Did the Pandemic Change Our Attitudes About Work?
Fast-forward to fall 2022. The number of people quitting, while down from the peak, remains at the highest level since the 1970s. White-collar workers don’t want to give up working remotely. Low-paying sectors such as the hospitality industry can’t find enough people willing to work for the wages on offer. Union organizing and strikes have been on an upswing…. [W]hat’s increasingly clear is that the March 2020 decision to partially close down the American economy shattered Americans’ dysfunctional, profoundly unequal relationship with work like nothing in decades. And even if there was great discomfort in a shutdown that severed almost every one of us from assumptions about how we earn a living, we also found an unexpected opportunity: to remake our relationship with the labor that fills our days….
All of it — the lockdowns, the disease, the sudden change in household functioning and how or whether we worked at all — amounted to a massive psychological shock, leading many to ask why labor looms so large in our psyches. “It really was an opportunity — an unwelcome opportunity — to take a look at the mad scramble that many of us have just assumed was normal,” said Kate Shindle, who as president of the Actors’ Equity Association represents a particularly hard-hit industry. Then, when the economy unexpectedly boomed back, Americans were poised to pivot. As many had recognized, it was one thing to seek meaning in work but another to see our lives subsumed by it — and for what? A less-than-adequate paycheck? A job that could literally kill you? “Maybe the poor safety net really kept people from analyzing the role of work in their lives,” David Blustein, author of “The Importance of Work in an Age of Uncertainty” and a professor at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, told me. “Maybe the American work ethic was a form of survival….”
Over and over, when people spoke to journalists, including me, about why they made changes in their professional lives since March 2020, they told us they liked receiving better wages when they switched employers. But even more, they wanted greater control over the terms of their labor…. An increased level of remote work, likely in a hybrid format, is almost certainly here to stay, says Nick Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, who has studied the topic for decades. Employees want it, technological advances continue to make it easier, and companies that forbid it completely are likely to find themselves at a disadvantage….
The past two and a half years brought immense upheaval, and we’ll be struggling to process the resulting changes for years. But it’s undeniable that some of these shifts were long overdue. Workers are highly unlikely to forget what we learned: namely, that our jobs are much more flexible than we thought.
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