Welcome to the hi-flex economy, where everything’s optional

Acrobat balancing a TV, briefcase, miniature house and high heel on her legs
The desire for flexibility at work is creating a demand for flexibility in other parts of the economy like real estate, entertainment, and fashion. It will come to define the economy of the 2020s. Marianne Ayala/Insider

Suzy Leanos worked hard through the pandemic in her digital-marketing job, and by March of this year she was burned out. She quit without anything lined up.

A self-described “microinfluencer,” Leanos earns some income with influencer work, and she wrote an article for AdWeek on burning out.

She recently told Insider that she wants something more from her next job: flexibility.

In the past month, she applied for two jobs. She began interviewing for a position that said it was close to her house.

Then came the reveal: It would actually be a commute of more than an hour (she might have been able to work out of the office’s closer location once a week). After the call, she let the company know she wasn’t interested.

“It made me feel empowered as an employee looking for a job or as a person looking for a job, that there are options out there,” Leanos said. “Especially through the COVID situation, the lockdown we went through, we know employers can be flexible.”

She added: “People are reevaluating their time, like how they spend their time, how they work, because we have options and choices. And we know it can be done, because we just did it.”

As workers tentatively peek out from the pandemic, they’re bringing a whole new work experience with them, from an abrupt lay-off, a newfound love of work from home, or an unexpected revelation about where they want to live. Just as the pandemic led to the rise of the homebody economy, it’s reshaping how people work and socialize.

The desire for flexibility at work is spilling over into every other aspect of the economy, from where people live to what they do with their free time to how they dress. The need for it is underscored by each uncertain twist of the pandemic, including the Delta variant.

The roaring ’20s are the beginning of the next chapter for work and the economy. Welcome to the hi-flex economy, where flexibility for what workers want is the name of the game.

Employees want to work on their own terms

For decades, the idea of work has been tied to an office. It was synonymous with a commute, office politics, and the increasingly lavish perks companies offered to keep their workers at their desks for longer.

The pandemic unwound all of that.

Workers are quitting their jobs in record numbers, some in search of more money or happiness at work and others looking for a career reprieve after a year – or many more – of burnout. Service workers want a new deal as well, resulting in a labor shortage. Many of those staying put want to continue working remotely full time or want a hybrid work arrangement long after the pandemic is over.

This desire for flexibility and autonomy was on the rise prepandemic, said Tara Sinclair, a senior fellow at the Indeed Hiring Lab. But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that employers began to embrace the technology that enabled employees to work from home.

“We all know this technology works now, so that genie is out of the bottle,” she said. “And I don’t think either the employer or the worker wants to completely put that genie back in the bottle.”

Remote work
Some workers want to work remotely forever. Others want a hybrid model. Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

The types of flexibility that workers get depends on who’s in a bargaining position, she added, which is in the hands of employees. Employees are pushing back against employers who want them to return in person. Even though the unemployment rate is still elevated, employers are having a hard time finding workers and having to make concessions.

Consider the restaurant industry, where workers are having their own work-related epiphanies and quitting en masse. As wages rise in other industries – and conditions in the restaurant industry are laid bare – many are jumping ship for higher pay and more consistent opportunities.

These expanded opportunities have disrupted how “captive” and ubiquitous low-wage jobs are, William Spriggs, an economics professor at Howard University and chief economist at the AFL-CIO, previously told Insider.

Workers are ultimately taking advantage of their newfound freedom. They are “separating themselves from anything other than trading labor for money,” Ed Zitron, the author of “Where’s Your Ed At?” and the CEO of EZPR, a national tech PR and media-relations firm, told Insider.

He said that, when you’re working from home, you don’t get any of the things that you could use to excuse how bad your job is, such as enjoying your coworkers, free office food, or the office nap pod. “Without them, you are diluting it to the necessary, which is, ‘How much am I being paid for what I’m doing and what I’m tolerating?'”

The freedom of living wherever you want

Another genie out of the bottle is location. Workers can now trade in the expensive cities their jobs tied them to for more affordable metros or for the slower-paced outlying suburbs.

The migration of remote workers, coupled with record-low mortgage rates, fueled a housing boom last year that morphed into a historic housing shortage this year, accompanied by record high prices. So many workers wanted housing flexibility that the market has broken down.

“Besides weather and taxes, being near friends and family is a major pull factor that has driven migration over the past 15 months,” Ali Wolf, chief economist for home-building property-tech company Zonda, told Insider. “For those able to move from a high-cost area to a low-cost area without taking a pay cut, the relatively low cost of housing is a driving force for homeownership and home price appreciation.”

What’s happening now as a result of flexibility could shape real estate for years to come. As urban expert Richard Florida previously told Insider, big cities may thrive in new ways after the pandemic, but their midsize peers – like Austin or Charlotte – will also rise.

Open house
2020 saw a housing boom as workers took advantage of flexibility in location. Newsday LLC/Getty Images

Consider that to meet demand builders will need to build more homes farther from downtown, where there’s more land to do so, which Wolf says will improve suburban amenities in the long run and create gathering places and hotspots.

