Over 4.4 million Americans filed new unemployment claims during the week ending April 18th, for a total of over 26 million claims from business closures, furloughs, and layoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of those who still have their jobs, millions are either now teleworking to comply with physical distancing guidelines or are still going to work each day and possibly increasing their risk of getting the virus. The current pandemic is forcing people around the world to reassess how they think about work, its role in their lives, and how they contribute to society. These changes will likely have far-reaching impacts beyond the current crisis as work is such an integral part of our economic, social, and moral lives. Facing these challenges will require openness, flexibility, and understanding from policymakers, scholars, business leaders, and workers.
A Social Notion of Work
While for many economists, the issue of work boils down to labor and unemployment statistics and the classic tradeoff between work and leisure, it seems obvious that to many of us work means more than just a paycheck and that losing one’s job can be damaging to our mental and social well-being as well as our economic situation. The mainline tradition of political economy, however, focuses on a more nuanced notion of human action, exchange, and work. Adam Smith, in his great economic treatise, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, both marveled at the productivity and prosperity that arise from the division of labor and warned against the alienating potential of work when forced to do repetitive tasks with little variety. Similarly, the German sociologist and political economist Max Weber also studied the notion of work, specifically the social compulsion to work, or the idea of work as a duty, countered by the general distaste for labor. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber argues that work gained an ethical dimension as ascetic Protestants worked and invested, inducing a sense of duty and responsibility to their religion and community.
As Weber observed, work is incredibly important culturally and socially. One of the first questions we often ask people is “What do you do?” We also live out much of our social lives at work, conversing, forming friendships, and even finding romantic partners through our jobs and career-focused networks. Over the last few decades, the idea of work as a “calling” or having a purpose to fulfil through work has grown in prominence. More people are able to follow their passions and take on jobs that pursue missions they care about as well as working for a paycheck, benefits, and financial security for themselves and loved ones than ever before. Indeed, those who are engaged with their work and are able to use their strengths on the job have better physical and mental health, reporting that they feel more fulfilled and less stressed.
However, work can still be a difficult and even alienating aspect of daily life for many. Smith’s concerns about the dulling nature of tedious jobs and demanding bosses may be coupled with poor working conditions, long hours, and a lack of benefits. While economic prosperity brings better working conditions, standards of living, education, and health to everyone, those struggling to make ends meet arguably feel more of the pressure associated with changes to work and job losses when they occur. Losing one’s job can be hugely damaging and is associated with numerous adverse health outcomes, including increased risk of disease and mortality and reduced psychological well-being.
Family, religion, the pursuit of education, hobbies, and volunteering also provide a sense of duty and fulfillment. While these ways of engaging in self-improvement may balance out a lack of fulfillment at work, they may also contribute to new career opportunities, ultimately impacting our work and whether we feel like contributing members of society.
Changes to Work from the COVID-19 Pandemic
In the past several weeks, we have seen major changes to work and how people find a sense of meaning in their daily lives.
The largest and most obvious impact on work caused by the pandemic is unemployment. Potential job losses in the US are estimated to reach up to 47 million over the course of the pandemic. The food service, retail, and entertainment industries are being hit particularly hard, impacting hourly employees and gig economy workers who are often more likely to be living paycheck to paycheck.
While it is anticipated that the economy will recover fairly quickly after the pandemic ends, there is no clear estimate of when that will occur. Further, the spread of COVID-19 and the precautions taken to stem the outbreak came as a shock, happening with barely any warning for many. Many businesses and individuals did not have adequate savings or procedures for how to react to stay at home orders and physical distancing practices, and many furloughed or laid off employees are left with few options until the economy returns to normal. In the meantime, unemployment agencies are overloaded with applications and many are left waiting for assistance to be dispersed.
Many Americans are now working from home in an effort to slow the spread of disease. This is leading to a massive, stressful experiment in remote work. A 2017 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that only 25 percent of workers occasionally worked at home. And the ability to work at home tends to diminish with income, with 61 percent of the richest quartile of workers having the option of working from home compared to only 9 percent of the poorest quartile. However, this does not mean it is impossible for more people to work remotely and COVID-19 is, in many ways, forcingorganizations to innovate and experiment with teleworking. For example, Congress originally continued to legislate from Capitol Hill, due in part to the fact that House and Senate rules require voting in person. But now, a job that is characterized by the ceremony of face-to-face meetings is being carried out via video conference calls and virtual town halls. Doctors are providing consultations online, limiting in-person appointments to the most essential medical needs. Universities, music instructors, and even local gyms are taking classes online. Companies across the world are figuring out ways to help employees get their jobs done and remain productive from home, and will likely uncover methods that will stick around after the crisis is over.
Remote work has slowly altered the lives of many workers. It cuts down on workplace distractions such as unnecessary meetings and brings with it increased flexibility, allowing employees greater control over their time and where they live. However, it is not without its downsides, the loss of in-person social interaction, lack of oversight, and the blurring of work and home-life makes it difficult to unplug and can be stressors that take a toll on productivity and health. Furthermore, using personal computers or third-party services comes with increased security and data-privacy risks. Companies that previously only had a few employees logging on to VPNs and conference call platforms now have to make sure they work for all users at once, and family Wi-Fi networks and shared computers introduce numerous vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit. These issues are exacerbated during the crisis which is already impacting our health, social ties, and daily habits.
Work with Increased Risks
Those who still have a job and cannot work remotely are now often on the frontlines of the pandemic. It is easy to see the dangers for medical professionals like doctors and nurses, but many others, such as care workers, line cooks, cleaners, grocery store clerks, and factory workers are still going to work, often without the necessary personal protective equipment.
