The Great Work Disruption

David Frayne is a sociologist and a 2018-19 Berggruen Institute fellow. He is the author of “The Refusal of Work” and the editor of “The Work Cure.”

COVID-19 spread through our collective consciousness as well as our bodies. What for many people began as little more than a news event ended up reconfiguring our concerns in unforeseeable ways. Strange new phrases like “lockdown” and “social distancing” were integrated into our global vocabulary, and we were asked to perceive ourselves in new ways — not as individuals but as incubators and public health hazards.

Starting in March, mitigating the strain on health services meant suspending huge parts of the U.S. economy. The impact was colossal. Millions of people have been cast into redundancy or faced drastic cuts to their hours and pay. Food banks became overrun and welfare systems overwhelmed. The word from the Republican Party is that the United States must swiftly return to business as usual. Even back in mid-March, Donald Trump wanted American workers “raring to go” by Easter and — against all epidemiological advice — proposed a return to normal to get people working.

But here’s the thing — normal was already a crisis. The labor market was already failing to deliver economic security to all.

In 2017, over 11% of employed Americans did not earn sufficient wages to take them above the poverty line. A combination of globalization, market deregulation and automation produced a growing precarious class, whose working lives are marked by insecure employment contracts, declining and volatile wages and a loss of basic employment benefits. Well before the pandemic, we regularly saw headlines reminding us of these realities, including one about Uber drivers in San Francisco forced to sleep in parking lots in order to earn a livable income. Meanwhile, thousands excluded from the labor market because of unemployment, disability or care responsibilities have been forced to subsist on meager and highly conditional welfare programs.

The failings of the labor market become even clearer when we consider that jobs have also been idealized as a source of psychological goods. When our teachers asked us what we wanted to “be” when we grew up, they taught us that jobs confer pride and a sense of meaning. Yet for all the cultural and educational focus on employment, many people experience their jobs as little more than a necessary burden. This is what we call the treadmill, the nine-to-five, the daily grind. In 2018, 1.4 million British workers were suffering from work-related ill health, with 44% of these experiencing work-related anxiety, stress or depression.

Emily Guendelsberger’s recent book, “On the Clock,” documented some of the worst modern practices. Drawing on firsthand experiences in a warehouse, call center and fast-food kitchen, the journalist described a perfect storm of stress in the form of electronic time-management systems, excessive multitasking and humiliating “customer is always right” policies. Her conclusion was that “nearly everyone with influence in this country … is incredibly insulated from how miserable and dehumanizing the daily experience of work has gotten over the past decade or two.” Meanwhile, attempts to unionize and improve conditions in low-wage workplaces are often mocked and punished.

Given the damage of business as usual, the prospect of a swift return to normal is not the best we can hope for. Disruptive events like the pandemic have the tendency to reveal our socioeconomic fault lines in a vivid way; with dedicated action, this fresh awareness can be harnessed to establish something new. There is already a spirit of change in the air. Some workers have won new entitlements to sick leave, and solidarities have formed among warehouse workers, teachers and others concerned about their safety at work. Other employers have for the first time accommodated working from home and the need to balance duties with childcare.

What if the economic shock of the pandemic did more than expose possibilities for a better deal for workers? What if it led us to question the contours of our job-focused society at the most basic levels?

Decoupling Work

The social philosopher André Gorz has referred to advanced industrial societies as “employment-centered.” Jobs are the core from which most major goods are supposed to flow, whether it is an income, access to healthcare or the opportunity to gain respect and cooperate with others. Having a job means being able to put food on the table, but it also means having a public life and a place in society.

A group of thinkers who’ve gathered around “post-work” ideas have questioned the tendency to see this as the natural way of the world. In the context of the broader labor movement, they stand out as one of the few groups calling for less work. As a range of thinkers from Karl Marx to Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes have pointed out, decades of innovation, including automation and divisions of labor, have made a mass reduction of working time eminently plausible. According to the post-work thinkers, the challenge now is to develop a form of politics capable of realizing this latent potential. Instead of intensifying work, the power of automated production should be seized to deliver the public more free time.

One aspect of post-work thought that has become particularly compelling during the pandemic is a belief in the possibility of a dignified existence without a lifelong job. In a situation where jobs have become such an unreliable source of key goods, there is a need to consider the potential for alternative sources of security, respect and sociality. As a body of ideas, post-work is filled with insights into how unemployed people could be supported in a future with limited employment.

“Thinking progressively in this area is about trying to envisage a third option, between employment and isolation.”

A common proposal is to detach work from the right to income with a policy of universal basic income (UBI) — a regular state payment issued to everybody as a right of citizenship. The key benefit of UBI in a time of emergency is that it installs a guaranteed income floor, below which no citizen can fall. It can also be delivered efficiently, without the wait times and complex bureaucracy of means-testing, plus its universality guarantees that nobody who needs support will be excluded. One objection is that the money would end up in the hands of people who do not need it, although — as advocates have argued — there is no reason this could not be retrieved by increasing taxes on the wealthy.

