Envisioning the Future of Work and Living with Liza Youngling | The Robert Benson Interview Series
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This interview's conversation is with Liza Youngling. Youngling is a cultural anthropologist who studies housing, economic change, and inequality in the United States. She received an M.A. And PhD in Anthropology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a B.S. in Foreign Service with a concentration in Culture and Politics from Georgetown University. She is currently a Humanities Policy Fellow at the American Academy of arts and Sciences and teaches part-time at DePaul University.
Thank you for joining us. Let's head into the dialogue.
Robert Benson: Obviously the new stranger in the news - there's lots of concerns about how long if you actually had COVID will you be immune and that right now, they're only saying it's three to five months. I read this morning that this could become like a cold virus. There's a theory that we'll just be dealing with this forever. But the severity or severity of it will lessen and that our children will kind of grow up with it and be much more immune to it than we are. That said, the reason I bring that up is that post-pandemic is not necessarily coronavirus gone. It just means we're going to get back to a new normal. It won't be like it was before, it's something else. So in that context, what technology do you expect to impact us the most in that post-pandemic period?
Liza Youngling: I think one of the technologies that's going to impact us the most is the rise of automation and AI when it comes to things that human beings used to do, together or face to face. And I think that'll affect different populations differently. On the one hand, I think we've seen how useful things like apps to deliver groceries and food and all like that can be.
Also I was just listening to a talk yesterday where they were talking about using DocuSign for more things - which is certainly something that applies in real estate - but I hadn't realized this, but if you are somebody that has a housing voucher, you would have to go in and sign all these papers and, have all these appointments, to get access to services that you're entitled to. There's been a long history of making it difficult for poor people to access services. And accessing services becomes a full-time job. So certainly there's benefits and there's opportunities to making things more easily accessible online.
But there's also drawbacks, right? We're seeing that with children in school, we're seeing that with work, with people not having social connections. I think on the one hand, technology can address a lot of these issues and allow us - allow at least some people - to shelter in place and not have as much exposure to the virus going forward. But at the same time, I think, as a social scientist, you have to be mindful of what's getting lost and the unevenness of the accessibility of that technology in terms of what it's allowing us to do.
RB: Do you think the uneven rates in terms of infection with different demographics is a direct correlation to - some demographics just have to be out more in the environment, and others can afford to stay in? Knowledge workers can stay in their house and order their groceries, whereas other folks who work hourly have to be out in the environment.
LY: Certainly, I think both in terms of exposure in terms of being out in the world, but then also the way that different demographics' households are set up. The density of populations in more low income communities; also tendencies toward multi-generational households, particularly in the Latinx community.
These things are adaptive strategies that people have to deal with less resources and they can be beneficial, they can be hard - a variety of things from a social perspective - but certainly we're seeing from a public health perspective that greater density in households and intergenerational households put people at a greater risk. And then yeah, to your point, certainly a lot of essential workers are lower-income people.
I think it'll be interesting to see long-term how the stigma, or our attitudes about people contracting the virus, getting the vaccine, all that stuff, how that evolves. Because on the one hand you can say, "Well, is it because people aren't being careful?" I don't think that's true.
I think people, if they have to be out, they have to be out. And if you are at a higher risk of exposure - I see this with friends that are in the medical community- it's almost like you can't be worried all the time. The way that somebody that is able to totally shelter in place can just put themselves in a little bubble. If you're not able to do that, then you have to figure out how to live with it. And it might be, to your point, that we're all going to have to figure out how to live with it and how to live with some level of risk in our social interactions.
RB: I was blown away by how political the virus could be. This year, the past year, we did go down to Kentucky, where Amanda's family's from. They were sheltering in place, we were sheltering in place. We were very careful, but we did go out for a walk and we walked across the pedestrian bridge across the Ohio River into Indiana. No one was wearing a mask. And people were right next to each other, and they absolutely positively took it as almost like a badge of honor - or at least a political statement that their freedom was being curtailed. And I was really blown away by that in our culture. Very shocked.
