COVID-19’s Silver Linings
As of today, more than 40 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine and 26 percent are fully vaccinated. Though it wasn’t planned this way, more normal human life is returning just as the redbuds, azaleas, magnolias, and tulips are performing their gorgeous annual affirmation of renewal. Fears of catastrophic depression, widespread shortages, and massive civil unrest are receding.
Hundreds of thousands of American families and millions worldwide are bereaved, and nearly everyone has experienced some form of disruption, pain, or trauma during the past year. But not everything changed for the worse, and with something like full recovery from the pandemic now visible, we have the agreeable task of sifting through what we’ve learned and deciding what changes we’d like to keep.
A recent Pew poll found that among adults whose jobs can be conveniently performed online, 54 percent would like to continue working from home after the pandemic is over. Another 33 percent said they’d like to do so part-time. If employers agree, that could mark a dramatic change in many areas of American life—less road congestion, reduced demand for office space, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from cars and buses. That also means less income for real estate landlords, bus drivers, restaurants, dry cleaners, delivery services, and other businesses that serve office workers. There will be many dislocations and adjustments.
To be sure, most employees (62 percent) don’t have the luxury of working from home. The more education you’ve acquired, the more likely it is that your job is mostly a matter of pixels. Eighty-three percent of those with a high school diploma or less cannot do their jobs from home, compared with only 32 percent of those with a graduate degree.
Still, the percentage of former office workers who may opt for home now could be significant, and may well improve their life satisfaction. Katy Clark, a researcher at the University of Michigan, told the Washington Post that she would frequently leave home before dawn in the morning to ensure that she got a parking spot. If she didn’t, she might have to circle the lot for an hour and then work late and miss taking her teenagers to hockey practice. Christopher Thomas, an office manager at Portland State University, related that before the pandemic, he had seen his 3-year-old daughter only briefly on weekdays. It meant that their relationship was a bit distant. “She would always go to her mom for everything.” But in the past year, his wife got a job and they’ve split the childcare. Now, he says, “I’m like her favorite person. She follows me around.”
The post-COVID world will not eliminate the office, but it does seem likely that many employees will have more choices about where and how they work. More choice is good for everyone, and particularly for working parents, some of whom may be liberated from grueling commutes.
There was worry early in 2020 about the mental health effects of the pandemic, and while there was evidence of high stress, particularly among those at highest risk of infection, the predicted spike in suicides doesn’t seem to have materialized. In fact, a couple of surveys have suggested that suicide rates, including youth suicides, may have declined somewhat in 2020 compared with 2019.
These numbers are preliminary. It can take up to a year to compile data. But if the early indications of reduced suicides are correct, a nation that loses nearly 50,000 people annually this way is going to want to figure out what went right. It may be that the extra money the government provided reduced feelings of despair. Or it’s possible that greater availability of online counseling meant that more desperate people got help. Or perhaps being together with family members, loved ones, or even mere roommates improved people’s mental health?
The Institute for Family Studies reports that teenagers got more sleep, felt closer to their parents, and had a more positive outlook on life in 2020 than in 2018. Fifty-six percent of teens reported spending more time talking with their parents during COVID than before, and 68 percent said their families had drawn closer.
Though couples reported more stress in 2020, they also discovered new strengths. A majority (51 percent) of couples reported that the pandemic “deepened my commitment to my marriage” and 58 percent said the hardship had “made me appreciate my partner more.” The share of married people who described their marriages as “in trouble” dropped from 40 percent in 2019 to 29 percent in 2020.
Marriages declined—who wants to have a wedding with no guests?—but so did divorces. It’s possible that people were postponing divorce for practical reasons rather than rediscovering love—the coming months will tell that tale—but when you combine the data on suicide, relationship improvement, and happier teens, you do begin to get a picture. Families that had been hyper-scheduled dervishes found time for togetherness. They cooked and ate dinner together. They talked. They walked in the neighborhood or rode their bikes. They looked up from their screens at one another.
Of course this image is far from universal. Some families are dysfunctional nightmares that do lasting damage to their members. But most aren’t. Most are sources of solace and strength, and if the pandemic is opening new possibilities for balancing home and work, and if it’s a reminder of the importance of nurturing our most intimate relationships, we will have found a glittering silver lining.