Most people have been wearing hard pants all year
Working from home is a minority pursuit
I don’t mean to single out one article for criticism, because I learned a lot about the fashion industry’s response to Covid from Amanda Mull’s recent piece “Burn All the Leggings: What do you wear to the reopening of society?” but it also reminded me of something that’s been bugging me for a while — an awful lot of Covid-era media is written in a tone that suggests the experience of Covid Cautious white-collar remote workers has been the typical experience of the pandemic year, and that’s just not true.
Note that of course, this is 2021 so she is of course careful to check her privilege as a remote worker. But with that business done, it then slides very quickly back into an assumption that everyone’s been spending the whole year in sweatpants:
For the luckiest Americans, the past year has been marked by soul-deadening tedium and loneliness. For those who have lost jobs, homes, or loved ones to the virus, or have been pressed into dangerous working conditions, fear and grief have been more likely to predominate. The joy that might be possible in the near future for some people will, for many others, be disorientingly incongruous with the pain of the recent past.
Still, for people in both groups, the next few months will be a slow-rolling reunion. At last, I’ll get to see friends again, and I’ll also get to see the people I don’t like, which is nearly as thrilling. I feel the same mixture of anticipation and anxiety that I used to feel on the first day of school: The future is beginning! But, oh God, the future is beginning.
The comparison to the start of school is obviously imperfect, but our circumstances do have some of the essential characteristics that make back-to-school shopping so lucrative for retailers: Reuniting with your extended social circle after a lengthy disruption is as close to a clean slate as most people ever get. But even if others are as ready as I am to go shopping for cute new dresses, finding them won’t be as easy as an end-of-summer jaunt to the mall.
Again, though, this isn’t one article. Whether it’s pieces about Zoom burnout or a Seattle Times piece about how “We didn’t know how uncomfortable jeans were until we stopped wearing them” or conversely a piece in The Cut swearing “I’m ready to dress uncomfortably again,” the general sense is that one has not been making oneself presentable or interacting with others.
On the flip side, people on the right have taken to referring to “lockdowns” as an omnipresent aspect of life over the past 14 months. Their nominal ideological adversaries, the extremely Covid cautious, talk about living “life in quarantine.”
But none of this is true.
Now don’t get me wrong, there was a time last March and maybe into April when dentists’ offices were shut down and there was a question about whether big-box retailers should be allowed to sell non-essential merchandise. But not only has there never really been a “lockdown” in the European or Chinese sense that includes severe restrictions on personal movement, but most working people have been doing their normal in-person jobs for the past year. If you stop reading this take and go right now to a commercial corridor or shopping center near your house, you will see plenty of people that are out and about living their lives. They are wearing pants. They may or may not care about fashion, but to the extent anyone has ever had reason to care about fashion, those basic reasons exist. The stores are staffed by people wearing clothing. So are the restaurant kitchens.
Some things may be closed near where you live (for some reason the National Zoo is still closed), but nobody is “locked down,” nobody is “under quarantine,” and the vast majority of people are getting dressed and leaving the house on any given day and have been for months. And I think it’s pretty weird that so much of the content industry seems committed to ignoring this.
All about me
Each pandemic story is unique, so I think it’s helpful to just actually speak about myself so everyone knows where I’m coming from. I live in Washington, D.C. in a rowhouse that has a backyard and a garage. We have a basement apartment that we used to rent out on Airbnb but is now my home office.
I was, from the beginning of the pandemic, of the mind that outdoor activities are safe and healthy if you can avoid big crowds. We live near a playground but also near to a large and usually empty parking lot that’s owned by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. Back when playgrounds were closed, we would take our kid there to ride his scooter. Later, when D.C. playgrounds were closed but playgrounds in some suburban towns were open, I took my kid to some of those. Then when the D.C. playgrounds reopened, we took advantage of them.
The basic lodestar of my personal behavior throughout has been aerosol transmission — be outside whenever possible, wear a quality mask whenever possible, and don’t do indoor unmasked stuff.
