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Post-pandemic life: shifts in family roles, spending habits

March 26, 2021

Carolina’s Pandemic Year: This week last March, the University shifted to remote instruction. The Well is marking the occasion with a week of special stories, including ways the University has addressed the crisis, reflections from Chancellor Guskiewicz and, below, predictions from Carolina’s faculty on lasting changes to post-pandemic life.

Husbands taking on more housecleaning and childcare. Seismic shifts in customer experiences and retail with grocery stores surviving.

These are some of the ways the pandemic has changed the dynamics of family and the business world.

In the wake of this past year’s devastation, death and adaptation, The Well asked experts in various fields about how daily life may look different after the crisis lifts.

Families: household duties, relationships

Lisa Pearce, whose research includes family dynamics, is the Zachary Taylor Smith Distinguished Term Professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ sociology department and a Faculty Fellow at the Carolina Population Center.

For her most recent book, “Living on the Edge: An American Generation’s Journey through the Twentieth Century,” Pearce and co-authors looked at the lives of a group of people born around 1900. They lived through the Roaring ’20s, the Great Depression and World War II. She sees parallels in how that generation faced challenges and how people have adapted to pandemic life in ways that may last.

Lisa Pearce.

Lisa Pearce

“We found over and over again that some people did well in good times or bad times and some people didn’t. There was a split,” Pearce said.

For families, Pearce has watched the negotiation over household duties, especially for heterosexual couples with children. With work-family balance and the distribution of responsibilities, Pearce said that there seems to be two patterns. One is that in two-parent families in which both parents work from home, fathers in some families are doing more work in the home than before the pandemic.

“It tends to be more of the childcare work,” Pearce said. “We can look to the literature that suggests that in the past when men have opportunities to engage in either childcare or housework, they get comfortable with it, knowledgeable about it and continue to be more involved,” Pearce said.

If continued research shows that the pandemic caused a spike in the number of men taking on more childcare or housework, Pearce said, that could then mean that they will maintain those skills. “But there’s evidence also that somehow the burden has fallen largely to women in those households. The pandemic may actually increase inequality because there’s more to do in terms of supervising children.”

In some cases, women are doing more work because they had been doing so before the pandemic.

Pearce thinks that for families in which the pre-pandemic relationship quality was high, there is potential for those relationships to improve. The opposite may be a red-flag alert as the pandemic wanes.

“For families that already had struggles — either in relationships, conflict in extreme cases, even abuse — those things may have intensified,” Pearce said.

A positive change for extended families that will remain, Pearce said, is using virtual methods like Zoom and video calls to stay in touch. “We’ve spoken more to our extended family during this time and developed those routines.”

Business: retail shifts and the customer experience

Greg Brown, Distinguished Professor of Finance, Sarah Graham Kenan Distinguished Scholar and director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, focused his data-driven crystal ball on the acceleration of on-demand and at-home retail business.

Brown said that retail had already been moving away from brick-and-mortar to online retailing over the past decade. In 2019 alone, almost 10,000 retail locations closed.

Greg Brown

Greg Brown

“Yet recent research has documented that physical stores continue to play a pivotal role for consumers,” Brown said.

In a recent Kenan Institute post, Brown wrote that “even as the move to online retail was shuttering physical retail doors prior to the outbreak, the ensuing pandemic has dealt a death blow to many more retailers than could have been imagined prior to March.” Brown noted that stay-at-home orders and public health concerns had already created market-wide implications for online shopping.

“Smaller establishments within an affected market tend to face a greater impact by the growth of online retail. The potential bankruptcy of so many retailers may benefit others because of lowered competition, but this will not make up for permanent shifts in demand brought on by the pandemic. Pre-COVID-19 retail categories such as music and video, baby supplies and books experienced the highest online market share; however, since COVID-19 there has been an acceleration in other categories that had not historically seen a major shift to online retail,” Brown wrote.

A prime example of that acceleration, Brown wrote, is “older consumers who have embraced grocery and restaurant delivery in unprecedented numbers, as illustrated by the 65% increase in online grocery shopping from March to May 2020.”

Still, Brown anticipates that because groceries need a physical location to keep products fresh and many people will continue shopping in person, that grocery retail will survive post-pandemic.

“In addition to the short-term change in demand for online retail, evidence is emerging that indicates this shift will be permanent,” Brown wrote. “A recent Forrester Research survey finds that 37% of consumers with a high fear of COVID-19 prefer to make retail purchases from home.”

The customer experience has improved during the pandemic, particularly as supply chains rapidly adjusted in the wake of COVID-19 to expand capacity. Brown’s examples include new remote services in telehealth, on-demand entertainment, exercise and auto maintenance. “Evidence also suggests that people increasingly prefer to spend money on personal enrichment, family connection and hobbies. These changes have major implications for the workforce since retail is a large employer, especially of lower-income workers.”

The implications include the rapid shift of workers from traditional retail to online and on-demand supply chain. Brown mentioned people who worked in a mall but now work for Amazon or DoorDash delivery. “There will be differences in the type of work, but also pay, benefits, hours for these people — and likely millions of them,” Brown said.