With the livelihoods of so many now in peril, public figures from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Andrew Yang and Pope Francis have endorsed UBI as a response to the economic shock of the coronavirus. In addition to providing citizens with urgent economic protection, it could also enable the spending injection needed to avoid more business closures in the longer term. While Spain moved to adopt a permanent UBI in response to the pandemic, the U.S. government made only a minor concession to the need for universal support in its stimulus bill, which gave one-off payments to many Americans, based on their incomes. Meanwhile, the U.K. government voted in favor of maintaining existing welfare provisions, coupled with an additional 80% pay guarantee for self-employed people.

Depending on the size of payments, UBI could protect people against disruptions in labor demand, give people the freedom to maneuver between jobs, have more bargaining power at work and exit oppressive jobs and abusive family situations without fearing destitution. One current debate surrounds the question of whether guarantees for state-provisioned services — like education, legal services, transport and housing — would have greater public benefits than UBI. During the current pandemic, the necessity of universal healthcare has never been clearer, and rent freezes have gestured toward the possibility of social housing. It is almost certainly the case that some combination of basic income and services is the most defensible. No matter how the public is provisioned, however, the pandemic has made it impossible to ignore what was already apparent to many: A society where survival is tethered to the ability to perform paid work is profoundly insecure.

Thomas Pullin for Noema Magazine

Universal experiences like the coronavirus pandemic magnify the need for universal forms of provision, and one enticing aspect is the prospect of turning the dead time of unemployment into a space where people have the resources to do something worthwhile. Instead of facing poverty and social withdrawal, people could find time for playing and undertaking forms of activity that are traditionally unpaid, such as care, voluntary and creative work, or other civic-minded pursuits. As the U.S. faces the prospect of long-term mass unemployment, it will be more important than ever to have faith in the capacity of jobless people to lead a socially connected existence.

Experiences of social isolation during the pandemic may have done little to stimulate the imagination in this regard, because they risk reinforcing the conservative notion that the only choice is between a job and nothing. Thinking progressively in this area is about trying to envisage a third option, between employment and isolation. The post-work thinkers have been asking what new kinds of spaces and infrastructures could support activities outside the remit of the market. Can we imagine a different kind of city — a city of encounters, with an abundance of spaces in which to collaborate, build, learn, care and play?

“It is no secret that entire industries in capitalist societies serve dubious purposes.”

In today’s semi-privatized cities, geared mostly for jobs and shopping, such visions do not come easily, but the ideas are out there. Twenty years ago, in “Reclaiming Work,” André Gorz visualized a culture-oriented city with a “profusion of day nurseries, parks, meeting places, sports grounds, gymnasiums, workshops, music rooms, schools, theaters and libraries.” More recently, the think tank Common Wealth imagined a city featuring “new forms of communal luxury — cultural spaces, parks, civic spaces and free social goods … making life more joyful, caring and ultimately more unexpected.” It seems perfectly plausible that, from the vantage of a new culture-based city, jobs would no longer seem so indispensable as a source of social contact and belonging.

It is worth remembering that some people already lead satisfying lives without steady work. The wealthy leisure class is one such example, and it is perhaps only prejudice that leads some to doubt a similar potential for autonomy among the less well-off. Working as a researcher in the deindustrialized community of Gurnos, in South Wales, I met unemployed people with no end of bright ideas on how to improve the local area, combat loneliness and occupy the community’s young people — if only they had the resources to do it (many were instead forced by necessity to take low-paid jobs at the local retail park).

In the time of coronavirus, we are seeing a similar creative and civic spirit emerge. New networks of mutual aid have appeared all around the globe, pointing toward the possibility for new kinds of cooperation and collective provisioning. Volunteer drivers have created community fleets for key workers, students have organized to babysit the children of healthcare workers, people are delivering food and medical supplies to vulnerable neighbors, and self-organized groups of professionals have set up coronavirus tracking initiatives. People experiencing this kind of self-organization for the first time may well start to wonder what else to do with their energy. A form of politics interested in more than the employment rate would focus on how best to support it.

Re-writing Work Values

If the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic points to a need to decouple jobs from the right to survival, it also requires a rapid revision of the value systems that surround work. This is a prime moment to finally disconnect working a job from the national sense of what makes a valued citizen. Both the glorification of jobs as a source of dignity and identity, as well as the demonization of welfare claimants as disgraceful and dependent, will have to go. The traditional work ethic has been offensive to non-working people for years, but it will seem truly archaic now, given the new heights that unemployment has reached.