Those strictures have meaningfully impacted my life and the range of activities I’ve been able to do. But I haven’t been a hermit. I’ve socialized with friends, I’ve had work-related coffee, I’ve driven (twice!) back and forth to Maine to take advantage of my dad being stuck in California and unable to use his house there. I have been trying not to travel for work, but when Joe Rogan really wanted me in person, I did it. To record an audiobook they want you live in the studio and not wearing a mask, so I did that for a couple of days.
But 98% of the time I can work from home, and I’ve been acutely aware that makes my personal situation safer than what most people are experiencing. So while I’ve been trying to make trips to stores relatively brief and relatively infrequent, I’ve happily been grocery shopping in person and buying other things as needed. I’ve done a lot of drive-thrus and take-outs and a bit of outdoor dining, especially in Maine where cases have been low.
As I believe I’ve described before, my wife turned our garage into an outdoor classroom so that she could supervise remote learning, not just for our son but for a half dozen other kids from his class. Slow Boring’s own Claire Cantrell was originally the assistant teacher for that operation. We had desks and fans and space heaters, and the idea was that by leaving the garage door open, you’d have a well-ventilated space that also had a roof and electrical outlets. It was a long, cold, difficult winter. But our level of Covid caution was cautious enough to insist on staying outside all day all winter, but not so cautious that we were isolated from the other kids. When they had to pee, they would go inside and we had a HEPA filter in the bathroom.
In my own head, I always feel like my personal choices are “normal,” but then I find myself surprised to hear that someone has done indoor dining or surprised on the other side to hear that someone hasn’t been on a bus all year. But it’s just that basic knowledge of variability even among white-collar remote workers living in D.C. that’s made me allergic to broad generalizations about “life under quarantine.”
Most people work in person
The Bureau of Labor Statistics asks people a bunch of supplemental questions about the pandemic, and what their data shows is that in May 2020, the share of “employed people who teleworked or worked at home for pay at some point in the last 4 weeks specifically because of the coronavirus pandemic” was 35%.
That’s a lot of people! But obviously, it’s not most people.
And in April 2021, it was down to just 18.3% of employed people who fit this pretty broad definition of remote workers.
So an article about “Zoom fatigue” is addressing itself to a distinct minority of the population. That doesn’t mean it’s a population that should be ignored, obviously. Something like Wirecutter’s various articles on crafting a good working from home setup are filling a very real and genuinely large service journalism niche. And even though pandemic-induced remote work isn’t most people, it did cause a lot of changes that are interesting and newsworthy. A few months back, I realized that I shouldn’t just put up with the crappy table I’d been using as a desk.
But then when I looked into buying a desk online, everything was back-ordered for months. That inspired me to find a local craftsman who built me a custom desk. It was a bit of a time-consuming process compared to the normal experience of buying furniture from a chain store. But given the pandemic-induced delays, it was actually just as fast to get something locally crafted.
There are a million stories like that. For a while, you couldn’t buy a good webcam to save your life. 18% of the workforce is a lot of people. But the vast majority of the workforce is not working from home. That’s not a narrow category of “essential workers” — it’s a classification that just encompasses everyone working in retail stores or cleaning teeth or cutting hair or fixing plumbing or driving buses. I always consider myself a fairly out-of-touch person, but I’ve been a little shocked by how out-of-touch some of this commentary gets. Even within my college-educated professional circles, I know doctors and nurses and people who manage restaurants, and I am aware that the KN-95 masks I bought at the hardware store across the street didn’t materialize by magic.
Most people have been wearing “hard pants” this whole time.
Socializing is happening
If I turn off my eyes and ears and experience the world exclusively through the realm of takes, I do hear that there are people out there flouting Covid guidelines. But they are probably Trump voters living in red states with governors who are waging culture war battles against the hated Dr. Fauci.
But then I look at OpenTable data and see that as of last October, reservations were down about a third nationally relative to where they’d been in 2019.
Now obviously that’s a significant decline.
