For perhaps the first time, millions are asking: Is my job essential? 

Pandemic-era pondering.
Pandemic-era pondering.
Image: REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
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In 1967, the late American sociologist Harold Garfinkel published his seminal Studies in Ethnomethodology, in which he wrote about the value of “breaching experiments” as a way of testing normality.

In a breaching experiment, a researcher might interact with unknowing members of the public in a way that breaks a particular social code—for example sitting down with strangers in a restaurant, or striking up a conversation in a public bathroom. Garfinkel was interested in the reactions of those around the researcher, and what they could tell him about the unspoken norms we all take for granted, to the point where we no longer see them. 

The coronavirus pandemic is effectively a giant breaching experiment, says Tim Strangleman, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent in the UK. It’s a change to normality which makes us question what’s normal to begin with. Not only can we see the problems the virus has introduced into our lives—the illness, the isolation, the layoffs—but also, Strangleman suggested, the aspects of our “before” lives that no longer seem suited to the present.

Many people thought working every day was inevitable. Those who have been laid off or furloughed are discovering that it’s not. Those who regularly went to an office or met around a table with clients are now doing work in ways they didn’t think possible, and in some cases weren’t possible until recent technology made them so. The newly remote are experiencing a radical collision of professional life with home and family life—a collision that, it’s been argued, could lead to the end of “professionalism” itself. 

When something changes to make us question the status quo, normality itself can soon begin to seem strange. Strangleman specializes in the sociology of work—and work, he says, is a perfect example of the way normality has been breached by the pandemic. 

On one end of the spectrum, entrepreneurs are watching their small businesses crumble, and artists and athletes seeing the careers they’ve strived for falter. At the other end, there are people whose work is considered so vital that governments are exempting them from stay-at-home orders and asking them to continue showing up for work, even at the risk of their own health.

Doctors, nurses, care workers, and paramedics always would have topped an ad-hoc list of workers crucial to a functioning society. But now they’re joined by grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, and anyone who keeps a supply chain functioning. The rest of us are noticing changes in how we perceive the value of that labor, compared to how we perceived it before. And many of us are beginning to interrogate the purpose and value of our own labor, too.

What does it mean to be essential?

Though plenty of us engage in soul-searching about our choices of a particular job or field (“Should I stay at this company?”; “Could I retrain as an architect?”) we don’t often question why we work. Because of the economic imperative, the assumption is that we have to. As a result, we might rarely or never ask the big questions: Is my work essential to my own life? Is it essential to the world?  

The coronavirus pandemic has brought those questions to the fore, and not just theoretically. For those in jobs not featured on government lists of essential occupations, it’s leading to crises both existential and practical.

Though of course not on par with the suffering of, say, losing a loved one to Covid-19, the pain of having our working worlds ripped up is real. For some it comes from finding themselves on the breadline; for others it’s about discovering the unfairness in the way couples tend to split responsibilities for earning and childrearing; for others it’s the stress of waiting in a limbo-world of non-work, wondering when and if their jobs will be theirs again.

There is pain, too, starting a job back up. In the Italian region of Lombardy, one of the places worst-hit by Covid-19, a lockdown shut all but “essential” businesses like food stores for weeks. But then a waiver system (paywall) started allowing businesses like factories to begin functioning if they were part of a supply chain for essential services. When businesses reopen, their workers have to go back to work, even if it means getting sick and endangering their families. 

Erol Koc, who runs a small corner shop in London selling food and other staples, told Quartz the imperative to stay open and in contact with customers was stressing him out, and he’d close if he could. (He then did close the shop for about two weeks, but recently reopened.) In the US, where health insurance is often tied to employment status, the choice is even bleaker.

Every decision made by a factory worker in Milan or a shop owner in London feels like, and is, an utterly personal struggle. But in combination, these decisions and experiences will have a profound effect on the world we live in. 

We’re still too deep in the crisis to know how soon, or even if, things will return to normal once it’s over. If so, it will likely be a slow process. Waiting on the other side of this moment is sure to be a deep global recession and an altered landscape of businesses large and small. But it’s also possible that things will change more fundamentally. Indeed, there seems to be a hunger for it: When polling company YouGov asked the British public whether they wanted a return to normality, only 9% said yes

So if this is a chance to look, clear-eyed, at the very nature of work and our place within it, how can we make sure we come out of it changed for the better, rather than beaten by circumstance?   

Making this moment fruitful

“I think that what we’re experiencing is a really profound moment in the human condition,” says Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, a New York Times bestseller in which he explains his theory of paring back the amount we try to achieve in favor of doing only some things well.