Artificial intelligence - that you brought up - it's kind of amazing because I was noting, just putting together these interviews, I was using Instagram direct messages, text messages, email, phone calls. And I couldn't remember - sometimes people would give me times that they were available, and I had to sit and search all of the interfaces to figure out, and I think you're right. If there was some way to stitch that all together... you know, we're completely in a media adolescence, at this point. And there's so many platforms, it's super confusing and it's very hard to reach anybody. Or it's super easy to reach, but it's hard to track any kind of information across the continuum. So I think you could very well be very much right on that.
In terms of behavior, how do you think behaviors change post-pandemic?
LY: Again, I think there's going to be a diversity of changes in behavior depending on both what you were saying about political attitudes, but also what you have to do to get through the day and make ends meet. I would say, people talk about how we're not going to shake hands, that people aren't going to be going back into the office. That on the one hand is an empowering thing for workers
But you know, you're a parent, you know that there's benefits and there's downsides to being at home with your family during this time period, in terms of being able to get work done, having adult time and being able to set stuff aside. So I think, one of the hard things is that we're all being asked to do similar things as far as shelter in place, but we all have different resources and constraints and living conditions that are affecting our ability to do that successfully or not.
RB: Let's just start with, do you think people will shake hands or is that custom going to go away?
LY: I don't know... we visited my mom, who has several health conditions that make it a much higher risk proposition for her to get COVID, over the summer. And she's somebody that's a very tactile sort of person. And so she, she likes to hug, she likes to put her hand on you when she's talking to you. She really craves that, and that's one of the ways that she connects and conveys that she's paying attention to you. And it just is interesting - I think we see this with older adults in general, but it's very very hard for people that that's their way of being to change.
And it was just really sad. Another friend's parents came over, who are much more concerned, and they were kind of recoiling from her. They were literally like backing up because she was invading what they felt was the safe distance. I think it was challenging for them to feel like they were under threat, because somebody was coming close to them and it was - has been - really challenging for her. She wants to feel connected and that's one of the ways that humans connect. There's all this data on the importance of touch, right? Even a robot hand is better than nothing, you know? We think, "Oh, it's something that goes away," but it doesn't. We like to be in community with one another.
I think for me, on the one hand, I think it is promising that there's all these technologies and certainly the internet, that's allowing us to be connected in other ways, but I don't know that it's really replacing touch - and maybe a handshake isn't the thing. But if you were to tell me, "Oh, nobody's going to hug each other," that would be pretty devastating. Like, I don't know what that means for us as human beings and for our ability to get the type of social connection and closeness that is a big part of what makes us tick.
RB: I wonder if the hug hello, or the handshake - are we able to get to a point where when you put your hand out, if someone rejects that, it's not insulting.
RB: Because I can imagine a situation where there's going to be people and they're immunocompromised or they're whatever, or they're just - their personal space zone is maybe a little bit larger than normal, and they say, "Let me just give you an air 'hi',", is that going to be okay? And it's hard to imagine that ever being okay. Certainly for us who grew up half of our lives doing it one way, and now it changes - maybe it's different for the kids, our kids would have never known really - they don't remember when you didn't wear a mask at this point.
RB: I want to get after the - you talked about working and not having to go to the office and you can be productive, you don't have to be micromanaged. Does that increase the distance from where you reside to where your business is located? And do you think that trend continues? My next call is with a technologist, who the firm is in Boston and he is currently in Albuquerque. In between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, rather, in New Mexico, and he doesn't think he's going back.
LY: Yeah. I certainly think that for some - you know, for knowledge workers - it can increase the distance pretty profoundly. And that could actually be a really good thing for some of these smaller cities or more rural areas that have, beautiful, beautiful scenery, a lot to offer, but maybe don't have the economy to support people that are highly educated and want to make a good living. So I think that could be really positive. I was reading an article, I think it was in September, so a little outdated now, about - we have this sense, and you and I talked about this over the weekend, that the people we know are - a lot of people are moving to the suburbs.
