It’s bad enough that this baby boomer will never see the world of flying cars he was promised over a bowl of Fruit Loops and The Jetsons on Saturday mornings. But now here we are in 2020, and the best minds of our generation have seen the near-future of American life after the coronavirus or, unbelievably, still coping with it — and it turns out that it’s Connecticut.
Sprawling suburbs filled with former urban dwellers who’ve traded their crowded trendy bistros and Broadway shows for green lawns and Netflix. Daily commutes that exist of walking down a hallway for a morning of Zoom meetings or the oxymoron that is called ‘online learning,' punctuated by the occasionally five-mile drive to the parking lot of the closest supermarket. If you squint into the distance, you might see the gleaming, empty office towers of America’s hollowed-out cities.
I always thought the job description for a futurist was someone who conjures up a better world, but the flood of “think pieces” that began surging in tandem with COVID-19 have largely described our near-future United States as a lonely and depressing dystopian hellscape. Maybe the people who get paid to write these think pieces should think a little harder?
True, we can’t go all Republican governor and pretend the coronavirus doesn’t exist, or pin all our hopes on vaccine that may be years and not months away; public health and safety must be paramount while the virus is still a threat. What worries me are solutions in the name of safety that may not really make us safer but instead take some of the nation’s biggest problems that existed before COVID-19 arrived and almost intentionally make them worse.
Before March 2020, the nation was just starting to take seriously the links between an atomized society and growing social isolation, or loneliness, and the surge in so-called “deaths of despair” among first middle-aged and now increasingly young Americans — not to mention the link between our lack of community bonds and problems like mass shooters or political radicalization.
Before March 2020, one of the rare bright spots of the 21st century was the comeback of U.S. cities, and the walkable neighborhoods and return of mass transit over smoggy traffic jams — which experts rightly saw as critical for getting climate change under control but also had public health benefits such as exercise that people don’t think about as much.
I spoke this week with Dr. Anthony Iton, senior vice president for healthy communities at the California Endowment, about his recent co-authored piece in the Atlantic — “A Backlash Against Cities Would Be Dangerous.” It noted that, among other health benefits, urban residents who fall sick are rushed much more quickly to closer hospitals that are better staffed and have more ICU beds than facilities in sprawling, spread-out exurbs.
“Inequity is the problem that exists — not cities,” Iton told me, noting that some of the highest U.S. infection rates have been not in urban areas but in rural, disadvantaged communities such as Indigenous reservations in the Southwest or among farm workers. He told me that living or working in crowded conditions — really more a factor of poverty rather than whether ones lives in a city — has proven arguably the biggest factor behind coronavirus outbreaks.
“Cities are good for human health because they mitigate against sprawl, and climate change,” Iton added. In other words, if we want a better future, Americans are going to have to multi-task — to think about how to promote social distancing and other coronavirus safety measures in the short run, yet not abandon cities in a way that can’t be easily undone if and when the virus is tamed.
The short-term trends don’t look good. Clearly, some people — generally more affluent professionals who can more easily work from home — have been quick to give up on urban America. Moving companies reported a 74% year-over-year spike in people moving from New York City to leafy, spread-out Connecticut in the months when the pandemic was tearing through the Big Apple. Many of the big tech companies like Google or Facebook — firms that a few years ago were investing heavily in collaborative workspaces — are now telling employees to work from home for the foreseeable future. The Miami Herald is becoming the first major newspaper without a newsroom.
No wonder top economists are like Philadelphia’s Joel Naroff, in a recent piece for The Inquirer, are predicting big problems for all that downtown commercial real-estate that’s arisen in recent years, as well as for mass transit systems like SEPTA and all the scores of ancillary businesses from office cleaning services to lunch trucks that depend on a commuter economy.
Of course, those trends are very bad in and of themselves, but there will be other, deeper impacts. At first blush, working and going to school from home could have positive effects on climate change (and indeed greenhouse-gas pollution did briefly drop by 17% during the hard shut-down phase of spring.) But people moving from walkable cities to car-dependent suburbs, or driving to work in downtown offices because of COVID-19 fears of subways, undercuts that.
Corinne Le Quéré, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia, recently told the New York Times that if cities re-opening the economy when many were fearful of riding buses or subways “don’t pay attention to this issue, emissions could rebound back to where they were before or even go higher.” But the specter of millions more working or attending home from school also threatens to worsen one of America’s worst social problems: Increasing isolation.
A report from the health insurer Cigna found that a whopping 60 % of Americans reported experiencing loneliness — and that was in January, before the coronavirus lockdown which, according to several studies, has increased social isolation much further. And the deeper numbers on loneliness in the United States — where currently more than 35 million people live alone, a record — show the problem affects younger people and men more than most realize.
It’s only been recently that America’s begun to pay attention to a steady rise of “deaths or despair” — suicide, drug overdoses, alcoholism — that have particularly plagued working class men. Some of the biggest drivers of the trend — unemployment, isolation, lack of community — are the things spiraling out of control since COVID-19 came to America.
What else could go wrong? We’ve all seen the evidence that loneliness and alienation are a key factor in America’s epidemic of mass shootings. And doctors are worried that a huge spike in the purchase of firearms — which started with the coronavirus lockdowns and increased amid social unrest — could drive suicide rates even higher.
“There has to be a coming to a middle ground,” Dr. Carla Perissinotto, who studies loneliness as a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco, told me in a phone interview. By that she means work and life changes that allow social distancing but also encourage human contact, such as staggered schedules so everyone’s occasionally in an office.
Like me, Perissinotto hopes that as we learn more about the virus — that a short hug with another person, which almost everyone now avoids, is probably a lot safer than seeing a rock band in a crowded bar for two hours — we’ll become more thoughtful about how to work human contact back into our lives. In fact, she wonders whether the COVID-19 experience could help in the long run by forcing some people who were in denial about loneliness to now think about positive change, and also for those who are suddenly isolated in the pandemic to think about life for those who experience it all the time.
“Hopefully this has created more awareness,” Perissinotto said, “and awareness is the first step toward positive change.”
That’s exactly right. It’s not surprising that the first wave of futurism about life during and immediately after the coronavirus has been heavily focused on self-preservation. But now we need to start thinking bigger — about how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe but also about how to save American society, which frankly was feeling sick long before the first positive case of COVID.
How can we re-imagine work, school and transportation so that the laudable trend toward walkable, liveable communities where people interact with their neighbors can be continued rather than reversed, with lethal impacts on climate? And how can we keep a safe physical distance, for now, while connecting with more people in the ways that count? It’s good news that the crisis has so many people talking and writing about how our lives will be different. Now it’s time to up our game and start talking about how our lives can be actually better.