It’s been 4 years since the pandemic began. Here’s what the new normal looks like.

Mitchell Hartman Jan 4, 2024
Heard on:
One big change: more people working remotely or for themselves. Getty Images

It’s been 4 years since the pandemic began. Here’s what the new normal looks like.

Mitchell Hartman Jan 4, 2024
Heard on:
One big change: more people working remotely or for themselves. Getty Images

We’re coming up on four years since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. After some wild swings — the economy lost 21.9 million jobs from February to April 2020 and unemployment soared to 14.7% — the labor market has more or less returned to pre-pandemic trends.

According to November employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate stands at 3.7%, just two-tenths of a percentage point higher than it was in February 2020. Job growth is now slightly slower, averaging 203,000 jobs per month (three-month average) compared to 236,000 in February 2020. By June 2022, the economy had regained all 21.9 million jobs lost early in the pandemic; total nonfarm payrolls now surpass the pre-pandemic level by 4.7 million.

But a return to pre-pandemic statistical norms isn’t the same as returning to the pre-pandemic labor market. Some changes in the workforce, in worker attitudes and the nature of work, are likely to be long-lasting or even permanent.

I found an exemplar of these changes at a coffee shop near my dentist’s office in Portland, Oregon. Next to me, Amy Joon was tapping away on her laptop amid the din of the morning latte rush. Her dog, Smudge, was beside her as she worked.

Joon is 31. Smudge, just out of puppyhood, sat patiently, waiting for treats.

“I’m a freelance graphic designer” Joon said. “Sometimes I do a little bit of photography. I’m an all-around creative artist, so pretty much whatever comes my way I try to do.”

Before the pandemic, Joon had a graphic-design staff position at a prestigious art museum on the East Coast. But, she said, the job wasn’t good for her.

 “People aren’t really paid well for the amount of work they do, and they’re overworked. And that was my experience —doing a lot for very little,” she said.

In the summer of 2020, Joon got sick with a chronic illness. “It was partly occupational, partly the stress of the pandemic and the unknown,” she said. “I had to go on medical leave, which led to me starting my own business so I could work in a way that’s more cohesive with my body and what I can handle every day.”

Joon, seated at a bench in a sunny room, smiles at the camera. Smudge, a black and white dog, sits in front of her.
Graphic designer Amy Joon turned to freelancing during the pandemic. Now she works remotely in Portland, Oregon, sometimes with her dog, Smudge. (Courtesy Joon)

Joon has found that with so many people leaving and changing jobs, or going out on their own to work for themselves, she’s had plenty of design work.

And she’s had plenty of company. “One thing about the pandemic is that remote work is now more of an option,” she said. “I can work in different environments, like a coffee shop, where I feel more inspired, or work later at night. I’ve had this huge adjustment over the past few years of what my work life looks like.”

Multiplied by millions of workers, this is a major structural shift, said Alex Colvin, dean of the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “More workers doing remote work, working hybrid — it seems that that really is here to last.”

Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has run the numbers. “People returning to office has pretty much plateaued in most cities,” Baker said. “So [there’s] about 10 million more people working from home on a daily basis than pre-pandemic.”

Some occupations are less amenable to the shift than others, Colvin pointed out. “You’re not seeing a lot of restaurant employees. You can’t collect garbage remotely, do manufacturing work remotely.”

But Dean Baker said a wide range of workers are still benefiting. “There’s been a big increase in self-employment, that’s disproportionately among women of color and women with children,” Baker said. “So it seems they’re taking advantage of the opportunity to work at home and start a business at home.”

From self-employment to self-empowerment. Another major shift, Colvin said, is more workers banding together.

“There was quite a bit of unrest during the pandemic, people worried about health and safety in the workplace,” he said. “And there was some question as to whether that would just go away when we got back to usual. But we have seen an upsurge of worker activism. It’s being channeled in different ways — union organizing, strikes.”

The upsurge in activism has ranged from the organizing drives at hundreds of Starbucks stores to nurses’ and teachers’ strikes and the United Auto Workers’ rolling strikes late last year, which led to expansive contracts with three big automakers.

“Success breeds success,” said Ken Jacobs, co-chair of the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “When workers see other workers win a union election, go on strike and succeed, they think: ‘That’s something I can do.’”

But Jacobs said it’ll still be a big challenge to reverse decades of losses in union membership and representation, especially in the private sector. “Can the gains at the bargaining table be turned into more organizing?” Jacobs asked. “Is the UAW able to organize the auto industry more broadly, especially in the South? What we haven’t seen yet is the share of workers in unions going up.”

Meanwhile, the share of workers who are unemployed remains near historic lows, reverting back to a trend we saw in the 18 months leading up to the pandemic. And behind that is potentially the most profound long-term economic change, said Heidi Shierholz, former chief economist at the U.S. Labor Department and now president of the Economic Policy Institute.

“We’ve had unemployment at less than 4% for almost two years now,” she said. “The lessons will be lasting: We can actually sustain really low unemployment rates without causing big issues in the economy.”

Issues like runaway inflation.

Shierholz said low unemployment has also specifically benefited marginalized groups. For instance, unemployment rates for Black and Hispanic workers have hit all-time lows (4.7% and 3.9%, respectively) in the past 18 months.

Shierholz pointed out that keeping people in jobs and off the unemployment rolls has lasting ripple effects. 

“Tight labor markets, low-unemployment labor markets, reduce wage gaps; they reduce poverty, reduce child poverty,” she said.

And, she argued, Federal Reserve policymakers should take this lesson to heart: They can let the job market run hot — benefiting workers up and down the income ladder — without the danger of an economic crack-up.

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