Much of the controversy about telecommuting deals with how well people do their jobs, whether they are productive, collegial, or upwardly mobile. A slightly different topic is what telecommuting can, or can not, do for families. Telecommuters are better able to care for their children and they could benefit from cheaper housing and raise larger families.
Telecommuting around the globe
Around the world about one person in five telecommutes at least some of the time and one in ten works from home every day. Telecommuting is more popular in developing countries such as India, Mexico, and Indonesia (about 30 percent) than it is in the developed world (about 10 percent, 1).
Telecommuting is one way around infrastructure problems whether it is physical such as bad roads and crowded streets, or social infrastructure such as factories, supplier networks, or large well-capitalized companies. Some of the telecommuters in developing countries are thus sources of labor outsourced from developed countries, such as fielding service calls and processing insurance claims that permit half of India’s labor force to telecommute some of the time.
Telecommuting is attractive to employers because it cuts down on their overheads and allows them to buy a unit of labor at a much lower price. It is attractive to employees because they avoid the time and transportation costs of commuting.
Just as important, perhaps, it gives workers flexibility in when they work and how they arrange their day that relieves the anxieties of many parents who work at a distance from their children’s school.
A less obvious advantage is that parents have much greater freedom in deciding where to live. It is no longer necessary to be close to a teeming metropolis to make a living and home buyers can skip not just the exorbitant housing market in densely packed cities but also the high-priced suburbs where many married workers were forced to live in the past. Where a person lives greatly affects how many children they have.
Telecommuting and baby production
If a person lives in densely populated cities such as Singapore, or Hong Kong, they produce far fewer babies (2). Indeed, these urban countries are currently producing only half as many babies as they need to maintain population at current levels. Without a steady stream of young immigrants, their populations would both shrink rapidly and get steadily older. Indeed, there is no society with fertility this low that has ever survived before.
Economists believe that the extremely small families are primarily due to the high cost of housing that effectively turns children into a luxury good (2). By avoiding the metropolis, or even the more expensive suburbs, telecommuters may buy, or rent, much cheaper accommodation. They save time and expense by not traveling to work each day. This means that it is economically possible for them to have larger families.
Another plus for telecommuting parents is that they enjoy a much more flexible work day so there is no trouble ferrying kids to school or caring for a sick child.
Telecommuting would appear to be favorable to larger families, although countries where this mode of work is common are associated with comparatively low pay. Work that is most suited to outsourcing is unit-based, such as processing claims, or fielding service calls on the telephone. This raises the specter of competitive pricing and low unit pay characteristic of piece work. Possibly for that reason, India where about half of workers telecommute some of the time has seen fertility levels continue to fall (1).
The other big unknown is what parents would choose to do with any economic advantage that they might have from telecommuting in the U.S. for highly paid companies such as Yahoo. Would they invest those resources in having more children? Or would they merely divert that spending power into a more luxurious lifestyle? That is the great unknown. Most economists would answer “luxuries” but evolutionary scientists would say ”children.”
The outcome is potentially very important because it may determine whether the catastrophically low fertility of modern cities and countries can be reversed. If it is not, urban populations will both decline rapidly and age rapidly. If we cannot boost fertility, our civilization is doomed!
1. Reaney, P. (2012, Jan 24). Telecommuting. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/24/us-telecommuting-idustr...
2. Cotkin, J. (2012). The rise of post-familialism. Singapore: Civil Service College. http://www.cscollege.gov.sg/Knowledge/Pages/The-Rise-of-Post-Fami...