Three years after the pandemic first swept the globe and paused national economies, Americans with jobs are now more likely to work from home than their counterparts in Europe and Asia. In the Wall Street Journal, Konrad Putzier reports that “U.S. office occupancy stands at 40% to 60%” compared to a “70%-to-90% rate in Europe and the Middle East.” And in Asia, “rates ranged from 80% to 110%—meaning that in some cities more people are in the office nowadays than before the pandemic.” What happened to the U.S. as “the most overworked developed nation in the world”? Weren’t we told insistently that the American obsession with productivity was “making us miserable”?
And no, working from home doesn’t make us, on average, more productive. If it did, major companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple, and Disney wouldn’t be pushing their employees to come back on site. The software company Enkata found, for example, that “office-based workers were 50% more productive than people at home,” “home-based agents have 30% more idle time during their work hours than office-based employees,” and, unsurprisingly, “home based workers have a higher percentage of hours clocked out on breaks.”
So, why are Americans now more reluctant to return to the office than Europeans and Asians? Putzier offers a few reasons. In the U.S., we have “bigger homes, longer commutes, and a tighter labor market.” It’s surely true that all of these contribute to our staying home. But while the labor market always fluctuates, Americans lived in bigger homes and had longer commutes than Europeans and Asians back in 2017, when we were found to work harder than citizens of any other country, including Japan. One suspects that something else is going on here, something more elusive that can’t be quantified as easily as home size and length of commute.
There’s a clue in the fact that the Supreme Court just heard arguments on the constitutionality of an “emergency” presidential scheme to forgive student loans for 40 million Americans. It’s not merely that we’ve endured a state of emergency that’s extended well past emergency conditions. It’s that the ideas advanced during this time seemed designed to enervate the American people and create an anti-productive, inward-looking, and dispirited populace.
Joe Biden’s student-loan-forgiveness plan is foremost a political ploy. But what it conveys at a cultural level is that there’s something just about Americans not paying their debts—even at a time of low unemployment. Biden’s attempt to extend eviction moratoriums in 2022 sent a similar message. Like the anti-work movement championed by liberal media and institutions during the pandemic, the idea is that toil and obligation are for suckers. It’s hardly a surprise when a culture that promotes “quiet quitting,” “the great resignation,” and “bare minimum Monday” produces individuals who aren’t rushing back to their cubicle.
But there’s even more to it than that. From March of 2020 on, America’s domestic critics seized on the pandemic as proof of the country’s fundamental cruelty. A representative piece at Slate titled “America Is a Sham,” published March 14 of that year, claimed that “All over America, the coronavirus is revealing, or at least reminding us, just how much of contemporary American life is bullshit, with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest.” A month later, at Vox, Anna North wrote a piece titled “Every aspect of the coronavirus pandemic exposes America’s devastating inequalities,” in which the author claimed that Covid was “exacerbating the inequalities in American society, taking a disproportionate toll on low-income Americans, people of color, and others who were already marginalized before the crisis hit.” This became a mantra on the left. And that was before the monstrous but statistically unrepresentative killing of George Floyd and our national reeducation in American evil. After that, it was game over. By July of that year, a Wall Street Journal poll found that most Americans believed that American society was racist.
Investing in a society like that wouldn’t only make you a chump. It would make you immoral. While getting ahead would be ignoble, slacking off would be virtuous.
It takes a long time for a country to recover from a self-beating like the one we took. And we’re not there yet. In the meantime, in a nation as rotten as ours, we need our safe spaces. And no place is safer than home.