But based on - this was like a CityLab article, and they were saying that if you look at moves and where people are moving, that is happening in New York and San Francisco. But in some of these other cities the trend is not as defined of, yes, there's this big outflow. But I also wonder about people that are moving temporarily or imagining that they're moving temporarily, so maybe not packing up all their stuff. Maybe they keep their lease. But they're leaving the city and moving in with friends or with their parents. And what does that look like?
If what we were talking about earlier is true and there really isn't a post-pandemic, but this is something that continues to affect how we live and work. At what point are people going to say, okay, enough is enough. I really have to make sure that where I live better suits the needs that I have now. And when are employers going to say, yeah, I know we said we were going back into summer, but that really doesn't make sense. It's not something that's necessary and, to play it safe, we'd rather just get rid of our office space and, have a kind of a more virtual workplace.
And that's something I'm dealing with right now, is wondering whether to make a move for a year or if I should say no, that doesn't make any sense because people aren't really going to be in the office. So I think a lot of people are in a holding pattern and seeing what happens, but it might be. that we don't ever get a definitive answer of, yes, this is totally safe for us all to be clustered together and, using public transit and all that. I don't know.
RB: And what happens if we get out of this and then six months we're right back in it, whether it's a new strain that is absolutely way worse or doesn't respond, or the flu. There's a lot of concerns about that. You know, I think in this case, my guess is that we're going to have to adapt to this situation and be ready to do it again. And if that's the case - and I don't know if you believe that - but if that was the case, can you imagine the, again, the behavioral change that would exist, in that the new normal really is - we're mostly remote with some localized interaction and you think that's a possibility?
LY: I do. And, I think that as with everything there could be positives to that, and there could be downsides. I think cities will continue to draw people, but maybe the way people access public space will change a little bit. People's - one of the things that was like a big thing, pre pandemic was, yeah, you can be - you don't have to be in the office, but coworking spaces - are co-working spaces going to be resilient in the face of this and figure out, okay, we're going to have the best air filtration system, we're going to have this cleaning protocol so that people do feel comfortable, working in a big loft space. I don't know.
I think - I think that we can rise to the occasion, but it's probably gonna take a little bit, a little while.
RB: Yeah. Hard to imagine and it's super hard to predict. In terms of industries or markets - the restaurant industry, the entertainment industry, both completely decimated. I think anything - any entertainment, any concert, anything like that, it's completely dead. When we come back, which do you think is most changed or impacted - and this could be a positive way too - by this experience through the pandemic,
LY: I think live entertainment is going to - I don't know what's going to happen with that... that population of workers who provide such value to all of our lives in terms of, you know, enhancing our understandings and providing us with shared cultural experiences. Yeah. I would think that, it seems like restaurants have figured out - the ones that are still in business - have figured out to some extent, how to make it work with much more takeout, with increasing outdoor seating options, that kind of a thing. It's a little bit harder in Chicago, obviously.
You know, it's snowing now, right? It's a little bit more difficult... I think that the industry I'm worried about- (Overlapping)
RB: (Overlapping) Do you think Southern cities become even more attractive because the weather is better and therefore it can extend outdoor activities that aren't possible in the North. I mean that - are we looking at a migration?
LY: Certainly. I don't know about you, but I've been thinking about, wouldn't it be nice to be in a warmer place right now? Yeah, I think that one of the hard things, though, is that when you've seen how different states have handled a pandemic, and different cities - back to the kind of political issues, right? It feels a little less safe to go to some of these Southern states where there isn't necessarily the shared sense of, "This is a big issue and we all have to take it seriously," and they don't necessarily have the healthcare resources.
So, I think if Southern states really want to make a ploy for all these Northern knowledge workers that now could work wherever, they would need to convey that they're going to have the infrastructure to provide for a whole new population that might have different views and perspectives than a lot of the local population.
RB: In terms of housing, how do you think the pandemic has impacted that? Two part follow up here - and is the civil unrest and some of the social issues we've been dealing with bigger than the pandemic in terms of the, sort of, housing climate.
