As Cal Newport put it in his Nov. 16, 2021 piece for The New Yorker, Covid forced American office workers to retreat to their high-tech cabins at home, to “their own Zoom-equipped versions of Walden Pond”. For many workers, like Thoreau, remote work created the time and space for deep reflection about what is essential for their happiness. And it would appear that remote work is now very much essential.
For David Brooks, author and New York Times columnist, the pandemic brought significant life changes: “No more frenetic over-scheduling, pointless travel, and shallow social whirl.” Sasha Howell, a marketing strategist in Phoenix, AZ expressed her revelation this way: “I am never going back to being the last parent to pick up my children from school.” To her, the pandemic revealed how much the hard landscape of working in an office ruled her life and the “cost of that thing” was too high. Post-pandemic, more and more Americans are looking for work that prioritizes independence, flexibility, family time, and personal priorities.
Gallup estimates that there are 125 million full-time jobs in America and that 50% of them can be done remotely. This is fortunate, considering that the pandemic caused workers to experience a greater flexibility in their workday, and for most, some degree of flexibility is now non-negotiable. A recent podcast from American journalist Ezra Klein reveals that even though restaurants are now teeming, and movie theaters are back, only one-third of American office workers have returned to the office. Microsoft released a robust study showing that the quit rate for hybrid workers is 35% lower than the rate for full-time office workers. Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize for economics: “It is a good thing American workers are insisting on a better deal, and it is in the interest of the U.S.A. that they get it.”
Life satisfaction isn’t the only benefit of remote work. The number of Americans starting new businesses had been decreasing since the 1980s, but the pandemic has changed that. 4.3 million Americans started new businesses in 2020, up 24% from 2019. 2021 revealed 5.4 million new businesses, which is 20% higher than any year on record. The Small Business Administration estimates that 47.5% of all employees in the U.S. work for small businesses, so entrepreneurship drives new job creation.
Thoreau went to Walden Pond to live deliberately, but solitude had its limits. Thoreau delighted in taking time to observe nature, noting how an ant colony organizes its workers for the common good. At the same time, he hosted many visitors and enjoyed meals with family and friends in town. On a similar note, not everyone loves the idea of full-time remote work. Not all employees are satisfied working remotely, as the full value of relationships and quality time with colleagues can be lost on flat screens. Peggy Noonan, opinion columnist for the Wall Street Journal, is concerned that without in-the-office relationships, work will seem without depth. Is it possible to foster esprit de corps without people being together, sharing a space? Aren’t we meant to be and work together to some degree?
While there is no doubt that people perform better when their human needs are met, and some level of remote work is here to stay, finding the balance between remote work and being physically together is the discovery that lies ahead. As Thoreau once said: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”