To Unite America, Get Back to the Office!

Photo by Kate Sade | Unsplash

The two most important stories of the week had nothing to do with January 6, the midterm elections, or Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. 

One pertained to our return to the office. The other dealt with friendship. They’re interconnected and provide a hopeful roadmap to both unite us and make us more prosperous. 

On Tuesday,  I read Emma Goldberg’s New York Times story about how American corporate workplaces have splintered. Some are nearly as full as they were before COVID-19 while other offices sit abandoned. The big city offices are slower to fill than the small cities.  


The reporting is both anecdotal and data-driven. San Francisco’s office occupancy is at 39 percent of its pre-pandemic level; New York City is 41 percent. Austin is 60 percent.   


But at the Huntington Center, a 37-story office tower in downtown Columbus, Ohio,  they have about 85 percent of pre-pandemic occupants on site at some point during the week.   


Online job postings also reflect differences in remote work between large and small cities.  


In San Francisco, 26 percent of postings permit remote work. In Birmingham Alabama, that number is just 10.4 percent. 


There is debate as to what drives the difference.  Could it be the red state-blue state divide? Millennial and Gen X work habits? Commutes? Maybe all of the above? 


A second story caught my eye the same day. It had to do with friendship, economic mobility, and so much more.  


Harvard economist Raj Chetty and colleagues released the result of a massive database study – the social networks of 72.2 million users of facebook between the ages of 25 and 44. The researchers didn’t have usernames, but they were able to use zip codes to estimate users income, college and other characteristics. 


The conclusion that drove the headlines: for the poor, the best ticket out of poverty is having wealthy friends.  It’s called social capital. The more connections between the rich and the poor, the better the neighborhood was at lifting children from poverty.  


The new data provided validation to the long-standing work of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who in 2000 published a book called “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community which dealt with declining social capital.  


On my radio program this week, Putnam said we’ve been headed our separate ways for a while, but that the internet has accelerated the trends.    


Bill Bishop dealt with that consequence in his 2009 book “The Big Sort.” His premise was that 50 years ago, we disengaged as a society. Fewer elks clubs. Fewer bowling leagues, fewer local newspaper subscriptions. And when we re-engaged in the internet era, we did so among the like-minded.  


I’d add to this list of social scientists Charles Murray, who analyzed what happens when there is little intersection between the rich and the poor in his 2013 book “Coming Apart.”    


Murray chronicled our increasing class segregation. He cited Belmont, Massachusetts, and the Kensington section of Philadelphia. We live among those who are like us, which further perpetuates our coming apart — because the better off can’t as easily extend opportunity to the less fortunate when they don’t cross paths.  


Put it all together and what does it mean? 


Good things happen when we intermingle and have common experiences, the sort that my father told me benefited him from his Korean War experience.   


Day one — people from different backgrounds all across the country suddenly reduced to the same haircut, uniform, cot and food. Where you came from didn’t matter. People lived and worked together. . .built bridges.    


Today that too is lacking. Every branch of the U.S. Military is now struggling to meet its fiscal year 2022 recruiting goals. Fewer Americans are choosing to serve their country in this fashion.  


No doubt when we are all living in our bubbles, it perpetuates the political divide, driven further by gerrymandering and self-sorting.    


So if there’s so much data pointing to societal benefit when we get out of our bubbles, where can we find more of that sense of communion? Where are you inclined to be with someone dissimilar? 


Here are a few that came from my radio conversation with Professor Putnam: 

  • student exchange programs  

  • houses of worship

  • volunteerism

  • maybe mandatory government service that need not be military

  • youth sports  


And I add to that list — the workplace. 


Like the military, in many cases it’s an environment where dissimilar people are united for common purpose. The carpark. Cafeteria. Diverse clients. Company meetings. Those in the C-Suite having to deal with those in the warehouse. 


The workplace is yet another opportunity for fostering friendships of the type that lift the poor out of poverty — and bridge our political divide — but not when practiced over a Zoom call.  


The new data found that bringing people together is not enough on its own; relationships must be forged.  They won’t be — if we are only connected by ethernet.

Michael Smerconish

Using the perfect blend of analysis and humor, Michael Smerconish delivers engaging, thought-provoking, and balanced dialogue on today’s political arena and the long-term implications of the polarization in politics. In addition to his acclaimed work as nationally syndicated Sirius XM Radio talk show host, newspaper columnist, and New York Times best-selling author, Michael Smerconish hosts CNN’s Smerconish, which airs live on Saturday at 9:00 am ET.

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