Could work from home reshape the Senate?
Millennials and Gen Z are rethinking the “home” in work from home. And that has big implications for our politics.
For many of us who are so privileged, the experience of COVID-19 has been one long Zoom meeting from home. Some of us were cramped in studio apartments that were never meant to be joint live/work spaces. Some of us were mobbed by children struggling with cabin fever as they, too, worked from home.
But despite the challenges, many came to like using their own bathroom between meetings, eating their own home-cooked food at lunch, or seeing their kids in the next room over. Employers like it too, with evidence suggesting that productivity is up—and office rent could be down.
As millennials lean in to work from home, and Gen Z enters the workforce, they may be rethinking the idea of home, trading small studio apartments in coastal urban cities for larger spaces in suburbs and rural communities across America. And that could have big implications for our politics.
Work from home works for workers and employers.
Though it can have its drawbacks, 82% of workers enjoy working from home according to a survey of workers by behavioral statistician David Folkman. Two-thirds felt more productive, and six in ten felt less stressed.
Studies of productivity have shown that working from home didn’t really reduce overall productivity. Indeed, it increased it. A survey of 800 employers found that 94% said that work from home was either equally or more productive than office-based work.
Big Tech corporations like Facebook and Twitter have announced permanent work from home options. Even more old-school companies like Nationwide Insurance closed five regional offices to move toward work from home. Office rent is expensive—work from home allows employers added savings while embracing worker demands for flexibility.
Red state gentrification.
Having massively gentrified coastal cities in the 2010s, under-40s are starting to shift their preferences. In 2018, for example, New York’s population was declining by 277 people per day and Los Angeles’s by 201 people per day—mostly Millennials leaving for more affordable metros like Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and Phoenix. Leveraging the spatial freedom the internet affords, many have even opted to make home in rural communities.
Young voters are far more likely to support Democrats than their older counterparts. Exit poll data from the 2020 election found that voters aged 30-39 supported Biden over Trump by 5 points—that climbs to a whopping 34% among voters under 24.
Young people leaving the coastal capitals of Blue America like New York and California for reliably red states like Texas and Georgia have already reshaped American politics. Republican margins in statewide races in Texas have been shrinking over time while Georgia’s epic flip in 2020 was critical not only to giving Joe Biden the presidency, but securing his slim Democratic majority in the Senate.
The pandemic could accelerate this. It’s not only work from home but the whole pandemic experience: The first wave of the pandemic hit cities hardest, magnifying the risks of dense urban living. Lockdown policies exacerbated the challenge of raising young families in smaller spaces. And the pandemic’s economic consequences dropped interest rates, which made homeownership attainable—but only outside cities like New York and LA. Work from home policies are cutting all that’s left of the cord tying young people to major coastal metros.
There’s evidence that the pandemic is already having an impact. Within a month, 39% of city residents in a Harris Poll said that the pandemic had prompted them to consider leaving. Respondents aged 18-34 were most likely to say they’d consider moving. By the end of 2020, a survey by Fortune Magazine found that more than a quarter of Gen Z and Millennials had moved or were planning a move out of their city.
Is voter migration the antidote to voter suppression?
In response to their thumping at the ballot box in 2020, Republican state legislatures in red states are rushing to pass laws to suppress votes. On Thursday, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed a 100-page all-out assault on voting. It ends automatic voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting, cuts weekend early voting, limits ballot drop boxes, adds voter ID requirements...even makes it a crime to offer food or water to voters standing in line! Georgia’s law is only the first to pass from among 40 such bills up for consideration in legislatures across the country.
Make no mistake, saving democracy starts with passing HR1 and HR4, anti-voter suppression laws that would instantly invalidate these state-level assaults on our democracy. But getting them through the Senate remains a challenge, particularly given Sen. Joe Manchin’s obstinate opposition to ending or reforming the filibuster—itself an anti-democratic relic of Jim Crow.
But beyond its arcane filibuster, the Senate itself remains one of the biggest hurdles to a truly representative democracy. By allocating every state an even two votes, it gives voters in Wyoming 68 times the representation as voters in California because of the vast difference in the size of their populations. Because smaller states tend to be more rural, and more rural communities tend to be Republican, it tilts vastly in Republicans’ favor. That is, of course, so long as rural communities tend to be more Republican.
But with the pandemic, that may be changing.
For some time, Democrats had assumed that growing communities of color would automatically deliver for Democrats—that “demographics was destiny.” The 2020 election showed us that may not be true, at least in the way we expect. Communities of color are growing, but their support has to be earned. Indeed, a startling number of Americans of color supported Trump; who increased his support among Black, Latinx, and Asian Americans by four, three, and five points respectively.
But demographics may still be destiny—just not how we thought they would be. As young people move to redder states, they may be carrying the demographic tide we had been expecting with them in their moving trucks.
There is, of course, a brutal irony in this for the GOP. Perhaps instead of rushing to suppress votes, they should simply have managed the pandemic a bit better. It might have saved them from the oncoming wave of Gen Z and Millennials with their hipster coffee shops and artisan markets—who could wash away their vice grip on the Senate once and for all.