During the pandemic, our homes became centres of wealth generation. When possible, we now work from our homes – which transforms the meaning of ‘at home’ and ‘at work’. In the post-* era, homes are where we work – while our CBDs become pleasure palaces for our leisure time. Whether we know it or not, almost all of us now operate ‘home businesses’ – with big implications for our families and how we live…
The economic axis of industrial culture spun around the office and factory floor. All value creation came from productive activities that took place in these locations. The rest of the world had been almost entirely stripped of productive economic capacity; most particularly, the home went from being the centre of productivity to a hidden, almost embarrassing element that, rather than acting as the dynamo of family economics, became an endless sink. Rather than actively creating wealth, the home actively consumed it.
That shift from production to consumption within the home transformed the whole culture. Although we imagine industrial culture to be a story about the rise of offices and factories, it should be seen instead as the story of the demise of the home as a centre of production. Every element of industrial culture can be traced to that one change.
In March 2020, as COVID-19 pandemic began its exponential growth in infections, public health officials advised governments throughout the world to arrest the chain of transmission of the disease by limiting human contact to the greatest degree possible: lockdown. Governments both liberal-democratic and authoritarian took exactly the same unprecedented steps to close down the public sphere of life, ordering people (often under threat of severe penalties) to remain within their homes at all times except for specific activities – such as shopping for basic necessities, and receiving or giving care.
Implemented irregularly, imperfectly, and impartially, the global lockdown of April 2020 did slow the exponential growth in COVID-19 infections. Some jurisdictions relaxed lockdowns as soon as it appeared that the immediate threat had passed – only to see cases skyrocket. Other jurisdictions – such as Australia and New Zealand – maintained lockdowns for longer periods of time, transitioning to ‘soft lockdowns’, where people were legally permitted but strongly discouraged from activities that could produce outbreaks of infection.
Australians – in particular, Australians in Melbourne and Sydney – were asked to work from home where possible, not just for the ten weeks of the original 2020 lockdown, but for most of the next two years, Until a sufficient percentage of the population had received COVID-19 vaccinations, neither employers nor public health officials wanted to risk a mass outbreak of infections due to commuting or disease transmission within an office environment.
In the immediate crisis of April to June 2020, when nearly everyone – excepting for essential workers in health and retail – stayed at home, first the New Zealand and then the Australian government introduced a weekly payment for workers who could not work because of the lockdown. This payment (running to eighty billion dollars in Australia’s ‘JobKeeper’ program) became an experiment in keeping an economy from an apocalyptic crash at a moment when almost everyone had been thrown out of work.
Yet the number of workers actually ‘out of work’ (and not just ‘out of the office’) was actually smaller than had been estimated. Not much more than ten percent of Australian jobs involve manufacturing, less than the number of jobs in the nation’s hospitality sector – a segment of the economy far more vulnerable to lockdown. Closing the factory floors around Australia produced hardship, though less than the pain produced by shuttering all of the nation’s restaurants, cafes, pubs, and events.
The economic disruption produced by lockdowns, though serious and pervasive throughout the manufacturing and hospitality sectors, would barely touch the service sector of Australia’s economy – the nation’s largest employer and economic engine. For a hundred years the service sector, had centred its operations on the office. In a sudden switch, all of those operations moved into the home.
The home had once again become the centre of economic productivity.