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All depends on your collar’s colour

by
26 June 2020

Work: Some jobs will be more flexible — but many will no longer exist at all, says Eve Poole

elisa cunningham

THE future of work is that for the next few years there will be less of it. In the United States, unemployment already stands at 15 per cent. The only reason that the UK has not followed suit is because of the Government’s Job Retention Scheme. This is only a temporary move, and the future looks bleak.

The 2020 decline in GDP will be the worst since the Second World War: the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Bank of England are forecasting a fall of 14 per cent. The financial crisis of 2009 resulted in a fall of only 4.2 per cent. Claims for Universal Credit increased by 2.5 million between 16 March and 5 May, and the Bank of England projects unemployment as reaching nine per cent for the second quarter of 2020.

Many think it optimistic to see nine per cent as the peak, if you examine the figures for the furlough scheme. These show the furloughing of a whopping 73 per cent of staff in accommodation and food-service activities, and 70 per cent of staff in the arts, entertainment, and recreation. The next hardest-hit sector is construction, on 46 per cent, followed by transportation and storage, administrative and support services, and manufacturing, at around 32 per cent. These are the jobs that might have disappeared altogether were it not for the furlough scheme.

While it looks as though some industries in the second bracket might bounce back, the fortunes of the others will be thwarted by an extended period of social distancing. It is because of this prolonged uncertainty that I have elsewhere advocated the need for a year of Universal Basic Income, to buy us all some time (Comment, 5 June). It would also provide a cash injection to stimulate spending that would boost the economy, as well as charitable giving to boost the third sector.

 

THE industries that have been hardest hit also tend to employ the largest proportion of the low-paid. So, the future of work depends very much on the colour of your collar.

Most people have heard of white-collar and blue-collar jobs, which used to describe managerial and manual workers. But had you heard of pink collars (women), red collars (those in government), green collars (eco-workers), and grey collars (those past retirement age, but still working)? To this rainbow list, we might also add dog collars. What will the future of work be for these groups?

First, the blue-collar workers, who keep the economy in motion. Our new-found national affection for key workers has emerged just as their jobs are becoming precarious. It will be a test of our faithfulness whether we can channel this enthusiasm into championing policy change to recognise their vital contribution.

Living wage and other initiatives help, but poor-quality jobs and chronic income insecurity act as a brake on human flourishing, as even those in work experience poverty and are unable to escape its vicious cycle. One hopes that those organisations currently free-riding on the welfare state to subsidise their business models, using zero-hours contracts and gig workers while they fail to pay their fair share of tax, will lose their licence to operate, as post-Covid consumers favour those who play fair.

It seems that white-collar workers have had a relatively good lockdown, either working from home or being furloughed and free to focus on home-schooling, volunteering, or other projects. One study in the US suggested that productivity among those working from home had increased by 47 per cent. Without the commute, they were starting earlier and finishing later. Phone calls were up 230 per cent, email up 57 per cent, and customer-relationship-management activities up by 176 per cent.

So successful has been this unwonted experiment that Twitter has already announced an indefinite work-from-home policy. Others are likely to follow suit, not least because of attractive cost-savings on expensive city-centre office space.

While, before the pandemic, effective collaboration through remote working polled at only ten per cent, since lockdown this has shot up to 75 per cent; so now three-quarters of chief financial officers are minded to make it permanent.

This flexibility augurs well for these jobs, as physical proximity removes one barrier to movement between them when company fortunes ebb and flow.

Research carried out by the World Economic Forum suggests that this flexibility will also remain salient in the war for talent. Nearly two-thirds of candidates surveyed cited a choice of work location as a key consideration in choosing an employer, and a total of 86 per cent of parents now want to work flexibly, compared with 46 per cent pre-coronavirus.

 

PINK-COLLAR workers have had a less positive experience, particularly when co-parenting with a white-collar worker.

Research conducted by University College London and the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that not only are mothers more likely than fathers to have moved out of paid work since the start of lockdown: those working have reduced their hours, and are interrupted more while they work from home because of childcare and home-schooling.

This means that mothers are only doing one third of the paid-work hours of fathers, which does not bode well either for the gender wage gap or future career progression. This will not improve as schools re-open because of staggered class attendance to accommodate social distancing, leaving parents still juggling work and childcare. An unfortunate side-effect of this domestic burden is that fewer female voices are involved in crisis problem-solving: of the 647 authors involved in recent papers written on economics and Covid-19, only 12 were female.

Looking at other collar colours, government jobs are set to remain secure in the short term, given Brexit and the state intervention necessary to pull the UK though this crisis; and jobs in the green economy are also likely to be favoured in public policy.

Those near retirement, generally being expensive in terms of staff costs, may be the first to go in redundancy processes, although demand for volunteering by those charities that survive the crisis would keep them in unpaid work for some time to come.

“New-collar” jobs to do with artificial intelligence may emerge, too, as social distancing accelerates the automation of processes that are currently too labour-intensive to make economic sense in a Covid world.

What about the dog-collared? Much will depend on whether parish giving holds up. Many parishes have lost money from cancelled bookings and rentals, and giving would need to increase to replace it. If not, and if dioceses cannot release reserves or historic assets of their own, stipendiary posts will be at risk, while any temporary subsidy from centrally held historic assets would only mask an otherwise unsustainable pattern of ministry.

Whatever else happens, ministry has already been changed by the experience of closed churches’ necessitating a move online. This may encourage a better articulation of the Church of England’s existing multi-channel strategy for the cure of souls, which had already included chaplaincy and digital, but may need to embrace these modes more formally in the future in ecclesiastical polity and training.

 

BUT there is an uncollared demographic who, even before the crisis, were suffering from joblessness. At the start of 2020, the unemployment rate for people aged 18 to 24 was already ten per cent, and the sectors most affected by lockdown employ nearly one third of all workers under the age of 25.

We are in danger of losing a whole generation. This is one reason that the Bank of England’s Andy Haldane is advocating the introduction of National Civic Service, to provide a year of citizenship and training to engage this vital demographic, as F. D. Roosevelt did with the Civilian Conservation Corps after the Great Depression.

 

Priorities:

  • A year of Universal Basic Income, to protect the most vulnerable;

  • The introduction of National Civic Service to engage those who will struggle to get on any career ladder at all.

  • Strong work by the churches in their communities to impart skills and mentor those transitioning between posts.

 

Dr Eve Poole is the Third Church Estates Commissioner. She writes in a personal capacity. Her books include Leadersmithing: Revealing the trade secrets of leadership (Bloomsbury Business, 2017), and Buying God: Consumerism and theology (SCM Press, 2018).

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