After the COVID-19 crisis sent many people home to work, or forced them home through furloughs or layoffs, there is now a strong appetite in many to “return to normal.” But what does that mean exactly?
In the context of career advice, it means returning to a fundamental model of competent career practitioners focusing on the problems of individual clients who need skills, knowledge and tools to thrive or survive in a competitive job market. This model, which was developed 50 years ago during an industrial era of job security and single-income households, continues to drive most career services.
But, even before COVID-19, disruptive forces such as job insecurity, massive debt, income inequality, new technologies and ecological crises challenged this model. Consequently, many workers realize that their current unemployment is no fault of their own and can’t be fixed with individual solutions. Instead, they recognize the need for new work arrangements or structural changes in our economy.
New work arrangements being considered include more remote work, job sharing, co-working spaces, benefits for precarious workers, four-day workweeks and replacing travel with video meetings. But structural changes in our economy require big-picture thinking. What then is the role of career practitioners in envisioning a new normal?
As career practitioners, I suggest we start by examining our own values and assumptions about what is normal. For example, what are the economic systems that we are colluding with on behalf of our clients? Have we internalized certain ideas about the economy, such as private property is the only rule, profit the only metric, competition the only game, efficiency the only yardstick, winners and losers the only outcome, and hierarchy and inequality the only form of organization? These values sink into our core thinking as well as the policies and practices of our organizations. They guide the advice we give clients, advice that can be reduced to the simple idea that getting, holding and succeeding in a job is about conforming to these assumptions. This is one way that a specific version of “normal” becomes reinforced in our everyday lives.
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I’m not saying that these assumptions are bad but we as individuals and as a profession might critically review the values and assumptions that shape our advice, because “normal” is always a choice, and a political one to be sure. Politics, after all, is about who has power to control values that govern the public square. Normal reflects a set of values that tend to serve the interests of those in power, which is often perpetuated by convincing the rest of us that change is inconceivable, impossible or unnecessary. Then suddenly, a black swan event like COVID-19 occurs and shatters the illusion of normal – it becomes conceivable, possible, and perhaps necessary to change the status quo.
During the height of the crisis, about one-third of the Canadian workforce (8+ million) was collecting CERB. The economic fallout from COVID-19 is yet to be fully calculated but certain trends are already forming to reveal many businesses closing and many other employers moving to quickly reduce workforces and increase automation. Millions of jobs may not return in the manufacturing, transportation, construction, hospitality, tourism, service and retail sectors. And those jobs are unlikely to be replaced by growing sectors related to AI and quantum computing, data security and data integrity, next-gen computing and 5G networks, renewable energy, personalized medicine, government or space technologies, which are driven by technology not people.
CERB has shown how quickly government can act to support vulnerable workers. So, as a profession dedicated to doing what is best for our clients and country, let us apply some big-picture thinking and re-imagine economic security. For example, if millions of Canadians are unable to return to work, rather than collect money for doing nothing, perhaps they could collect some kind of guaranteed income for socially beneficial work, such as child, elder or friend care; volunteering with street youth and refugees; engaging in civic actions; dancing, writing or singing to create more beauty in the world; starting a business; or collaborating on clean water, climate change, affordable housing, genetic health, palliative care or food security initiatives, to name just a few possibilities.
“As a profession dedicated to doing what is best for our clients and country, let us apply some big-picture thinking and re-imagine economic security.”
Structural changes to our economy will require the moral courage to make hard choices. The federal government, for example, recently provided a generous aid package to a large, profitable US-based company that makes armoured vehicles for Saudi Arabia. Are these jobs really more valuable to our future than strengthening the social fabric of communities by providing citizens a guaranteed income to perform socially beneficial work that better prepares us to manage the next pandemic or crisis?
If we say “no,” then we might re-imagine a “normal” that is based not just on a job for its own sake. It could extend to meaningful work funded by a citizens’ guaranteed income – and let me stress a guaranteed income not for all and not for a lifetime – but one that provides many Canadians with an income benefit for five years or 10 years, to give individuals enough time to change careers or start a business or give families enough resources to relocate to a job-rich zone or re-order their lives according to their own values. Like CERB, there would be many technical details to address of course – who gets what when where and how – but we could explore options that transform the economy so that it serves people instead of the other way around.
A new normal involving a citizens’ guaranteed income for a limited time could liberate many workers from unemployment or wage slavery, and produce multiple kinds of value, such as true freedom of choice and new entrepreneurial activity, as well as reductions in crime, homelessness, and the staggering costs associated with depression and anxiety.
As we career practitioners engage with the struggles and successes of our clients, let us also help them shape a new “normal” that better enriches the lives of more individuals and communities.