Ontarians on the Move #6 — Somewhere Jobs, Anywhere Jobs, Rise of Metros and Coronavirus.

Time for a Coronavirus related entry to this series.

PREVIOUS ENTRY: Ontarians on the Move #5 — Who Commutes to Toronto for Work?

TL;DR version: The rise of dual-earner families and ‘somewhere’ jobs mostly killed the single-industry town, harmed mid-sized cities, and led to the rise of megacities. Coronavirus could change all that, transforming somewhere jobs to anywhere jobs and reducing the economic power of megacities.

Adults have a habit of forming couples and starting families. This seems obvious, but it’s often missed.

I’ve spent the last decade talking about mid-sized cities issues, and I often get asked, “what can our city do to attract and retain workers?” It’s entirely the wrong question — what cities need to be asking themselves is “what can our city do to attract and retain working-age couples?”

The distinction between individuals and couples matters, and it turns out the attracting families is a whole lot harder than attracting individuals. To understand why we need to start with the distinction between anywhere jobs and somewhere jobs.

Anywhere Jobs vs. Somewhere Jobs

Simply put, any anywhere job (which we could also call an everywhere job) is a job that will exist in any community over a few thousand people. School teacher. Grocery store cashier. Dentist. Police officer. Barber. Think of a job from The Andy Griffith Show. That’s any anywhere job:

A somewhere job is just the opposite — it’s a job that only exists in a limited number of locations. Some of these are obvious, like coalminer. You can only mine coal where the coal is. Others are less so, like an assembler in an automotive plant. There simply isn’t the need for an automotive assembly plant in every community, and the ones that did pop up tended to cluster together. (For more on the history of clustering, go read the book The New Geography of Jobs. Do it, then come back in a month and finish reading this piece.)

The dividing line between a somewhere job and an anywhere job isn’t solid and changes from society to society and over time. The Soviets tried to make practically everything a somewhere job, building massive plants in order to achieve economies of scale, while at around the same time in the 20th century China went in the opposite direction, trying to make every community self-sufficient (a steel mill in every backyard!). So there’s no solid line between a somewhere job and an anywhere one, but the distinction is still highly useful.

With that distinction in mind, we can consider how two megatrends have changed where North Americans work and live.

Megatrend #1: The Change in the Nature of Somewhere Jobs

From an earlier piece I wrote on rural economic development:

[E]very industry has push factors that will cause companies to cluster together and pull factors that will cause companies to spread apart… [I]ndustries that require large parcels of land, such as farming, will tend to spread out. Manufacturing’s push factors (need to be close to suppliers and major transportation infrastructure) and pull factors (need for relatively inexpensive land) lead to plants creating an archipelago along major highways.

Think of the industries that have grown the most (in employment terms) over the past few decades: Computer programming. Investment banking. Research and development scientist. These are all industries that are dominated by push factors because they have exactly one major requirement: a large pool of highly educated, high-skill labour. Push factors have dominated pull factors over my lifetime, causing somewhere jobs to cluster in very large cities. Enrico Moretti’s interview with the Richmond Fed is a must-read on the topic.

This megatrend receives the bulk of the attention, though I personally believe the next one is more important.

Megatrend #2: Women Entering the Somewhere Job Workforce

It’s all about families. If you take anything away from this piece, it’s that we need to think of the economy, of work, of geography in terms of families, not individuals, and the role that women play in the economy.

Even going back to the 1950s, a substantial number of women were in the paid workforce, but their numbers absolutely skyrocketed until the 1990s.

Labour force participation rates of men and women aged 25 to 54, 1953 to 2014

However, due to discrimination, these women were largely locked out of somewhere jobs. Think of the most common types of jobs for women in the 1970s: Nurse. Receptionist. Cashier. My mom was a schoolteacher, my grandmother worked in restaurants. These were the pink-collar jobs that were open to women.

And those pink-collar jobs share another common trait: They’re all anywhere jobs.

Your typical heterosexual couple had one partner who was either a homemaker or worked in any anywhere job, and the other worked at a job (either a somewhere or anywhere job). We’re still nowhere near a world where women are fully represented in somewhere jobs, but we’re closer than we used to be. And a world with dual-earner somewhere job couples is dramatically different than one without.

Consider a couple containing two people of non-specified gender, Chris and Kim, and the location decision they’re faced with:

In a world where the Chris and Kims of the world both have somewhere jobs, the single-industry town is no longer viable. If Chris is an electrical engineer and Kim is a biochemist, then they’re going to move (and live) somewhere where there are jobs in both fields. A city that can’t find good jobs for both members of a couple simply isn’t going to be able to attract and retain talent. Large metros can do this, mid-sized cities and smaller cannot.

London, Ontario and Hartford, Connecticut could specialize in insurance in a world where white-collar jobs were exclusively for men and their spouses had anywhere jobs (or were homemakers). That was a world full of discrimination, that limited options for women, and we’re a whole lot better off now it’s gone.

But the economic model that London and Hartford relied on no longer works in a world where insurance executives are married to electrical engineers and biochemists, and London simply isn’t large enough to achieve scale in every industry. Mid-sized cities in North America and Europe are struggling to adjust to this reality where somewhere job workers are married to other somewhere job workers.

Could Coronavirus turn Somewhere Jobs into Anywhere Jobs

Possibly.

A commonly cited solution to the somewhere job issue is telecommuting. If workers could work from home (or in a nearby co-working space) then a whole lot of jobs transition from being somewhere jobs to anywhere jobs. If we could pull that off, then our world looks a lot more like the 1960s: an anywhere job worker married to another worker, though now the anywhere job worker is a telecommuter, not a pink-collar worker.

In this world, single-industry towns become far more viable. In this world, mid-sized and smaller communities have a substantial advantage over metros: affordable real-estate. If telecommuting ever became widely accepted, the balance of power would shift away from Moretti’s spiky megacities to the flat world of Thomas Friedman.

If telecommuting ever became commonplace, then we will have shifted to an economy where most of us are anywhere workers. In that world, smaller communities look a whole lot more attractive due to cheaper housing prices and more space to raise a family. In that world, ‘single industry’ towns (of jobs that cannot be telecommuted) become a whole lot more viable, since the spouses of those workers likely have anywhere jobs. The benefit of having a whole lot of different industries in the same place shrinks considerably, to the point where the benefits of being in a megacity starts to outweigh the (financial) costs. The push factors become weaker, allowing the pull factor (real estate prices) to dominate.

But telecommuting has never caught on, largely due to concerns around productivity and partly because culture changes slower than technology. I’ve long thought that telecommuting would never catch on, since I couldn’t envision any scenario or public policy that would cause people to shift to telecommuting. It’s already a significantly lower cost option than having people work in an office (no need for commercial real estate, can have people work in lower-cost jurisdictions), so any public policy that attempted to making telecommuting cheaper wasn’t likely to accomplish much, since the bottleneck to adoption clearly wasn’t cost.

Coronavirus, however, has forced a mass adoption of telecommuting. I have no idea if this will hold once the crisis is over. Maybe we’ll find that, for many workers, the advantages outweigh the costs. Or perhaps we’ll go in the opposite direction and place even more emphasis on face-to-face contact. I really can’t predict. But what I can predict is that the choice we collectively make will determine the relative economic power between big metros and mid-sized cities.

Senior Director, Smart Prosperity. Assistant Prof, Ivey Business School. Exhausted but happy Dad of 2 wonderful kids with autism. I used to do other stuff.