Economic Development

Is Generation Pod on the Horizon?

Perhaps I am getting old? Don’t answer that- I am over 50 with grey hair and often don’t get eye contact in the supermarket so I already know! Getting older has never bothered me, considering the alternative is death it seems much more appealing.

Still, lately I have found myself wondering what the hell is going on in our world. This week I read three interesting (meaning: depressing and scary) articles that have me thinking:

The first was about Pod-Shares. The premise is that apartments are too expensive for today’s young, gig-economy, salary-unstable and college debt ridden professionals. Some smart business people saw a need and invented pod-sharing for living in. For around $1,200 per month, people in their 20’s and 30’s can rent a bunk bed, share communal space and a supply of ramen with strangers. It is much cheaper than the alternatives of apartments (even micro-apartments), and feels more adult(ing) than living in the suburbs or with their parents. The article sited that young people really don’t expect or care for more space anyway and it is a great way to meet people with little commitment. Fair enough. The idea actually does have some appeal to me (younger me of course – pre-kids, pre-marriage, backpacking and discovering life).  People are able to work there too and although they cannot have (ahem) visitors, they do get their own personal TV and – wait for it – a shelf. You can find pictures on line. I am not doing it justice. Pods seem clean and resemble college dorm rooms or a fancy private summer camp. The idea actually is not that new. In the 1830’s in the United States, thousands of single women and men who moved to the big cities to work in offices, schools, or factories and could not expect to live in an apartment on their own. Either they could not afford their own place or living alone would not have been considered proper. These intrepid self-starters lived in boarding houses under strict rules, usually bunked with another person (or more) to a room and shared common areas for meals and baths. Back then it was always the same gender sharing; now that has changed to be more progressive. Although the quality varied greatly, it was usually a cheap way for young people on their own to save money for their future or send money back home to their parents. During the Great Depression, it was also a way for widows or out-of-work families to survive and keep their houses. These homeowners would take in boarders and the rent money from these employed renters kept the economy and households going. Here are my questions:

  1. What are the profit margins on these pods? This is clearly a business, not a charity – but I wonder if a person spending $1,200 per month on rent, plus other expenses like restaurants, laundry mats, student loans and the increasing cost of living will ever get ahead enough to move out.

  2. Will these pod-dwellers be able to develop healthy relationships if they never can have guests? If they do eventually move in with someone, they will find themselves with no starter furniture accumulated (a natural phenomenon when first out on your own). If so, the expense to start from scratch will be horrendous.

  3. What is being done to ensure that pod-dwellers are safe? What about when they age out of the lifestyle or get pregnant? I mean, let’s get real here. Once you lose your bunk bed, there are few options left for you.

  4. Are we unwittingly creating a sub-class culture? It used to be an American dream to buy a home. Is the new dream to afford a micro-apartment or a tiny house?

Stay with me here, there is a theme –

The second article was about office pods. This was a slightly more humorous article about another savvy group of business people who saw a need – privacy at work. No shit, Sherlock! Excuse me, but this one really gets me steamed, just for the stupidity of it all. The premise is that twenty years or so ago, a few start-up companies found success with open-floor office plans. The synergy of the teams gelled together in creative ways. People roller-skated on the floor, played foosball and worked ridiculously long hours for little pay, thinking of their job as more of a utopian lifestyle than a (pedantic, old-fashioned) job. In fairness to the pioneering companies – it worked – some of the employees got creative and rich too!

Since then other companies have tried the same moves, and most have failed. Lots of reasons why: the company wasn’t full of collaborating creatives, the product they were working on was already past the development stage and didn’t need this type of synergy, the team was actually a group of human beings who don’t at their core want to be experimented on, etc.… Many companies have invested a lot of money in this concept, so they don’t want to admit defeat, which I understand, don’t you? In this youth-centric world no one wants to be called the “traditional work model” when they could be labeled as “new and cutting edge.” Sorry to be such a stickler, but the “open office” idea wasn’t new either, though some things did get updated. In the 1930’s it was called a “secretarial pool” where rows and rows of desks had typists seated and clicking away, taking up as little space as possible. Copy writers were paid poorly (so the company could afford to hire lots of them) and they were often paid for productivity – so talking was discouraged and everyone felt the pressure to grind out as much work as possible in the time allotted. (Many of these workers were living in the aforementioned boarding houses.)

Now the powers-that-be are discovering things that most of us already knew. Sometimes a person wants to leave the office party and work in peace and quiet. Sometimes even lowly workers need to have a private conversation. Often the most creative person does best when away from the hive-mind and is able to sit with her own original thoughts. Enter the POD! A telephone booth (Google it) with sound proof walls and a small desk and chair. They are varying degrees of fancy, but the idea is the same.

This is not new! IT IS CALLED AN OFFICE!!!

It is actually a crappy office with no status, individuality, room to meet a select group of people or real privacy – since everyone knows you are in there.

I hear my mother’s voice saying these words, “When I was your age…” and I know it has happened to me. I travel the world, run my own business, try to stay current, fight the good fight – but I have still become my mother! Here goes, “When I was your age, we worked hard to make our dreams come true.” Sigh.

When do we move from capitalism to neo-communism? Perhaps when we fully adopt the idea that celebrity-royalty and robber-barons are in charge of our futures. We are losing perspective on the dream of doing better than our parents for the simple fact that the dissolution of the middle-class has made a chasm too great for most people to cross.

I am a moderately successful business woman and give back as much as I can. I work long hours and my success has been earned the hard way. None of that matters however because, first and foremost, I am a mother. The idea of my children living in a pod, staring at an individual TV screen then staring at their cell phones on the subway to work, where they will stare at another screen for 12 hours a day (and still likely have to run a few side-hustles) just to make ends meet? Well, that scares me to death and venture to say I am not the only one who feels this way. This dystopian view of the future is way more 1984, Naked Lunch, and anything Kurt Vonnegut and I would have imagined possible.

The third article I saw was about stand up seats in airplanes. Yes indeed, you read that correctly. Planes are considering packing us in like sardines for short flights, straddling a bicycle seat so that they can cram another five rows of cargo (people) per shipment. WTH is happening? What happened to personal space?

What to do?

To the CEOs, owners, and presidents in power, I ask you – I implore you to do what is right for your employees! What if you are still rich, but cut your margins down to allow others to be successful? What if instead of $100,000,000 per year, you made $80,000,000 and gave some of the company’s dividends back to allow employees (people) to work only one job with a stable salary? Many of the most successful executives are doing this already, but not nearly enough to turn the tide.

To the workers out there reading this article, if you are in a position to do so, share this with someone who needs to read it. If you are happy with this future, then I will not judge your lifestyle choices. If you like what you do and it is working for you, then you are successfully living as you want to. I am speaking to those out there who do not feel they have a choice. Those who would like to pay down college debt, find a stable career and buy a family home, the dream is fractured, but not impossible! This is a discussion that needs to happen before the American dream melts away like snow caps. Surely we are not as divided as we are told we are. Are we? What do you think?

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