3 fundamental changes from the pandemic economy that could become permanent

Coronavirus restaurant
A customer pays for his purchase in the doorway of Dave’s New York, a retail store, as phase one of reopening after lockdown begins, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, New York, U.S., June 8, 2020.

  • Some elements of the pandemic-era economy are likely to stick around well after the recovery.
  • Experts warned the post-crisis economy would be different, and now it’s becoming clear how.
  • From remote work to a red-hot housing market, 4 fundamental shifts could be permanent.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The post-pandemic economy is taking shape.

Fifteen months after the US first plunged into lockdown, the economy is well on its way to a complete reopening. Spending is up, businesses are rehiring, and Americans are – slowly – returning to work. Economists largely agree that economic output will grow at the fastest rate since the 1980s this year.

Yet experts have warned the recovery will occur in a country that is permanently changed. Americans should brace for “a different economy,” Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said in an April conference hosted by the International Monetary Fund.

Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the IMF, said the post-pandemic economy could yield improvements if policymakers are prepared for substantial change.

“It doesn’t mean a worse economy if we think well in advance, if we think about educational attainment, if we think about flexibility for people entering the labor market, and if we think about where growth is going to come from,” she added during the conference.

And while the US is far from completing its recovery, some fundamental shifts are increasingly clear. Here are three pandemic-era changes that could turn permanent as the country enters a new normal.

1. Remote work becomes the norm

Remote work coronavirus
A video producer works from his at-home studio to conduct remote interviews with talent on April 19, 2020 in Franklin Square, New York.

Most of the US has reversed restrictions that kept employees from the office, but not all companies are mandating in-person work like they did in February 2020.

As much as 71% of the US workforce telecommuted some or all of the time during the coronavirus crisis, according to an October survey from Pew Research. Of the 5,858 American adults surveyed, 54% said they want to work from home after the pandemic ends. 

Business leaders themselves are embracing remote or hybrid work. The switch to flexible work structures is “a permanent civilizational shift,” venture capitalist and tech entrepreneur Marc Andreessen wrote in a recent blog post, while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said he’ll work remotely for at least half of 2022, saying it made him “happier and more productive at work.” Facebook told its 60,000 workers in June they only need to work from offices 50% of the time. It was one of many giant firms to give its workers that kind of permission.

2. A persistently hot housing market

homebuilder

The shift to remote work made housing hot, as Americans drove outsize demand for new and existing homes. The rally intensified further as mortgage rates hit multiple record lows through the end of 2020.

That boom has since run out of steam, but not for insufficient demand; decades of chronic underbuilding left the market with insufficient supply. After months of surging sales, nationwide inventory sank to record lows and prices leaped at their fastest pace since the housing bubble of the mid-2000s.

The market needs as many as 6.8 million new homes to balance out supply over the next decade, the National Association of Realtors said in June. That would require a 27% jump in homebuilding activity, and economists aren’t optimistic builders will rise to the occasion. The lingering gap between home supply and buyer demand will likely keep home prices climbing at an elevated rate for years, the Urban Land Institute said in May. 

3. Service jobs are out of fashion

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Empty tables stand at a restaurant in Manhattan on March 01, 2021 in New York City.

Jobless are largely avoiding the service industry amid reopening.

The pandemic exposed a handful of weaknesses throughout the sector. Employees risked exposure to COVID-19 just by showing up to work; wage growth remained stagnant; and conditions in retail and food service jobs worsened as businesses pushed to do more with fewer workers.

Surveys show people are looking for better pay, conditions, or both. Separately, quits soared to a record-high 4 million in April, with most occuring in the retail, food services, and accommodation industries.

Service businesses are catching on. Large-scale employers including Chipotle, McDonald’s, Amazon, and Under Armour all raised their starting wages in recent months as they rush to attract workers. Others are offering perks ranging from signing bonuses to fitness machines. To be sure, this could be a temporary hiccup during a reallocation of the workforce.

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Biden whispers the quiet part out loud on the labor shortage: ‘Pay them more!’

Biden
President Joe Biden.

  • The solution to attracting workers is to simply “pay them more!” Biden whisper-shouted on Thursday.
  • Massive demand for workers gives Americans a new “bargaining chip” for earning higher pay, he added.
  • The comments come as businesses are hiking wages and offering incentives as they scramble to rehire.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The solution to the labor shortage is, according to President Joe Biden, as simple as a higher wage.

The president allayed a range of concerns around the economy during a Thursday press conference. Among them is the nationwide labor shortage, which has seen hiring slow despite millions of Americans still being unemployed. The shortage may be delaying a full labor-market recovery, but he told journalists at the White House there’s an easy solution.

“I remember you were asking me … ‘Guess what? Employers can’t find workers.’ I said, ‘Pay them more!'” the president said in his distinctive whisper-shout.

