We speak with Karen Gregory, a digital sociologist at the University of Edinburgh, on how Covid-19 is affecting the way we work and its knock-on effects. Creative political interventions will be required to address the socio-economic inequalities highlighted by the pandemic.
How had Covid-19 changed our working life?
For those who can work remotely, work has intensified in the past few months, in part because of the way that digital technologies had already been changing the nature of work: extending working hours, making us connected and enabling forms of communication like this [videocall]. These are very tiring modes of working, even when there is no pandemic. The pandemic is drastically showing up social stratification and inequality. It has raised questions such as: who is a key worker? There is a stark contrast between those who have been able to work from home and those who have been required to stay on the front line. Interestingly, people who may not have considered themselves key workers are finding themselves folded back into that category as we hear more messages about getting back to the office. I have a feeling that in a few months more of us may find ourselves being asked to be ‘key workers’.
What effects have these changes had on workers?
Because of this work intensification and ‘extensification’, it feels more exhausting, riskier, more precarious for both key workers and those working remotely. I worry about people who are parenting, and fear we have a mental health and well-being crisis on our hands.
Working from home is really working continuously, there is very little distinction between the day and working hours. Work needs to be carried out alongside the basic work of life, the domestic labour that never ends…None of our social systems are set up for the integration of domestic work and work with a capital W, and they can’t provide the support that workers need right now. Without being able to send children to school or have support coming into the house, people are caught in an unprecedented and untenable situation.
People need a considerable amount of material help right now, whether it is in the form of rent/mortgage relief or actual financial support for both self-employed and employed workers. Work has often been seen as the social institution that provides for you, when it is pressurised, as it is right now, we will need to come up with some creative solutions. The knock-on effects of what has been described as a ‘tsunami of lay-offs’ are yet to be seen.
How can the EU adapt to these changes?
People have been considering the future of work for some time and there are different political frameworks that address this. In places like the US and the UK we often end up with a very limited conversation around universal basic income and providing financial supports. However, there are frameworks for political intervention that look more like universal basic services, that’s really a commitment to universal free healthcare, a robust investment in schools, childcare services and housing, to ensure that people’s fundamental basic rights are covered.
I think that as we start to see some structural changes as a result of Covid-19, there is going to be a return to the discussion about sharing work. It is already unrealistic that one person can be expected to hold a 60-80 hour a week job. We need to start looking at how to share the resources of work when there may be fewer jobs to go around. It is a huge challenge.
How will governments understand the social function of work? Is it the institution that provides everything for an individual and all your rights flow from it? If work sits so centrally and all benefits flow from work and there is a crisis in that institution, there will be massive knock on effects. The government is entirely capable of stepping in to ameliorate these effects or shift the centrality of work in our lives. I think we will start to see calls for this.
How can the prospects of young people facing the job market be improved?
A recent study showed that over 50% of young people in the US are living with their parents. A social phenomenon like that will also contribute to shape what work is, what mobility is…I think there is a role for governments to provide different types of training programmes, support re-skilling and remove some of the debt that students graduate with.
The other thing that needs to change is the idea that it is ok for young people to do lots of different jobs. Young people can’t be serviced by the gig economy or piecemeal labour. In places where work is fundamentally central to this notion of rights, the gig economy will continue to expand and provide precarious and unprotected work. The two seem to go together, the more we depend on work, the fewer the labour protections and the more the market is open to disruptive technologies or platforms such as Uber or Lyft. It is not currently seen as a problem for young people to do a few jobs here and there, as it is a way for them to gain work experience and increase their networks, but when this becomes the future of work and there is nowhere to go from the gig work, it becomes a long-term social and economic problem. The pandemic has crashed into incredible and increasing social inequality. The digital divide is undeniable, as those that have access to and can use digital technologies will be able to create better life chances. Inequalities have the potential to heighten social tensions. For example, in the UK, the potential for mass unemployment is very real and could become the backdrop for a hard-Brexit. That seems like a terrible recipe for social unrest. More broadly, however, governments need to ensure that such mass unemployment is stemmed.