The pandemic, work, and wages

by Emrys Westacott

Numerous reports have been compiled and articles written about the way that the covid pandemic has affected, or will affect, work: the way people do it, and their attitude towards it. But although certain general trends can be identified–e.g. the percentage of meetings held online rather than face-to-face has, naturally enough increased–people’s attitudes towards work and the workplace haven’t been affected in a uniform way.

Many of those who have been able to work more from home relish the advantages of doing so. They avoid time-consuming and often stressful commutes; they are able to integrate the business of ordinary living–going to the dentist, picking up a prescription, working when the kids are off school, etc.–with getting their work done. Hours can be more flexible, and the same goes for the dress code.

For others, though, working from home all the time has many drawbacks. Commuting may have a bad reputation, but for a surprising number of people it can be positively enjoyable. A Canadian study found that where the commute take less than 30 minutes more than 50% of respondents said that they enjoy their commute. And among people who cycle to work, almost a fifth said that the commute was the best part of their day.[1]

The flexibility and freedom that working from home allows is undeniably a plus. But for some, the stricter routine provided by a requirement to show up at the workplace by a certain time brings order to the day and to the use of one’s time.

Most of all, though, physical workplaces serve an important social function. Just as it is good for our physical and mental health to to get outside every day and to be in regular touch with the natural world, so it is beneficial for most of us to meet and interact with other people regularly. The relationships in question may not be the most important ones in our lives: those with our fellow workers often are not. The conversations we have don’t have to be especially intimate or stimulating. But they can still be meaningful: occasions for sorting out a problem, cracking a joke, complaining about something or someone, giving or taking advice, offering or receiving a compliment. Read more »

‘Consolation’: A poem for now

by Emrys Westacott

A friend, knowing that I’ve been learning German, recently sent me a volume of Theodore Fontane’s poetry.  Fontane (1819-1898) is best known today for the novels that he wrote in the later part of his life.  But some his poems have an affecting simplicity–a simplicity that is perhaps especially charming to those of us who are less than fluent in German. Here is one lyric that particularly caught my attention.  It expresses a sentiment that seems most suitable to the present time as we approach the end of a bleak winter and, one hopes, of a devastating pandemic.  Naturally, the translation takes some liberties in an attempt to retain something of the feel and spirit of the original.

Trost                                                                         Consolation

Tröste dich, die Stunden eilen,                         Be comforted, the hours fly,
Und was all dich drücken mag,                        Like everything that’s sad and grey,
Auch das Schlimmste kann nicht weilen,       Even the worst will pass on by,
Und es kommt ein andrer Tag.                         And there’ll come another day.

In dem ew’gen Kommen, Schwinden,            In life’s eternal rising, falling,
Wie der Schmerz liegt auch das Glück,         Happiness lies alongside pain,
Und auch heitre Bilder finden                         And, like the sunlight, brighter scenes
Ihren Weg zu dir zurück.                                 Will find their way to you again

Harre, hoffe. Nicht vergebens                        Be patient, hopeful.  It may help
Zählest du der Stunden schlag,                      To count the striking hours away.
Wechsel ist das Los des Lebens,                    One’s lot in life is always changing,
Und – es kommt ein andrer Tag.                   And – there’ll come another day.

Work and time

by Emrys Westacott

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a great of suffering and has disrupted millions of lives. Few people welcome this kind of disruption; but as many have already observed, it can be the occasion for reflection, particularly on aspects of our lives that are called into question, appear in a new light, or that we were taking for granted but whose absence now makes us realize were very precious. For many people, work, which is so central to their lives, is one of the things that has been especially disrupted. The pandemic has affected how they do their job, how they experience it, or whether they even still have a job at all. For those who are working from home rather than commuting to a workplace shared with co-workers, the new situation is likely to bring a new awareness of the relation between work and time. So let us reflect on this.

In ‘The Superannuated Man,’ Charles Lamb writes,

that is the only true Time, which a man can properly call his own, that which he has all to himself; the rest, though in some sense he may be said to live it, is other people’s times, not his.

This is a basic and obvious reason that many people resent having to go to work at all. Work takes up time, and time, as many sages have observed, is supremely valuable, irreplaceable, priceless. It is precious because we each know that we are granted only a limited amount of it.