The refrain has been popular with Biden as businesses rush to attract workers. The president said in May that the accelerating rate of wage growth was a “feature” and “not a bug” of the post-pandemic economy. Increased competition between employers gives Americans more “dignity and respect in the workplace,” he added.

“This is the employees’ bargaining chip now,” he said on Thursday. “[Employers] are going to have to compete and start paying hard-working people a decent wage.”

The president also eased fears that recent bouts of stronger inflation would hinder the recovery. The Consumer Price Index – a popular gauge of broad inflation – rose 0.6% in May, beating the median estimate of a 0.4% gain. The reading marked the fastest rate of price growth since 2009, but Biden assured the overshoot would soon fade.

“The overwhelming consensus is it’s going to pop up a little bit and then come back down,” he said.

The president’s comments were made during a press conference focused on the $1 trillion bipartisan deal for infrastructure spending that Biden had thrown his support behind earlier on Thursday. The plan includes funding for physical infrastructure like roads and bridges, as well as improved broadband access and public transit projects.

The package represents just half of the White House’s economic plan, Biden said during the afternoon press conference. The other portion will focus on improving childcare, education, and clean energy projects. Both proposals will move through Congress “in tandem” and represent Biden’s next steps for building a stronger economy.

“If it turns out that what I’ve done so far – what we’ve done so far – is a mistake, it’s going to show,” the president said. “If that happens, my policies didn’t make a lot of sense. But I’m counting on it not.”

Biden has long advocated a $15 minimum hourly wage, but opposition from Senate Republicans and even some Democrats has kept such legislation from reaching his desk. Still, elements of his $1.9 trillion stimulus package may have achieved a similar effect. The $300-per-week boost to jobless benefits led unemployment insurance to compete with the average wage in every state, Insider’s Andy Kiersz calculated.

Twenty-six states have since announced plans to prematurely end the benefit in hopes of pushing more Americans to find work. Yet early job-search data suggests the move is doing little to spur employment. And some jobless Americans told Insider in May that, after receiving generous UI payments for several months, they don’t plan to return to low-paying jobs.

“These guys are just dumbasses if they actually think that the UI is the problem and not the wage,” Matt Mies, an unemployed 28-year-old, told Insider’s Juliana Kaplan, referring to Republican governors ending the benefit early.

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Rising wages are a ‘feature,’ not a bug, of the post-pandemic economy, President Biden says

Biden economy speech Cleveland Ohio
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the economy during a visit to Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., May 27, 2021.

  • Wage hikes at large-scale employers are an encouraging sign for the economic recovery, Pres. Biden said on Thursday.
  • The increases are a sign workers are gaining bargaining power for the first time in decades, he added.
  • Biden noted there’s “more than ample room” to raise wages without driving inflation higher.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The wage hikes seen in recent weeks offer an encouraging hint of what the new US economy can look like, President Joe Biden said Thursday.

Large-scale employers have been raising their minimum wages as they look to attract workers through reopening. Companies such as McDonald’s, Amazon, and Under Armour have rolled out higher starting wages through May. The hikes appear to be in response to unexpected tightness in the labor market.

While millions of Americans remain unemployed, those on the sidelines are holding out for higher compensation before rejoining the workforce.

Republicans have blamed bolstered unemployment benefits for the labor shortage, saying they disincentivize jobless Americans from seeking work. Biden, however, sees a more encouraging trend behind the wage hikes. The raises “aren’t a bug” but “a feature” of the post-pandemic economy and show that workers are finally regaining bargaining power, the president said.

“Instead of workers competing for each other for jobs that are scarce, we want employers to compete with each other to attract workers,” Biden told a crowd in Cleveland, Ohio.

He continued: “That kind of competition in the market doesn’t just give workers more ability to earn a higher wage, it gives them the power and demand to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace.”

Critics of the recent wage hikes have also deemed them a symptom of rampant inflation that could spark a new economic crisis. Stronger inflation typically does translate to higher pay, as workers demand greater compensation to counter rising prices.

Biden instead linked the raises to a reversal in long-stagnant wage growth. Worker salaries and wages have made up a smaller and smaller share of US economic output since the 1960s. At the same time, compensation for CEOs and shareholders has boomed.

Boosting compensation for workers at the bottom of the pay scale is long overdue and poses little risk to the recovery, the president said Thursday.

“We have more than ample room to raise workers’ pay without raising customer prices,” Biden added.

While several companies have announced their own wage hikes, the latest efforts to introduce a higher minimum wage at the federal level have so far failed. The Senate voted down an amendment to raise the federal wage floor in March, and lawmakers haven’t made substantial progress toward such a hike since. And with eight Democrats defecting from the party and voting against the proposal, such legislation faces an uphill climb at least until the 2022 midterms.

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