Illustration by Justin Tran
Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

The Great Reset is here, like it or not


Published on July 29, 2020

Of all the changes brought by a pandemic and the responses to it this year, many seem as if they were waiting to happen, given a hard nudge.

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The Great Reset, a term popularized ten years ago by a book written in the aftermath of the 2008 global crash, fits so well that the World Economic Forum chose it as the title for its current discussions of how governments and companies are looking to adapt.

The Great Reset, the book, was published in 2010 by Richard Florida, an urban studies researcher at the University of Toronto who had already established himself as a writer for The Atlantic and author of The Rise of the Creative Class, another work whose title entered the popular vocabulary. With three more books on this new class of workers—young, mobile professionals for whom the fast track was the only career track—and their impact on cities and society, Florida had the cred to be taken seriously when he forecast a Great Reset rather than a Great Wipeout in the wake of The Big Short.

Study your history, he wrote, and you’ll see that at least in the United States, there have been two resets already. Before the Depression of the 1930s, there was the Long Depression of 1873, which “began as a banking crisis brought on by insolvent mortgages and complex financial instruments (sound familiar?) quickly spread to the entire economy, leading to widespread and prolonged unemployment.”

America’s crashes lead to reboots

Both of those Depressions set the stage for a rejiggering of work, finance, and lifestyles, aided by technological advances that enabled new ways of living and getting things done, for both individuals and industries. It doesn’t take a war to lift America out of a Depression. In fact, the last two decades have shown it doesn’t work. 

In many cases, this year’s sudden lockdowns and shutdowns only accelerated changes already trending.

What does work, Florida wrote, is “redrawing the economic map” and overhauling cities to meet the new set of opportunities and limitations. After the Great Depression, suburbs proliferated so rapidly that by 1960 their populations outnumbered the cities around which they were built. 

At the cusp of the 2010s, Florida observed another migration in progress, this time to heavily populated “megaregions”—New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, the SoCal region around Los Angeles, and less celebrity-packed areas around the U.S. where cities more than a hundred miles apart (Miami-Orlando-Tampa, or Seattle-Portland-Vancouver) had already merged into one continuous region, trampling state borders and draining residents from rural areas no longer in need of large agricultural or natural-resource workforces. At the time, the 40 largest megaregions around the globe held two-thirds of its economic activity.

Florida’s forecast was that instead of flocking to coastal cities, people would seek new areas where they felt more comfortable and at home, and where life was more affordable. Work would become much more distributed, not only for the creative class but for anyone who didn’t need to be onsite. Not only could you work from home, but you could make your home wherever you chose.

Florida was clear, though, that “Resets take time—the better part of a generation … We can’t predict with any certainty what the next economic landscape and spatial fix will look like.”

Ten years later, here we are. Surprise!

Changes waiting to happen

In many cases, this year’s sudden lockdowns and shutdowns only accelerated changes already trending. Shoppers were already abandoning malls to shop from home. Many career professionals had pushed to be able to work from home, whether sometimes or all the time. Jobs had been moved to cheaper geographic regions. Younger Americans didn’t share their parents’ longing to own cars and houses. And even the young were going out less already, finding entertainment and connecting with others from the convenience and comfort of home. Maybe too much at home sometimes, but these changes were already rolling.

In hindsight, The Great Reset, like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, didn’t see SARS-CoV-2 coming. Instead of a gradual workforce dispersion driven by thought leaders and early adopters, we got sent home, many of us without our jobs. Like a jammed smartphone, life was shut down, leaving us to wonder if it will reboot.

Now what?

Despite the uncertainties, let’s be honest: Many of us are quietly enjoying it. Yet far more of us are not. Change is stressful, even when it’s for the better in the long run. No one likes being shoved out of their comfort zone. And Americans in particular are proving terrible at staying home and playing it safe during a viral pandemic. Even in California’s well-heeled Marin County (where it must be noted that Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 4 to 1), COVID-19 cases recently spiked, placing Marin right behind Los Angeles in the state’s infection rates. 

Leveraging the current crisis to reinvent cities is a global theme.

Talk of a Great Reset can seem like happy-face spin on hard times for so very, very many. Unemployment sucks, even when you’ve got lots of company. Social distancing, even for introverts, can be lonely. For those who thrive on personal contact, it’s like being marooned. And there’s a third-rail topic: Regardless of countermeasures, we’re going to keep losing family, friends, and colleagues to a virus that strikes even the healthy who take precautions.. “You can work from a cabin in Montana” won’t make up for the loss.

But it’s what we have to work with. People will have to move. They’ll have to change careers. They’ll have to change their ideas of success. Experts told Florida that many will bristle as their cultural values and identities are deemed obsolete. Not everyone will adapt well, if at all. 

Cities reinvented yet again

A decade after writing the book, Dr. Florida now tells interviewers that post-COVID, “Our cities might become affordable enough for artists and creatives and middle class people to move back,” as downtown real estate loses the retail stores and traditional offices that had jacked up prices. He expects that young people in search of careers will still flock to cities. But besides New York and Los Angeles, he sees more affordable cities like Philadelphia, Charlotte, Phoenix, and Portland (the one in Oregon and the one in Maine) becoming viable career locations for distributed, remote workers. 

One example: Branch VFX, spun out of an L.A. video effects company, avoided outsourcing work for HBO and Netflix to India by setting up shop in Albany. Branch’s executive producer promises that unlike his own early days in the industry, “In Albany, you don’t have to get a second job to make rent.”

Leveraging the current crisis to reinvent cities is a global theme. In a round-table discussion for Foreign Policy, Robert Muggah of Brazil’s Igarapé Institute calls the pandemic “an opportunity for urban planners and entrepreneurs to build back better.” Kiran Bedi, India’s first female police officer and now lieutenant governor of its Puducherry territory, agrees that “working from home will be an option, supported by teleconferencing and cloud-based sharing. Office space will come at a much lower rate.” The executive director of the UN’s Human Settlement Programme declares urban renovation a must: “Without safe shelter and access to basic services, the order to shelter in place has no meaning.”

In Shanghai, Peggy Liu, chair of the Joint US-China Cooperation for Clean Energy, posts frequently about China’s spike in live-streaming and 5G investments as both government and citizens realize how much can be done from a buffed-out home office.

Plans to make cities safe again center around four themes: Make as much activity as possible remote and online. Design for social distance in workplaces and wherever people conduct transactions in person. Provide sophisticated protective equipment, especially for frontline workers. And as John Oliver loves to repeat: “Testing, Testing, Testing.”

I know: That all seems obvious. The challenge is whether we can get it done and make it work. We’ll have to find out, like it or not. As we do, the question even bigger than “How do we implement The Great Reset?” is, “How do we cope with it?”