Time is, in the words of Ben Franklin, “the stuff life is made of.” So insofar as work consumes your time, it consumes your life. If your work is what you really want to do, this is not a problem. But if much of the time when you are working–whether you are selling your services to someone else for an agreed number of hours or drudging away at home–you would really prefer to be doing something else, then your working hours represent an enormous sacrifice. You are using up your supply of a decidedly finite, non-renewable resource. Read more »

The lucky ones–even in a pandemic

by Emrys Westacott

When I feel myself becoming irritable, disheartened, or just plain fed-up with life during the pandemic, I find it helpful to conduct a thought-experiment familiar to the ancient Stoics. I reflect on how much I have to be grateful for, and how things could be so much worse. That prompts the more general question: Who are the fortunate, and who are the unfortunate at this time?

Let’s consider the unfortunate first. These include:

  • the dead, the dying, the seriously ill, and those who suffer the loss of family and friends;
  • the desperate: undocumented immigrants without access to social services; refugees; migrants; and the already destitute;
  • the endangered: people with pre-existing conditions that make covid 19 especially dangerous; those residing or working in nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, meatpacking factories, and other places where the contagion spreads easily;
  • the fearful: this includes millions who face serious financial insecurity as their income suddenly no longer covers their expenses: workers who have lost their jobs or been furloughed; the self-employed whose revenues have dried up; business owners who no longer have sufficient customers;
  • the domestically stressed: all those whose domestic situation is unhappy or unhealthy due to loneliness, incapacity, overcrowding, dysfunctional relationships, or just the lack of opportunities to relax, exercise, or experience a refreshing change of scene;
  • the disappointed: students in schools and colleges whose whole experience, both educational and social, has been diminished; all those on career paths whose prospects appear suddenly blighted;
  • the bored.

As for the fortunate, these include:

  • those who avoid death, serious sickness, or the loss of loved ones;
  • those who are relatively free from financial anxiety as their jobs or income from other sources are reasonably secure;
  • those who are in satisfactory domestic circumstances, living with people they get along with, or at least able to communicate regularly with family and friends;
  • those who are not bored.

It is the last category in each of these groups that I want to talk about. Read more »

Can the pandemic serve America as the cradle for a rebirth of civil society?

by Bill Benzon

This pandemic changes everything, we can’t go back to the way we were. That’s what everyone is saying. Well, not everyone, but I don’t know how many times I’ve read some version of that over the past month.

What rough beast…

I would like to reflect on that theme, albeit in perhaps and oblique and impressionist manner. I want to begin by invoking a recent essay in which Marc Andreessen urges us to “reboot the American Dream.” Then I move back half a century and look at Walt Disney’s version of, well, the American Dream. I return to the present through an essay by Ezra Klein and conclude with a video in which Sean O’Sullivan talks of how he came to form an NGO that worked on building Iraq early in this millennium.

Marc Andreessen: Let’s Build Something!

Roughly two weeks ago a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen, issued a call to action, It’s Time to Build, which has been getting a lot of action, pro, con, and sideways. Here’s how it opens:

Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.

Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation. Read more »

How the pandemic exposes irrationalities in our social system

by Emrys Westacott

The current Covid 19 pandemic is undoubtedly a disaster for millions of people: for those who die, who grieve for the dead, who suffer through a traumatic illness, or who, suddenly lacking work and income, face the prospect of dire poverty as the inevitable recession kicks in. And there are other bad consequences that one might not describe as ‘disastrous” but which are certainly significant: the stress experienced by all those providing care for the sick; the interruption in the education of students; the strain put on families holed up together perhaps for months on end; the loneliness suffered by those who are truly isolated; and the blighted career prospects of new graduates in both the public and the private sectors.

No-one knows what the long-term, or even the short-term consequences of the pandemic will be, either for any particular country or for the world as a whole. It’s conceivable that in some places things could eventually tilt toward the sort of apocalyptic break down of civil society often depicted in dystopian fiction. Perhaps more plausibly, it could lead to the further erosion of democratic rights in at least some countries. This has already happened in Hungary, where the parliament recently voted to give the Prime Minister, Victor Orban, the power to rule by decree for an unlimited period, during which time there can be no elections. But it is also possible that the current crisis will be the occasion for a fundamental rethink about the character of the society we wish to live in. Let us hope so.

This hope could, of course, be just naïve wishful thinking. History offers plenty of example of well-intentioned pledges to learn from the past being buried beneath forgetfulness, indifference, incompetence, prejudice, ideology, and vested interests. But the pandemic is undeniably effective at exposing some of the most obvious flaws in the socio-economic organization of countries like the US (and, to a lesser extent, other modernized capitalist societies). And by “flaws,” here, I don’t mean minor inefficiencies that can be removed with a bureaucratic tweak, but profound irrationalities linked to objectionable values. Read more »