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Imagining a Better Life After the Coronavirus

This crisis is revealing the limits of America's religious devotion to work—and showing us that a more fulfilling future is possible.

John Moore/Getty Images

Last week, I posed an admittedly taboo question to my followers on Twitter: “Is anyone enjoying this? Any parents, in particular? Are there any ways your life is better in this situation?” I was surprised by the response, from more than 30 workers around the country and across the world. Perhaps “enjoy” was the wrong word, they fairly noted, but they did find something positive in their new reality. “I do not enjoy the forest,” wrote Caitrin Keiper, a magazine editor who lives in Virginia, “but I love my little trees.” Others used the words “lovely” and “wonderful.” They’re not commuting. They’re spending more time with their kids. They’re getting more exercise.

The spread of the novel coronavirus has utterly changed work in America. Most important, the pandemic has put millions out of a job. Untold millions more are taking pay cuts, or juggling childcare and homeschooling, or enduring immense pressure to continue low-wage work in spite of the risks: Delivery drivers, warehouse stockers, pharmacy assistants, supermarket cashiers, and others are being worked to the bone to sustain our mass self-isolation. There is no silver lining in the pandemic for these Americans.

But for some Americans, thanks in part to the workers above, conditions are actually better than they were before. There is less pressure and more flexibility. Once the pandemic subsides, and we grieve everyone and everything we have lost, we should not go back to our “normal” way of working. We need to preserve the best parts of our new work experience and make them accessible to all—especially those who are being hit hardest by this crisis.

One father of three young children, who works for a nonprofit in the D.C. area, told me that working from home has allowed for a more equitable split of domestic labor with his wife, who is also working from home. “I don’t have 2.5 hours of daily commute anymore. She doesn’t have to cook and entertain the kids at the same time,” he said. Since he’s always home now, he cooks. They block out time to be with their children or, as they did recently, play guitar in front of neighbors’ houses so their kids could dance and sing along.

In ordinary times, such whimsy might seem irresponsible, if not impossible. Employers have become more “greedy” over the past few decades, rewarding workers who are willing to put in the longest hours and be constantly available. Commutes have grown longer. Burnout is rampant. Even for Americans with stable, well-paying jobs—even for those wealthy enough to hire help—our culture often forces us to choose between our work and the people we love.

For many of the workers I heard from, life under quarantine has shattered that dilemma. Summer Block, a freelance writer in Los Angeles who is married with four children, told me that before the stay-at-home order, she was stretched thin with work, family, and a long list of volunteer projects, from the PTA to the Bernie Sanders campaign to Girl Scouts. “All of those things are canceled now,” she said. Her kids’ therapy and music lessons are now happening online, so she doesn’t have to drive anyone around. “Usually I never feel I get enough time with my kids,” Block said. “Now I finally don’t have that nagging feeling of, I wish I saw them more.” She even has a little more time to write.

Not that it’s all roses for these and other professional-class workers. Several whom I spoke to said outright that they would much prefer a coronavirus-free, “normal” life to what we have now. “I have had daily freak-outs,” said Bria Sandford, a book editor in New York City. But breaking out of her normal schedule has helped Sandford find renewed value in leisure. “Eliminating the physical stress of a commute and office environment has largely offset the stress of quarantine,” she said. “I’m going for walks in the woods, eating well, hydrating, and am able to do mild exercise for the first time in years.” After the pandemic subsides, she said, she hopes to work more from home and to maintain what she calls her “no-phone-before-prayer-and-walk routine.”

The pandemic has brought to light many failings of our society and values, among them the religious devotion to work: the very American notion that only through labor do our lives have meaning. Thus we have politicians arguing that the holy economy must not be forsaken even at a time like this—that some humans may need to make the ultimate sacrifice so that we all may continue working, generating and spending the money necessary to nourish the insatiable beast of American capitalism. “My message is that let’s get back to work,” Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, said on Fox News last week. “Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country.”

Comments like these lay bare an axiom of our culture: You exist, first of all, to work. The coronavirus crisis is simultaneously reinforcing that axiom and undermining it.

Millions of Americans suddenly are not working due to the economic effects of the pandemic, and no doubt they wish it were otherwise. Most Americans can’t stay afloat for very long without earning anything: Half of us live paycheck to paycheck, while two-thirds don’t have the recommended emergency savings of six weeks’ take-home pay. With the fraying of the social safety net, Americans can’t count on the government in times of bounty, let alone crisis. The emergency relief measures passed in Washington in recent weeks, from sick leave to expanded unemployment benefits to direct payments, are grossly insufficient, as even some leading politicians acknowledge. (Adults making less than $75,000 will get a single check for $1,200, plus $500 per child, whereas governments throughout Western Europe are guaranteeing up to 90 percent of people’s income.)

But for more fortunate Americans—those who have not been laid off, furloughed, or docked pay—this crisis has exposed certain myths. It’s obvious that we don’t all have to be in the office, plugging away on our bosses’ questionable projects. We don’t need to log as many hours as we usually do. We certainly don’t need to sit in traffic to do so. This was true all along; when office culture requires 80-hour weeks, some workers fake it, and no one notices. In sweeping away our old routines and reducing our most annoying co-workers to a single tile on Zoom, the widespread quarantine has freed workers from some of the charades that make their jobs feel pointless. They should demand that these developments become permanent, with more opportunity to work from home and with less direct supervision.

The people who answered my question are generally in the latter group. They are well-educated and have the kind of job they can do remotely. That they’re experiencing some positive effects of self-isolation is due partly to advantages that most workers do not enjoy. But that’s why their experience points the way toward a better approach to working culture: How can we remake society so that all workers have those advantages?

It will take policy changes, of course, including mandatory paid time off, higher wage floors, universal health care, and greater recognition of the right to organize. But these alone will not be enough to make post-pandemic working life more humane for all. We will also need to change the moral status of work, to displace it as our highest duty. That will require a revolution ultimately more radical than anything being proposed in American politics today. But it will necessarily happen more subtly over time, for it requires not merely reforming our society but shifting the big ideas and small habits that shape our roles in it.

The revolution may already be underway right now, even as we fear for each other’s lives. One woman who is newly working from home told me her household is “mayhem” now. But she still managed to find a moment that would have been impossible a few weeks ago. “I just lay on a blanket in the backyard with my three-year-old, naming what shapes we saw in the clouds,” she said. “It was marvelous.”