This is also a fitting moment to reflect on the value attached to particular occupations. It is no secret that entire industries in capitalist societies serve dubious purposes. Whole sections of the economy are clustered around the production of goods that are fairly worthless by most definitions. Advertisers whip up the public’s desire for novelties that must be manufactured, distributed and disposed of. Major sections of the service economy also trade in menial tasks that most people could reasonably do themselves. These services exist mainly for the private benefit of those who can afford them.

Many workers readily admit that their jobs are pointless. One study using 2015 data surveyed workers from 37 countries to find that 17% of people are seemingly in doubt about the social value of their work. A 2015 poll in the U.K. suggested higher numbers, with as many as 37% feeling certain that their job makes no meaningful contribution. David Graeber, an anthropologist, has called this the phenomenon of “bullshit jobs.” Gathering testimonies from across the globe, Graeber showed us the lives of workers hired merely to make supervisors look important, manipulate consumer needs, repeatedly correct the same error, collect data nobody uses or supervise workers who would be fine regulating themselves. When the pandemic’s social distancing measures have been completely suspended, we should not be surprised to discover that, the loss of livelihoods aside, the stoppage of some sections of the economy has had little impact.

“I’ve got a letter that says I’m an essential employee and a paycheck that says I’m not.”

On the other side of the coin, the pandemic is also forcing people to confront the profound importance of jobs that have been systematically undervalued and underpaid. The unseen armies of cleaning workers who are keeping our public spaces sanitized; the grocery, warehouse and delivery workers bringing supplies to people’s homes; the nurses and porters staffing our overburdened hospitals — jobs often deemed low-skill have been rebranded essential in the blink of an eye. The labor activist Sarah Jaffe wrote that the work deemed essential during the pandemic is precisely the work society has undervalued for centuries: “It is caring work, reproductive work, logistics work.” As one person put it on Twitter: “Got a letter that says I’m an essential employee and a paycheck that says I’m not.”

New lessons about the value of work are also no doubt being learned at home. People forced inside with their children during the pandemic might be reflecting on the importance of the unpaid and often invisible work that takes place outside the official workplace — what feminists like Silvia Federici call the work of “social reproduction.” Even as their participation in employment has grown, women have continued to perform the bulk of unpaid domestic and care work. A report from Autonomy and the 4 Day Week Campaign notes that in 2015, women performed 74% of all childcare time in the U.K. and spent an average of 26 hours each week doing unpaid domestic labor. Men who have been staying home to feed and school their children through the pandemic may have had a fresh taste of the challenges involved.

The pandemic may have initiated a much-needed shake-up of the value systems surrounding work. This collective experience of economic hardship cuts through the stigma of welfare dependency by potentially showing that we are all dependent on one another and on a broken economic system. Meanwhile, temporary suspensions of work have shed new light on the fact that huge sections of economic life have little value, while others that are tremendously important remain unpaid, underpaid and generally under-appreciated. People everywhere have been finding novel ways to show their appreciation, like applauding key workers from their windows and balconies. This is a good start, but the real challenge is to generate material changes from this new currency of recognition. This means higher pay and greater benefits for essential workers, and a fairer — less gendered, less racialized — social distribution of the necessary work.

“We need higher pay and greater benefits for essential workers, and a fairer — less gendered, less racialized — social distribution of the necessary work.”

To write about the pandemic while it is still unfolding is risky, given the pace and severity of change. Not much can be said with confidence, and any optimism ought to be cautious. Amid the uncertainty, only one thing has remained certain: The effects of the coronavirus will continue to be filtered through existing social inequalities. So far, this has meant social isolation for some (with or without income, personal space, internet access, childcare support) and an intensification of unsafe work for others.

On all sides of these divides, however, it seems plausible that political consciousness is being disrupted in productive ways. The inadequacy of employment as a means of distributing income has rarely been more apparent, and frontline workers and caregivers who have gained fresh recognition in exchange for their hard work may be wondering why it is their burden alone. Can we also acknowledge the taboo possibility that many people have found enjoyment in social distancing? People have been sharing home-schooling advice, relaxing (sometimes irresponsibly) in places of natural beauty, and lifting each other’s spirits with games and videos.

Busy schedules and unpleasant jobs can leave little time and energy for dreaming, and it often takes an unexpected disturbance to make people reflect on their priorities and desires. Among those fortunate enough to have experienced the pandemic as a moment of reprieve, who knows what sentiments have been gestating? It seems plausible that more people might sign on to the political demand for more free time.

In the coming months, many will say that politics must set its sights back on full employment and end this unfortunate moment of dependency on government solutions. However, like all crises, the economic shock of COVID-19 represents a potential moment to move forward into something new. What we ought to build now is a form of politics that supports people to self-organize and live with dignity without a lifelong job. This is a future in which everybody is guaranteed economic security, pointless work has disappeared and necessary work has been shared more equitably. It is a society in which more people might choose to spend their time doing something other than a paid job, without facing penalties of stigma and social isolation. If the past two months have taught us anything, it is that what seems impossible one day can seem eminently possible the next.