May 25, 2020

What the COVID-19 Crisis Means for Work Expectations: A Sociology Student’s Perspective

author photo Jackson tumlin author photoBy Colby King and Jackson Tumlin (sociology student, University of South Carolina Upstate)

I am always working to make my Sociology of Work and Organizations class meaningful to students by, among other things, getting them to connect with people who work in areas they are interested in. In the course this spring, though, as the COVID-19 crisis upended the economy and changed how so many of us do work, I got to see how students were applying course concepts in how they were thinking about work.

In this class we typically cover how work is changing, including the development of the new economy, which Stephen Sweet and Peter Meiksins describe as involving new patterns in work, including things like flexible work arrangements and interactive service work. We study how technological change and flexible work arrangements have made new kinds of work possible. Many of these new jobs are more rewarding for workers. We also see how, even with these new patterns of work, many aspects of the old manufacturing-based economy, which emerged from the Industrial Revolution, remain.

We also examine how the development of a dual labor market makes work opportunities more unequal, how instability has eroded worker satisfaction in their jobs, and how workers (rather than employers) are often made to take on the risks associated with their work. We apply course concepts, like I did in this essay for the Everyday Sociology Blog several weeks ago, to reporting about ongoing changes in the labor market. The most important thing we do in the course is require students to conduct an oral history interview in the style of Studs Terkel with someone who is working in a field the student is interested in working in after graduation.

The idea with each of these is to help students understand the practical utility of the abstract material we cover in the course. This way, the students don’t just learn course content, but also further develop their sociological imaginations and apply what they’ve learned from the course in their lives.

The students were collecting their oral history interviews just as the COVID-19 crisis emerged. We adjusted the course, moving online and adding in material about how the crisis was impacting workers, reshaping industries, and changing work. The essay I wrote here a few weeks ago was inspired largely by stories I had heard from my students who are still working, often without sufficient protection, in retail and service industry jobs.

At the end of the semester, I had students write a career reflection paper, in which I asked them to draw on course material and their experiences with class projects to address three questions that should illustrate how they’re applying a sociological imagination to work and career considerations. Across the course, it was clear from their papers that students understood that although we were only really a few weeks into the crisis, COVID-19 was dramatically changing work around them. I wanted to share one student’s perspective, because it reveals at least one way that our students are seeing the labor market they are now expecting to be working in. Here is an edited selection of Jackson’s essay:

Perhaps the most striking thing to me about the new economy is that, despite advancements opening more job opportunities, we see large structural inequalities maintained. Institutions that have historically enabled upward mobility, like higher education, demand more today for access, and do not hold the same guarantees of a better future that they once did. In light of the Covid-19 crisis, these concerns are becoming even more pressing, particularly in the unequal ways in which the pandemic has affected the landscape of work.

I see how the continued existence of an underclass seems to be an important characteristic of the new economy, and one that will continue to characterize it in the future. In their book Changing Contours of Work, Stephen Sweet and Peter Meiksins describe how work has become more complex, and likely less sustainable. The complexities of a globalized world create different kinds of work arrangements and levels of accountability to “management” through direct employment, contract work, sub-contracting, or freelancing.

Guy Standing argues that these changes, along with economic recession and the failure of the college system in guaranteeing a better future, has resulted in the creation of what could be a new kind of underclass, what he calls the “precariat.” Sweet and Meiksins highlight the ways in which intergeneration mobility has slowed and how racial inequalities are further strained. They report that whites earn college degrees at higher rates than other racial groups (30% of whites had earned a college degree in 2013, compared to 20% of blacks, for example). They also illustrate the ways in which racially unequal attainment within higher education has exacerbated economic inequalities. Looking at differences in holding retirement accounts, Sweet and Meiksins note how children of African American and Latinos are more likely to share financial resource to their parents later in life than whites. With the pandemic exacerbating challenges for low-income college students, it seems likely that these inequalities will continue to worsen.

This stratification facilitates the coexistence of a primary and secondary job market, with secondary job market jobs providing workers with little stability or benefits beyond meager wages. Further, as Standing argues, in the globalized new economy even a college degree no longer guarantees that a person will not fall into the global underclass. The COVID-19 pandemic heightens these concerns with unprecedented high jobless claims challenging our social welfare institutions. It is uncertain whether these systems will stand or fall amidst this tidal wave of need.

it is unlikely that the labor market will emerge from this crisis the same as it was before COVID-19. Perhaps the most worrying potential outcome is that systems within the new economy will not change, outside of the new global conditions which continue to widen stratification and further marginalize the most vulnerable of workers.

Seeing such a potential for disastrous change is certainly demoralizing. One reason I have always found the work of a teacher, social worker, or psychologist to be so appealing or admirable has been that, through such work, I could see myself as being able to make some difference in peoples’ lives on a face-to-face level. Yet, during this current pandemic where all are physically separated, such an individualistic approach begins to feel lesser in some manner, as if it would only be a drop of difference. [Emphasis from Colby King].

At a time when the current crisis shines a light at the failures of the new economy, such as the stratification it perpetuates, it is urgent to connect within communities and create a sense of shared responsibility through which solutions of these issues might be created. Such action is modeled, for example, by the Amazon workers in France, who were able to successfully harness collective will in a strike. They are not alone; Payday Report has been tracking strikes associated with the COVID-19 crisis and has an interactive map with information on more than 200 strikes. Despite all the possibilities possible career paths remain uncertain, in part because of all the risk present in such a stratified labor market.

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