But it’s not the case that the country was groaning under a nationwide “lockdown” of any kind. There was a genuine nationwide shutdown in April 2020 and a gradual reopening across May and June. In retrospect, it was a shame to have wasted those good weather months on peak national fear. But after that things opened up, and on any given day, plenty of people were out and about dining.
At the same time, if you look at a relatively wide-open state like Florida or Georgia, you see that reservations were down 22 and 28%, respectively. In Texas, during that particular week, reservations were down by a bit more than the national average. One reason why red state reopenings didn’t do as much public health harm as liberals feared is that many people still behaved somewhat cautiously regardless of the rules.
Conversely, though, just walking around Washington, D.C. it’s clear that plenty of people have been dining indoors for months. On Halloween, I took my kid out trick-or-treating (which I figured was a safe, wholesome, outdoor activity), and you could clearly see people throwing Halloween parties or on their way to them. Not as many people as I would see in a normal October in my neighborhood. But far too many to be accounted for by the tiny number of Trump voters who live here. Some of the parties were unusually noticeable because the hosts kept the windows open, which seemed well-advised. But not everyone was. And it’s just very unlikely that these were right-wing ideologues as opposed to just good old-fashioned, moderately irresponsible young people.
Media for the real world
A CNN article from March suggested that one thing people may have trouble with in the post-vaccine world is making eye contact:
If you've been social distancing at home, it’s likely the only people you have made eye contact with lately are your housemates, cashiers at stores and coworkers through a screen.
In a future without masks, “you might want to look down because you're afraid,” said Jane Webber, an assistant professor of counselor education and doctoral program coordinator at Kean University in New Jersey. “Generally, just eye contact and a small smile I call the ‘Mona Lisa smile’ fills people on the other side with a really nice feeling. They will mirror what you do.”
Now look, it’s a big country, and I’m sure this problem is afflicting someone, somewhere. Apparently in Sonoma County, some people are now wracked by terror over small noises.
But the CNN story has written as if these are typical, normal, mainstream worries on a par with “what’s up with side effects?” or “what’s Marvel’s release schedule?” when in fact, the article is describing the situation of eccentric weirdos.
There’s nothing wrong with content targeted at eccentrics. And I do understand why media disproportionately targets white-collar remote work types — those people have more time and inclination to read stuff on the internet, and they’re also a more lucrative audience than the working class. I’ve never done any demographic research on the Slow Boring subscriber base, but I’m sure the remote working share is way above the national 18.3% average.
That said, while you’re not obligated to have a nationally representative audience for your publication, I do think you’re obliged to try to describe reality accurately. Media is a very remote-oriented field;1 it attracts a lot of neurotics and weirdos; and it’s concentrated in New York City. New York had an unusually traumatic experience with Covid followed by an unusually strict policy regime. New Yorkers also own cars and backyards at a much lower rate than normal Americans, so a desire to avoid indoor spaces could generate an unusual level of social isolation there. And as far as I can tell from my basement in D.C., there is a stigma in New York media circles against the people who left New York during the pandemic such that those who did may be reluctant to describe life in more typical parts of the country.
Beyond that, I assume everyone’s public presentation of themselves exaggerates how responsible their behavior is. You never read a tweet or a personal essay about driving drunk, and yet clearly on any given non-pandemic night, there are a lot of people driving home after more drinks than the CDC would advise.
But it seems particularly absurd to assume that someone who was doing in-person work all day would then teleport home and eschew all socializing. A life of hygenic cocooning might have some appeal, but once that’s off the table, why not also hang out a little?
My main point is that while it’s not surprising that highbrow media has a professional class skew in its audience and assumptions, the near-total erasure of the idea of a working-class pandemic experience was weird. Most people were making their way through the year in a household where at least one member had to go out in the world to work. And beyond questions of accuracy or representativeness, you have to wonder a little about the social role of a media that doesn’t see the country’s working-class majority as even notionally part of its audience. If your mission statement is going to be that “democracy dies in darkness,” then you have to try to find a way to take the light to where most of the people are.
Not just in the sense that the job is easy to do over the phone and Zoom, but in the sense that foreign correspondents and remote bureaus were staples of journalism long before modern information technology.