She also anticipates the rise of second headquarters among companies, allowing them to recruit talent from different parts of the US. She anticipates that employees will still want to remain connected to their company and coworkers as they work from home.

Even Americans who haven’t made permanent moves are taking advantage of location. The “workcation,” in which people are vacationing for more extended periods while also working remotely, is a burgeoning travel trend. As Americans flocked to larger homes in nonurban areas, Airbnb prices surged by 35% in the first quarter of this year.

If employers maintain flexibility for their workers – as some companies like Facebook and Twitter have – these real-estate trends will likely become a new normal.

Hi-flex means restaurants and entertainment live in your house now

Many sectors of the economy have had to be more flexible to survive. Restaurants had to creatively pivot to takeout. Movies shifted straight to streaming, and New York Times Cooking saw a 40% increase in website visitors in 2020, Insider’s Kari McMahon reported, as workers’ kitchens replaced their cafeterias.

When it comes to entertainment, people will still want those in-person experiences, said Sarah Unger, a cofounder of the consulting firm Cultique. But as consumers could increasingly just access content at home, they “definitely don’t want artificial restrictions placed on them by a business model when they know it’s possible to have it both ways.”

“Having the flexibility feels really important to consumers, so that they can make the decisions best suited for their mood. So one night a person could want to do in home, and one night eat out,” Unger said. She added: “It’s hard to offer people choice and then rescind it.”

While it’s impossible to say what, exactly, the future cultural landscape will look like because of the pandemic’s effects, consumers’ experiences of it will probably shape how it evolves.

“One thing we can probably be sure of is that consumers are very loath to let go of new habits that make their lives more convenient, make their lives easier,” Linda Ong, the CEO of Cultique, said. “We’re seeing that with the early results on streaming versus theatrical releases.”

People want to dress up and down

The era of remote work has evolved the fashion world into two extremes: dressing up and dressing down.

What’s resulted, reported Maura Brannigan for Fashionista, is an individualized wardrobe based on whether one wants to perpetuate or optimize their mood. Like with nearly everything else, the pandemic accelerated a trend in the casualization of fashion, with loungewear and luxury pajamas dominating wardrobes. While some people want to continue living in sweatpants forever, others are ready to hit the bars in full Met Gala looks.

At the center of it all is comfort. Much like the desire for a hybrid work environment, consumers are looking for hybrid outfits that are both easy to move around in and stylish.

Covid fashion trends
Influencer Sonia Lyson dresses down in a yellow pajama set while dressing up with a Dior bag and Louis Vuitton sunglasses. Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Look no further than casualwear’s entry into the workplace, marked by the fall of white, preppy retailers like Brooks Brothers and the rise of Wall Street bankers shopping for more comfortable and stretchy attire.

Tracy Margolies, chief merchandising officer at Saks Fifth Avenue, previously told Insider that office dress won’t be as “buttoned up” as it has been in the past. “As people start to transition back to the office, there has been a shift from the pre-pandemic formality of getting dressed in traditional corporate attire to a more casual approach for work attire,” she said.

Even those intent on dressing up for out-of-work activities are seeking comfort, opting for looser silhouettes and wide-legged jeans. One-third of consumers say dressing up has become more casual for them than it was prepandemic, according to a survey by market research company NPD Group and CivicScience.

The 2020s: An era of flexibility

The big question that remains is will the shift to flexibility be temporary or permanent? With variants of the virus still circulating, it’s hard to predict what the economy will look like in a truly post-pandemic world.

“How much is it just in response to the pandemic, and how much of this will be here to stay?” Sinclair, the Indeed economist, said. “You can imagine that some of it is temporary, but I think a lot of it is just bringing it forward.”

In particular, the highly contagious Delta variant, which now makes up the majority of US Covid cases, adds an extra layer of unpredictability. While it’s too soon to say what its effects will be, it could make demands for flexibility greater than ever, since the continued uncertainty of the pandemic requires it. The CDC even said in internal documents – reported on by The Washington Post – that “the war has changed” when it comes to the Delta variant.

Of course, the economy won’t solely be shaped by flexibility. The next chapter of the economy, Sinclair said, all comes down to whether we can make it more productive going forward.

Sinclair said the next decade of the economy will also be influenced by how America ends up paying for the government stimulus during the pandemic, as well as what happens with high inflation that may be temporary or more permanent.

Considering that working from home has boosted worker productivity, greater flexibility should be part of the answer. The pandemic has ultimately shifted Americans’ mindset on how they want to live, work, and play: all things that will reshape the economy.

Leanos, a mother, points out that kids have shifted to doing everything online; even school, children’s number one in-person obligation, was forced to go remote. The next generation of workers might accept a flexible environment as a norm, not an anomaly.

In 10 years, she said, workers are going to be wherever they want to be.

“Everyone’s just going to carry their phone and their laptop everywhere, and do a little work here, take a break, do a little work there, take a break,” she said. “It’s going to be high-tech and remote and can be done anywhere.”