Will Covid-19 change the meaning of jobs, employment and vocation?

In the second of a five-part series on the long-term impacts of the pandemic, Krupa Solanki of UnWork looks at how the value systems around work itself are being reappraised

In our first article on the long-term impact of the pandemic on the future of work and workplace, we examined shifts in technology. Our second piece looks at the nature of work itself. Some of the words surrounding work can be telling – employment, job, vocation, career can all mean different things and these terms are more complicated still when we consider the subjective value they hold for individual people.

For the past few years, there has been a visceral cry from younger generations who have defied their older counterparts in seeking vocations that stimulate the pocket, mind, body and soul.

Accordingly, we have seen a swift increase in new innovative job titles and roles, both within the traditional and entrepreneurial sectors. Alongside lack of job satisfaction, the increasing age of retirement, low pay and other bars to access has now made many of the traditional professions such as law, medicine and accountancy increasingly less desirable.

Telling picture of young ambitions

Last year it was widely reported that the now infamous reality TV show Love Island received more applications than Oxford and Cambridge combined, which provides a telling picture of the ambitions of some of the younger generations. Rationally thinking, few can blame them. Most successful contestants on Love Island go on to earn hundreds of thousands of pounds in their first years away from the island. By comparison, junior doctors and lawyers start their careers in the tens of thousands with a sluggish path to promotion and career growth.

For those concerned with the lack of ‘seriousness’ of the profession now have their fears allayed with the career path of another infamous reality alum, Kim Kardashian. Following her dreams to study law, Kim will be sitting the California bar exams in 2022 – without the hefty student debt that often accompanies a foray into the legal profession. And of course, it is not all about money, though it remains a huge motivation. Job satisfaction and the notion of working to a ‘higher cause’ has also become increasingly important. Statistics show that companies that have in-house charitable and pro-bono initiatives have great chancer of grabbing talented graduates from top schools.

Many these changes began before Covid-19 struck but it is not difficult to see how the current crisis may accelerate the pace of change. In just a short few weeks following the lockdown, unemployment levels were already expected to reach 10 per cent in the UK and many employees found themselves either furloughed or on a decreased work schedule. For entrepreneurs, members of the gig-economy and those on zero-hour contracts, the situation looked bleaker still.

A profound crossroads

With no sign of a clear way out of the crisis on the horizon, many of these people will be looking to transition to jobs that are either deemed ‘essential’ for the time being, or that can easily be done from home. The Guardianhypothesised that there is a real risk of a ‘dole queue’ future for young people after Covid-19 crisis. With this bleak prediction, young people will find themselves at a profound crossroads which will require imaginative thinking for those entering the hardest job market since 2008.

In theory, anyone can find fame in their homes through social media. Since lockdown, subscriptions to Tik Tok, Instagram and Facebook have grown exponentially with the latter two brands reporting a 60 per cent growth in their ‘live’ feature which allows anyone to broadcast from their homes to their followers. Where a career as an influencer or social media star may have been attractive last year, we may see an acceleration of pace in the sector, driven by a quaint mix of access and boredom.

Delivering vital services

Another unexpected spotlight has been shone of the nature of vital services and the typically low-paid providers of such services. From frontline doctors and nurses to delivery drivers and grocery workers keeping shelves stacked, the new normal has ushered in a new understanding of what work is deemed ‘vital’ and ‘essential’ and, the value we attach to such roles through remuneration – be it professional credibility and/or financial remuneration.

In many of our lifetimes, SARS and 9/11 are the most profoundly significant comparators to what we are facing today. Taking 9/11 as an example, the world of work fundamentally changed in the years that followed; for those that had undergone significant loss, a change of pace or career felt like the correct course of action. For those that hadn’t undergone loss but were still in awe of the valiant services of the firefighters and medical professionals on site that day, a career in the emergency services was a clear option. For those who had not been directly affected but worked in high-rise offices, the ever-present threat of future attacks was enough to make droves reconsider their career choices as city-slickers.

Then, like now, we were faced with a fundamental reconsideration of the nature of ‘success’ and ‘value’ and what it means both subjectively and in the context of the rest of the world. Global turbulence tends to cause a sense of introspection that can defy logic. Professionals at the top of their careers are not exempt and as with 9/11, either incapacity or huge lifestyle change may cause some upheaval at the highest levels of organisations.

‘There is a fundamental reconsideration of the nature of success …’

Beyond that, whether we will see a Love Island-esque surge of applications to medical school remains to be seen, but for the fatigued frontline workers who have had the great misfortune of spending the past few weeks surrounded by death, it is no stretch of the imagination to think about how their numbers may be affected in the coming years.

Perhaps above all else, an unexpected global pandemic gives us time to pause and think what the words employment, job, vocation and career really mean to us – and society in general.

Krupa Solanki is Chief of Staff at UnWork and Cordless Consultants, with a background in human rights and criminal law. This article is the second in a series on how Covid-19 will change the world.
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