LY: I've been thinking about that a lot. You know, we have this return of white, urban professionals to cities and we have gentrification - in Chicago, not to the same extent as other places, but certainly to some extent, right on the Northwest side and all like that - and so we had cities really vying for wealthy, mostly white residents to come back and really orienting policies and opportunities around, attracting those residents and keeping them and not having people leave for the suburbs. And to some extent it's been successful in terms of Chicago - Chicago's lost population overall, but the population of, you know, white, wealthier people has increased, I think.
So, I don't know. I want to believe that people raising families have an understanding that the social unrest is - I don't want to say that it needed to happen, but that it was going to happen and that we have to confront some of these issues and not just sweep them under the rug and assume that, we've resolved all of our differences. Cause we - we haven't, right? So yes, it's scary, to see looting on Michigan Avenue. But we need to reckon with the fact that there's other experiences in the city that people on the north side just aren't aware of, right? And aren't dealing with on a daily basis. So it's not like all of a sudden there are all these problems. It's like all of a sudden these problems have become visible to a larger part of the population.
RB: The impact on migration, or how people operate is - what I'm wondering, how that works. When you think about a pandemic, you can't use the public parks, and if you use them, you have to use them illegally at this point. At this point, everybody's just desperate because the children need to go somewhere. If you are in a suburban situation where you have a big backyard, you don't need the public park and you can isolate maybe even better. So, you know, I think those are the kinds of things that I wonder if that really impacts real estate decisions when families are trying to protect their kids.
LY: Yeah. And I think that that's one of the things that we're seeing in a variety of sectors, right? This opt-out phenomenon where if you have the ability, if you have the financial wherewithal to do things on your own and not rely on public resources, you're going to do it. And on the one hand, you could say, well that's fine. And on an individual level, that's totally understandable, right? Like it would be great to have a backyard right now. It'd be great to, know - let's say the pandemic's still going on, and when our kids are going to kindergarten, if CPS is still remote and private schools aren't, right? That's going to affect people with resources' choices, in terms of where they send their kids. But if we all lean into that mentality of, "We need to just only take care of our ourselves," I don't think we're going to get out of this and have the kind of society and economy that we want, which is - or that I want, at least, that's inclusive and that gives everybody a fair chance to access the resources that we all need, right?
LY: Whether it's green space or solid education.
RB: I think that's really, the issue - I would hate to see another migration of only the wealth, and then leaving the city holding - wasn't as wealthy. In our own development there's been five or six families that have left and moved to the suburbs. And, you know, most of those are north shore and it's pretty pronounced. And we've been here three years and we haven't seen anything close to this. So it is in a very local anecdotal sense, very real.
RB: And I think that it's the one-two punch of the civil unrest, combined with the pandemic is pretty potent in influencing people's decisions. I personally think - usually interviewers don't jump in with their own opinions, but what the hell? I do think the city's come right back. I think, you know, the need for knowledge workers and I think that the reality of collaboration being poor virtually, is a big deal. I think you'll just see - offices are going to change. There aren't going to be warehouses of desks where people go every day. It's going to be, I have to go collaborate and do a thing for a few days - and maybe some weeks I'm there every day, and then some weeks I'm never there - but I think there'll be a lot more dexterity, but you still need to get together with people. So hopefully it blows over and it has less of an impact than we think. Do you have any other thoughts on adaptability post-pandemic?
LY: Yeah. I think that what you just said is a great point. My hope is that we come out - in terms of adaptability - is recognizing both all the things that we can do virtually and trying to make those things easier, but also recognizing the power and importance of face-to-face collaboration and connection. And so trying to figure out, what are the things that we can do apart from one another that make it easier and safer to come together when we need and want to come together, right? Whether that's in a work context or a social context. Can we dampen down the rates so that we can be together in meaningful ways and when it's not meaningful, have the opportunity - everybody have the opportunity to be able to stay safe and keep their family safe.
So I hope that it's both, right? There's more ability to do things remotely, but also a recognition of the value of getting together.
RB: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time and I very much enjoyed your comments. So I can't thank you enough.
LY: Oh, thank you! This was fun.
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