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Indonesia's young workers seek lives outside congested Jakarta

Pandemic hastens trend of remote working and the 'low-touch economy'

JAKARTA -- Bayu Edmiralda left the congestion of Jakarta seven months ago for the tropical delights of Bali, where he spends his day in a coworking space near his rented room. The 35-year-old logs on at 10 a.m. to begin work as a brand manager for a fintech company based in Indonesia's capital, and six or seven hours later, he grabs a coffee before enjoying the island's sunset.

"I know for a fact three people from my division are in Bali, even my own boss is here and doesn't want to go back," Edmiralda says. "I'm guessing about 60 people from my company are doing this kind of working style."

Azarine Arinta left Jakarta last month and now lives with her sister and cousins in the former capital of Yogyakarta, where she remote works as a digital media specialist for an international non-profit organization. The 28-year-old can save more money by walking to buy food rather than ordering through apps such as Gojek and Grab -- a lifestyle that middle-class inhabitants of Jakarta adopted to avoid the city's pre-pandemic traffic and pollution.

Both Edmiralda and Arinta cited mental health as the main driver for their migration. The pandemic has accelerated the remote-working trend, and young, tech-savvy urban workers have jumped at the opportunity. Many choose to go back to cities or towns where their families live.

"I got really tired living in Jakarta," Arinta says. "COVID-19 cases kept rising and the policies were inconsistent."

Both say they were not planning to move back to the capital anytime soon.

A survey by the Indonesian statistics agency (BPS) in April 20 showed 40% of respondents had worked from home entirely during the pandemic.

Analysts say that if the trend survives the crisis, it could offer new opportunities for the smaller towns' economies, and even open doors for the transfer of skills and knowledge.

Nailul Huda, a researcher at the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (INDEF), says the move to so-called "low-touch economy" -- an economy with minimal to no direct interaction -- has hastened, and has changed behaviors both in consumption and work.

"Technology is already moving in that direction, so it's inevitable," Huda says. "They could boost local demand and increase the average income per capita."

Yose Rizal, head of the Department of Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), agrees that such a trend could increase demand in second-tier cities and rural areas, but takes a more realistic view on the skills needed to promote such new working behavior.

"In 2019 alone there were only about 9.7% of Indonesians who are college graduates. Nearly 60% of our workforce have not graduated from elementary school, so we still have a big enough burden in the workforce structure especially regarding the skills needed," Rizal warns.

Similar patterns are emerging across the world.

In Europe, more than 40% of people in large cities have considered moving away due to the pandemic, and about 40% of workers would prefer to work remotely full time, according to surveys by research centers Valoir and LSE Cities. Meanwhile, two out of three Americans would consider moving from cities to rural areas if work-from-home policies made mandatory due to the COVID-19 pandemic become standard, a survey by showed.

The pandemic has driven thousands out of Tokyo to its suburbs. About 28,000 people moved out of the Japanese capital in November, up 19% from the same month last year, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

In Singapore, eight out of 10 workers would prefer to work from home or have flexible working arrangements, a survey by The Straits Times of nearly 1,800 people found.

To keep up with global trends, the Indonesian government appears keen to support the scheme. In January last year, right before the pandemic, The National Development Planning Ministry rolled out its "flexi work" simulation -- which allowed some of its employees to work from home -- an experiment that was quickly made mainstream.

Expanding on this initiative and to restart the hard-hit tourism sector, Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Sandiaga Uno has talked about "Work from Destination" -- a program to encourage workers to work from tourist destinations -- although it's unclear how it will pan out amid rising COVID-19 cases throughout the country.

Indonesia is on the way to hit one million cases soon. More than 26,000 lives have been lost, with experts claiming the number could be much higher.

The country also has to tackle a recession and the highest unemployment rate in eight years, which mainly affects blue-collar workers. About 2.53 million or 10.46% of the Indonesian total workforce, have been affected by the pandemic.

As for young office workers like Arinta and Edmiralda, they had long suspected that their physical presence was not requited to do their jobs.

"We went through an adjustment period where we would have meetings every day just to check if people are doing their job," Edmiralda says. "But after that, it just went smoothly."

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