Say you were in the latter half of your career. In an industry you’d worked in for a long time. With a job you were good at and had been doing for years. Until you couldn’t.
A guy I know whose career has been in the hospitality industry is going back to work soon after 20 months of pandemic-induced unemployment. It’s been hard. Keeping himself busy, not doing what he enjoys and having negligible prospects. The family getting by on one income – in Toronto.
The guy who’s going back to work isn’t the same guy who got laid off almost two years ago. I’m confident that it will be a long time, if ever, before he starts to feel comfortable or at all “safe” in his employment, with the current company or a future one.
I know people who have been in their jobs awhile, some having passed their one-year anniversaries. None are located far from their co-workers or headquarters, but thanks to the necessity of working from home, they’ve never physically met anyone else on their team.
I guarantee that when those in-person meetups eventually take place, all these co-workers – new and old – are not going to be quite the same as others had thought, based on mental profiles constructed via Zoom, Slack and the quality of their work. And I don’t just mean, “Wow, you’re taller than I thought!” Working together in person will take adjustment, too.
There will also be thousands who have survived a COVID-19 infection but have long-term or permanent health issues as a result. This will certainly affect many people’s abilities to work – physically, cognitively, psychologically, or in combination.
These people will most certainly be different people than they were pre-pandemic. There will be no one-size-fits-all solution. Which is concerning, since compassion and consideration for anyone needing accommodations from a “standard” work model has long been hard to come by in most industries.
Can you imagine being a new graduate, finishing your schooling during all of… this? And then by some miracle getting a job and beginning your career, still during all of this?
Everyone launching into the work world shares some universal thoughts, feelings, and questions, but I guarantee there are challenges today that people who fledged in the Before Times never had to contend with, and are unqualified to mentor on.
There are industries already seeing an exodus of employees and having trouble hiring replacements. In part because these have often not been good places to work.
Aside from long-term instability, that work, and the people doing it, have not been valued. I expect this trend to spread beyond restaurants. Because there is a lot more work, and a lot of people, that we haven’t valued.
So considering all of this, Who are we now? Who (or what?) is a worker, or an employee, or a contractor, or a team member, or a manager, or a leader? What are we worth, to ourselves and others? And how much more are those definitions going to continue to change?
Over the years, I’ve said in regards to jobs I’ve had or companies I’ve worked for that “we’re not saving lives here.” It puts a lot of daily events and stresses into perspective, since most work isn’t in the life-saving business.
It feels like there’s a lot more weight behind that comment now. And I think it’s an important consideration when pondering notions of who we were, are, and are becoming as workers.
I was listening to a podcast recently that dug into some long-standing issues at the Ryerson School of Journalism, which boiled over a while back. A core issue seems to be that some of their instructors are, in a number of ways, not the teachers the students need (or expect).
Or, perhaps more accurately, they’re no longer the teachers the students expect. Because the students and their expectations have changed. Long-time aspects of academic culture that were callous, discriminatory, or just plain ignorant aren’t necessarily getting a pass anymore. Students don’t just bitch to their friends or drop that class and move on as best they can. Good.
I’ve never been a fan of the argument that “It was like X for me, so why should they have it any easier?” Especially when X can be racism, sexism, homophobia, or the potential torpedoing of someone’s career prospects.
And so it begs the question there as well, in education and training before people even become workers. Who are students now, especially in terms of how they interact with and affect the world outside their schools? Who (or what?) is a student, or a grad student, or a prof, or a department chair? What are we training them to become, to fit into? How much are those definitions going to change, and how much do they need to change? And what about education outside of universities?
Some folks are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. Some people are tired as hell and can’t take it anymore. Some people have been deeply changed due to circumstances beyond their control. Some people are getting introduced to circumstances they don’t like and saying no. Some people are finding that circumstances that seemed to fit before no longer do.
And some people are just keepin’ on, and may have no idea how they’ve been changed for a very long time.
We are at an inflection point in so many ways. There will be tonnes of study and analysis in the coming years. These are, indeed, “interesting times.”
But study and analysis can’t truly tell you what it has been like to be a 20-year-old student and restaurant server. An immigrant and health-care worker. A homebound parent and “office” worker. A queer journalism student of colour.
Pay attention now. Listen now. Try to understand now. Because no, others shouldn’t have it as bad in the future, whether things get even more “interesting” or not. Besides, if anything will help answer those “who” questions, doing this work will.
So often, even once we’ve told stories, or heard them, we forget them too quickly. Perhaps for those who’ve made major changes, that’s what it’s about. Doing something while they still remember what isn’t working, what they’ve dreamed about. Before they forget. Before they fall back into the same old ruts, and their daily playbook just repeats, “pretend, pretend, pretend…”
I don’t think we have a playbook for this, not yet. We will need to figure out again who we are in these roles, and if we want to do them, and what they’re worth.
We can (re)write the playbook. We don’t have to do it all at once. But to quote writer Neil Gaiman, “Sooner or later you have to start. And then you put one word after another until it’s done.”
And seriously, if not now, after all of this, when?
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at email@example.com