Essentialism, as McKeown describes it in his book, sounds like a self-help principle for the terminally busy, a call to stop saying yes, to prioritize, to focus. But the pandemic has changed so much, he acknowledges, that the conversations he’s having with his consulting clients now are totally different. 

“I think this could be the great reset,” he says. “I’ve spent years talking with people about what is essential to them, to companies like Apple, Google, Twitter; to individuals; coaching people. And I’ve never seen anything to compare with this. Almost everybody is asking this question: What’s essential now?”

One important concept from McKeown’s book is the reverse pilot. If a pilot project is about trying something new to learn about it fast, a reverse pilot is removing something, and discovering what life is like without it. If society is undergoing a giant breaching experiment, then McKeown suggests we’re all suddenly running reverse pilots in our individual lives. When the pandemic and its lockdowns struck, “things that were considered non-negotiable turned out to be negotiable,” he says. 

As a result, we’re being forced to reevaluate the decisions we’ve made. In some cases, as a result of the pandemic, we’ll have to make totally new choices. And in that, he says, there is an opportunity. “I think people are seeing something that was always real, but not obvious, and that’s this: that almost everything is trivial. And a few things are incredibly valuable—a very few things.”

Underlying the observation is a message about choice: of giving oneself the liberty to decide what to do, but also how to think. Panic, fear, fatalism, uncertainty, and obsessions with daily news or the minutiae of upended lives are all common responses to the crisis. But in such a particular moment, we’ll be missing something if we fail to allow this altered reality to alter us. 

“I’ve encouraged people to be careful not to be trying to be really productive all the time,” McKeown says. “We’re not in a coal mine. We’re in a diamond mine. Most stuff doesn’t matter, but a few things really, really do. I believe that is truly life, that is normal. But in all the noise and busyness, it isn’t obvious to people.”

If there’s a criticism to be leveled at this way of thinking, it’s that choice is the preserve of the privileged. Sure, maybe commute-free CEOs have a bit more leisure time now to ponder the meaning of what they do. But many ordinary people are of necessity gripped by the imperative to scrape together the means of survival. McKeown acknowledges that choices are different for those suffering the biggest economic shocks; but even that doesn’t mean they have no choices to make.  

“Whatever the circumstances, I have choice. I can choose to look at one thing I’m grateful for. I can choose to look at anything that’s going right. I can choose to look at what assets I do have. I can choose to face reality or hide from it. I can choose to take one step towards something that can help me survive,” McKeown says. 

What wasn’t so obvious after all

There’s been some good journalism about how the next months will unravel, but much of what we’re talking about now is speculation. It’s hard to know if the world will change, and how. When it comes to work, it’s possible we’ll revert quickly to pre-crisis modes of operation. Offices and other workplaces will reopen, and perhaps we’ll even go back to them most days of the week. Our children, back at school, will cease to feature in video calls with our clients. We’ll go out to buy food, and not find the experience extraordinary—though perhaps we’ll be grateful that oranges are available today. Maybe, for a while, we’ll look the cashier in the eye and thank them, because they’re doing a job we’re not sure we’d have the guts for. 

But it’s also possible that work will never be the same again. On a macro scale, Strangleman suggested, this could mean real, mainstream discussions of universal basic income; a re-evaluation of what work is for, and how the wealthy and the poor interact. It could mean a new attitude toward free markets, which have been the mainstay of modern capitalism but have been shaken so fundamentally by the emergence of a need for the same things—like medical equipment or Covid-19 tests—all over the world, at the same time. It could mean a reassessment of what “flexibility” really means, and what it can lead to: equality, or the lack of it. 

On a smaller scale, at the level of households and families—one of the only units of society that’s remained intact throughout—it could mean radical, personal reassessments. Some of those will be incredibly painful: early retirements forced, small businesses crushed. Others will involve positive transformation—though likely with some pain on the way, as the whole world wades through a probable recession.

When people criticize sociology, Strangleman says, it’s often to poke fun at it as the study of “the bleeding obvious.” Sociology is the study of society, after all, and we all know how society works. There’s likely some form of government, and an economy in which the majority of people work to support themselves. There are schools to educate children, and facilities to care for people who become ill or grow old. There are places to spend leisure time, and shops to sell goods.

Until, suddenly, there aren’t. 

Once you examine it, “the bleeding obvious isn’t that obvious,” Strangleman says. Things we took for granted before (a stocked pantry, say) might suddenly be valued as essential to survival; and what seemed essential to us in “normal” times might vanish, proving we had assessed their ultimate value to us incorrectly all along.

What’s essential? A very few things. This is the time to make sure we know what they are.