Pod People: How the pandemic is accelerating a new kind of family
August 20, 2020
As more people band together during the pandemic, brands need to be aware of a massive shift in the definition of family‑and design accordingly.
The COVID-19 crisis has motivated a massive movement of families, the likes of which we haven’t seen in the United States since The Great Migration. According to a Pew Research Center survey, about a fifth of U.S. adults (22%) say they either changed their residence due to the pandemic or know someone who did. Of those adults who moved, 68% say they relocated to a family member’s or friend’s home. Families, friends, and in many cases neighbors, are “circling the wagons” to protect each other physically, mentally, and economically. They’re coming together to pool their resources, cut costs and share burdens, while minimizing risk and maximizing social intimacy and interaction.
This coming together has earned its own buzzword: “the pandemic pod.” Pandemic pods, which also go by other names such as social bubbles and quaranteams are defined as limited, self-contained groups of people who share a similar virus risk tolerance and agree to exclusively engage in direct, non-distanced, social interactions with one another. For example, two or three families might join together in an exclusive pandemic pod to play, socialize, shop, dine, vacation, and share resources like childcare, barbers, tutoring, and even healthcare.
Early research shows that they are more effective at flattening the COVID-19 curve than a full lockdown because they are much more palatable to maintain. As a result, a number of places are starting to incorporate “bubble policies” into their prevention guidelines. For example, the city of Berkley, California has implemented rules pertaining to social bubbles, which “may include up to 12 people, including children, and must remain stable for at least three weeks… and all members of a single household must be part of the same bubble.” England announced support bubble guidance in June and New Zealand, which has been lauded as a paragon of smart virus management, implemented them as far back as May.
Pod living, however, has not come without some justifiable criticisms, most notably that it can be elitist. The wealthier you are the easier it is to hunker down in a pod to create an oasis for your family and friends. For example, The New York Times recently wrote about pod schools, which the author suggests might be the most “potent symbol of inequality during the pandemic.” The article featured Hudson Lab, a pod school that costs more than $13,000 a semester, and will “meet each day from around 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in a host parent’s basement or cordoned-off living room or perhaps somewhere outdoors, to learn from a teacher provided by the [school].”
Multi-generational households to reach record highs
The emergence of pandemic pods can be viewed as an acceleration of a trend that has been on the rise for several decades: multigenerational co-living. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data, the percentage of Americans engaged in multigenerational co-living has been increasing from a low point of 12% in 1980 to a record high point of 20% (64 million people) in 2016. The Pew analysis found that the total number and share of Americans living in multigenerational households significantly increased during and immediately after the Great Recession of 2007–2009. It has since slowed but remained at a pace that is greater than pre-recession levels — until the pandemic. Recent Nielsen data also supports this trend.
The desire for independence will not wane, especially among millennials and Gen Z, but the luster of living on one’s own will inevitably dull as many will come to realize that it is too risky, too lonely, or just too difficult.
Without the widespread availability of easily accessible and consistent testing or a proven and safe vaccine — neither of which is likely to happen within the next 12 months — pandemic pods will only continue to become more common. The desire for independence will not wane, especially among millennials and Gen Z, but the luster of living on one’s own will inevitably dull as many will come to realize that it is too risky, too lonely, or just too difficult. As a result, it won’t necessarily be the signifier of success that it once was.
All brands will need to offer ‘family plans’
Pre-pandemic demographic shifts should have been enough to convince most brands to better serve the needs of multi-generational families, but unfortunately it wasn’t. The pandemic has enabled many of us to see things that have always been there but were sadly ignored. We all have a chance to act now.
Brands must start to reimagine products and services that address this new reality. I predict that the concept of the ‘family plan’ will move far beyond telecommunications and enter every phase of our lives. So, what might this look like?
1. Financial services brands will begin to introduce family and pod banking accounts and services.
2. Retailers, especially online groceries, will make it easier to shop for multiple people or families simultaneously, and to split costs at the point of purchase.
3. Technology platforms will start to design multi-generational and multi-location interfaces that are adept at identifying different users in real-time, helping to ensure family and pod harmony (no more fighting over the remote control).
We are already starting to see this happen. Peloton, the remote fitness platform, recently introduced Peloton Family classes. Spotify, the streaming music service, began offering a family subscription in 2014. Last year they introduced Family Mix, a playlist that is generated from the listening behaviors of multiple family members, and this past May they introduced Group Session, which allows two or more Premium users in the same location to share control over the music stream. Group. Session, as noted by TechCrunch, “can be used among quarantine-mates and families — groups that are now spending long hours at home together.” And in July, Spotify expanded this feature to include users in separate locations.
This shift is not a fad, and like the virus, it will not “just go away.” So how will you show up for this new kind of family? What will you do to make their lives safer, healthier, more efficient, more rewarding, more memorable, or more fun? The key will be to ensure that these new products and experiences are inclusively designed, because products and experiences that serve a greater diversity of people are ultimately better for everyone. This is our challenge.
Jason Schlossberg is a managing director and global head of strategic communications at Huge.