Untraveling: the end of distinct modes for work, home, and vacation

Namrata Patel
May 28 · 9 min read

Most of the anxious speculation about post-pandemic travel (from immunity passports, to robotic cleaning, and oh yea, no middle seats on airplanes) and post-pandemic housing (from urban flight to the return of asset ownership on the high end and more flexible housing options on the low end) continues to view these as separate modes or spheres of life, layering post-pandemic-preferences onto pre-pandemic behaviors.

What has not been discussed — and what is more interesting — is how our notions of travel and housing may intersect in novel ways. A post-pandemic world — with fewer barriers to long trips and new motives for travel — could repattern how we live and vacation.

Work Hard, Play Hard

Against the backdrop of modern life — nonstop connectedness, relentless work — we’ve been conditioned by marketers to see vacations as a respite from the hustle and bustle — a time to relax, explore, connect, and be alive.

With that single, easy step, we entered a new world, a sort of alternate reality to the one on Shore… We became aware that the ship was pulling away. We had felt no warning, no trembling of the deck, throbbing of the engines or the like. It was as if the land were magically receding, like some ever-so-slow reverse zoom in the movies. (David Foster Wallace quoting Frank Conroy, Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise)

At the same time, photography since the 1960s (amplified by the internet and Instagram in the past decade) has transformed vacations into acts of conspicuous consumption:

Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had. Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of family, friends, neighbors. (Susan Sontag, On Photography)

And when combined with wellness, a vacation could be your path to self-actualization (how many days was your silent meditation retreat?).

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A never-ending stream of paid marketing and photo-bragging constantly reinforce the separateness of our day-to-day life from vacations (our idealized and idolized forms of leisure). Most of the time, most of us are working so that we can save our precious income and even scarcer PTO for when we can vacation. Accordingly, we relegate our leisure time to weekend getaways or one to two week long vacations that punctuate the year.

Hints of a Countertrend

But, over the past decade, two trends emerged that started to blend our concepts of day-to-day life, travel, and vacations:

Staycations are vacations taken at home or within comfortable driving distance. They were popularized in 2008–2012 following the 2008 Recession, but waned as employment increased, the stock market climbed, and pre-recession travel habits returned.

Digital nomads are “independent workers who choose to embrace a location-independent, technology-enabled lifestyle that allows them to travel and work remotely, anywhere in the world” (see Digital Nomadism: A Rising Trend). Once the custom of gypsies, drifters, rastafari, and hippies, technology has made possible a more sustainable version of this lifestyle for gig creative professionals and programmers. It’s worth noting that this lifestyle, however, often came with less job stability and fewer benefits — and, not to mention, was largely inaccessible to families.

Neither have become part of mainstream culture — particularly middle class family life — given the many constraints (work, education, childcare, and the cost of setting up a new household to name a few) that most faced.

The Untraveling

The home has become an office, school, mega-mall, gym, and much more all in the span of weeks. As the line between our work and personal lives becomes more blurred, so will the line between home and travel.

Some of these may be obvious points, but I think it is helpful to mention them as context before speculating on the future.

Amortization of transit risk. In all likelihood, people will avoid dense, high-turnover means of transportation where and when possible for fear of contracting or spreading the virus. This means fewer, less frequent flights or trips, but may also mean people attempt to amortize the cost and risk of transit over more days spent in the destination.

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Shift to remote work. Companies were forced to update technologies and management practices to accommodate remote work. Those of us who have been able to work remotely are becoming accustomed to the lifestyle. Now that companies and employees have gone there, more flexibility and self-determination about where you work will become the norm.

Shift to online learning. Similarly, schools across the world were forced to take the classroom online. Now that they have adapted, it’s hard to imagine that in-classroom attendance will be strictly enforced when schools reopen as long as children remain vectors to the spread of the virus, parents have more flexibility over where they work, and classes can be taken virtually.

Adoption of ecommerce and delivery services. Ecommerce penetration jumped ten full percentage points since the beginning of the pandemic. Big, national, and recognizable brands like Amazon, Walmart, Target, and Instacart get you what you need where you need it.

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Digitizing our relationships and routines. Of course social media and video-calling are nothing new, but we have adopted virtual technologies as the main means of staying in touch with family and friends — near and far — en masse. Many people (myself included) have also found digital (and therefore more portable) substitutes for routines and habits like working out. While we will likely return to many of our pre-pandemic behaviors once the world reopens, we will also carry forward some of these post-pandemic practices as well as the knowledge that we can relatively easily port our relationships, rituals, and routines, if and when needed.

At the same time, the pandemic has also given rise to new motives…

Economic hardship. This is unequivocally the most powerful motive for behavior change going forward. High unemployment (already 14.7% in April 2020 vs. 10.0% in October 2009 at its worst following the 2008 recession) combined with high volatility and uncertainty will motivate people to find creative ways to lower costs.

Values shift? The pandemic may have triggered a massive economic crisis, but it also set in motion a grand social experiment that cut through our daily routines and typical busy-iness. Unsurprisingly, many of us are grieving for our previous habits, but at the same time I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who while sad, worried, stressed, and stir-crazy are also, unexpectedly and albeit somewhat guiltily, admitting to “kind of enjoying a simpler life”… the slower pace, more ambient social time with those you may be quarantining with, and lower expectations are slowly revealing the myth of quality time.

We delude ourselves when we say otherwise, when we invoke and venerate “quality time,” a shopworn phrase with a debatable promise: that we can plan instances of extraordinary candor, plot episodes of exquisite tenderness, engineer intimacy in an appointed hour.

We can try. We can cordon off one meal each day or two afternoons each week and weed them of distractions. We can choose a setting that encourages relaxation and uplift. We can fill it with totems and frippery — a balloon for a child, sparkling wine for a spouse — that signal celebration and create a sense of the sacred.

And there’s no doubt that the degree of attentiveness that we bring to an occasion ennobles or demeans it. Better to spend 15 focused, responsive minutes than 30 utterly distracted ones.

But people tend not to operate on cue. At least our moods and emotions don’t. We reach out for help at odd points; we bloom at unpredictable ones. The surest way to see the brightest colors, or the darkest ones, is to be watching and waiting and ready for them. (Frank Bruni, The Myth of Quality Time)

For better or worse, the pandemic has had its silver linings and the desire to sustain a simpler, slower, and (surprisingly) more connected life may be one. But who knows, it could also just be self-rationalization…

Repatterning how we live, travel, and vacation

The removal of most of the barriers to longer trips combined with these new motives could lead to a more fluid approach to how we live, travel and vacation. None of these use cases are novel in and of themselves — but they have been leveled up post-pandemic and may finally become more mass.

Caregiving and Childcare. Traveling to get or give care for a new baby (or elderly parent, sick family member, etc.) and working remotely for that period of time will be more normalized. Imagine the couple with a 700 sqft apartment in Brooklyn that has a newborn, with two sets of parents in the suburbs. Before, that couple had to stay in New York for work and solve for childcare by making do on their own, paying for daycare (if lucky enough to afford it), or fitting grandparents into that space. Now, that couple can go live with their parents in one of the underutilized houses in the suburbs for 3–12 months.

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The extended vacation. This used to look like those with second homes escaping to the Hamptons, Cape Cod, and the like in the summer and Aspen, Jackson Hole, Killington, and equivalents in the winter. But now everyone can more easily rent a vacation home, and if you can afford it, why not spend more time wherever you travel to? With the cost of a family trip to Disney World ranging from $3–8k on average, it may easily be equally or more economical. Working for a couple days or couple weeks during your vacation may even help defray the cost and justify the extra time. We might just see the European August vacation take hold in the US yet — even if it has to make room for America’s quintessentially Protestant work ethic.

Visiting friends and family. Even outside of caregiving motivations, we may simply want to “be around more” than before. Everyone has had their fair share of “life is short, anything can happen” moments during the pandemic. Most people I talk to are craving spending time with their parents and close friends. It also might encourage you to visit places where you have looser ties. You might not think of visiting your friend in Chicago for a week as an alternative to going to Greece for a week — they are not great substitutes — but maybe you would go work/hang with your friend in Chicago for a week.

Explore with fewer expectations. There is a lot of pressure to make the most of your vacation and get it right because there is a lot riding on the typical vacation — money, time, energy, and expectations multiplied by the number of people. If you can work while you travel, you don’t have to be as precious about where you go and what you do. You might visit places you wouldn’t have considered spending more than a long weekend in, or spend time in places where you know people and would be willing to explore, but not vacation in — especially if the alternative is working remotely alone in your apartment (and not that trip to Greece).

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Try before you buy. As those who can work remotely (especially those who today live in high cost metros), flirt with the idea of moving to a lower cost metro, suburb, or exurb, they might choose to “test” living there first — and eventually maybe this becomes the norm for those planning to move.

Migrant work. Many workers may need to travel for work given the economic fallout combined with uneven reopening and recovery across regions — especially in the hard-hit services and hospitality industries.

Closing Thoughts

I expect the line between day-to-day life, travel, and vacations to become increasingly blurred as pre-pandemic constraints and preferences give way and open up new possibilities. Ultimately, at the most macro and zoomed out level, housing and lodging demand is fixed by population size. Even if people choose to “travel” less they still need a place to stay. The pandemic has cracked open many new possibilities about where and how that need might be met.

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