Low and middle-income Americans working in the services and manufacturing sectors are disproportionally affected. While vast swathes of industries are freezing hiring and furloughing or laying off employees, grocery stores, delivery services, and other essential industries are hiring even while facing worries over the safety of their workers. Employees of Instacart and Amazon, companies which both aim to hire thousands of new workers, are organizing strikes to demand a variety of changes including paid time-off, improved cleaning and workplace-hygiene standards, and increased pay to offset the risks they face every day. This also creates a difficult dilemma for those in search of a job: to wait out the current crisis or to seek temporary work at a grocery store or warehouse and risk getting sick or bringing the illness back home to your family.
These services are essential for society, especially when physical distancing guidelines are in place and many alternatives for procuring food, cleaning supplies, and other important goods are closed.
Fostering Work in the COVID-19 Pandemic
There are, however, some ways that we can encourage and support work during and after the pandemic. In particular, we should embrace innovation and technology, respect essential work, and provide assistance that considers the value of work in our economic, social, and moral lives.
Embracing Innovation and Technology
Technology is one of our best tools to combat issues in our lives. We are seeing this most obviously in the capacity to undertake remote work, which would not be possible without smart phones, laptop computers, fast home Internet connections, VPNs, and the various online communication platforms used to work on collaborative projects, communicate with colleagues, share tasks, and store information securely online. These technologies are likely to improve over the course of the pandemic as more people utilize them and demand new services.
Innovations in medical equipment and healthcare provision are further ways technology is playing a role in keeping us safe. Telemedicine, for example, is allowing people to receive remote care and diagnoses from home. Not only does this help people comply with physical distancing guidelines, it also allows certain medical professionals such as those who have recently retired or who are self-isolating to continue to work and see patients. Further, both private and public labs are pivoting their research to the search for a vaccine and the crowdsourcing of much needed medical equipment.
Technology can also be used to streamline and automate particularly risky jobs. Automated food and supply delivery services (such as drones and robots), contactless payment systems, and online grocery deliveries are all innovations that are now not only making life more convenient, but making our lives slightly safer.
All these technologies rely on fresh ideas and exploratory work. Policymakers should reduce the barriers to entry and minimize regulations that hinder these activities to ensure entrepreneurs keep testing new ideas and methods.
Respecting Essential Work
The pandemic has revealed that many types of work that we may have taken for granted in normal times are essential in crises. The dedication and value of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals is substantial and worth celebrating. Teachers are now instructing their students through online platforms or sending packets home for parent-supervised self-learning, and many parents are now attempting to homeschool their children, highlighting the importance of caregiving and education. Additionally, low-skill and hourly work has proven to be crucial for providing food, cleaning supplies, and other needed goods and services during the pandemic. Grocery store clerks, delivery personnel, janitorial staff, and warehouse workers are all now being recognized for their contributions to society. Such essential work may alter the way we think about particular occupations as well as lead to new forms of stress, burnout, and other challenges that will need to be addressed as the pandemic ends.
It is important to recognize that all work is valuable and that attempting to predict and promote particular types of work will miss important social contributions. Policymakers should suspend or remove regulations that restrict entrepreneur responses to the pandemic and stifle ingenuity and flexibility. For example, occupational licensing and labor restrictions should be relaxed so that essential workers can work across state lines and avoid being bogged down by bureaucratic red tape, and immigration law reforms, such as extending grace periods and expanding quotas for healthcare workers and other highly-skilled immigrants, should be considered to combat labor shortages.
The governmental support for workers during the pandemic includes dispersing general stimulus payments, increasing unemployment benefits and access, and providing loans for small business and direct assistance to particular industries. While some of these policies encourage work, others may be viewed as substitutes. For instance, some businesses that laid off workers cited increased government assistance in their decision to downsize. Yet, unemployment benefit offices are overwhelmed and the unemployed are facing difficulties with applying and receiving assistance. Unemployment and stimulus payments should not be thought of as substitutes to work but rather short-term support. Policymakers should be clear about the timelines for and details of expanded unemployment benefits and implement streamlined application and appeal processes to meet the demand and expectations of new programs.
Civil society can also encourage work and support those impacted by changing working conditions, and is possibly more effective at adapting to such changing needs than centralized rules and procedures in times of crisis. Such activities may include food banks, medical equipment donations, childcare and mental health services, and networking opportunities for young professionals that can provide a safety net for community members and foster a sense of social connectedness. Many nonprofits and businesses have already started donating resources and providing goods and services to help with COVID-19 response and recovery.
The next few weeks and months will provide ample opportunity to study the way the pandemic alters our notion of work, and will test our resilience to drastic changes in our working lives. Those who are without jobs will need the help of their communities and government to meet their needs, and those currently still going to work will face increased risks and will need the support and guidance from their loved ones and communities. Remote workers will struggle to collaborate with colleagues, learn more about their working habits, and make decisions about how they prefer to work after the pandemic ends. As the pandemic ends, organizations and employees will need to figure out how quickly and in what ways to resume normal activities. As a society, we will alter the ways we think about work, the industries we praise and value, and the corresponding impacts to the future of work.
 See, for instance, Peter J. Boettke, Living Economics: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Oakland, CA: The Independent Institute in collaboration with Universidad Francisco Marroquin, 2012); Peter J. Boettke, Stefanie Haeffele-Balch, and Virgil Henry Storr, Mainline Economics: Six Nobel Lectures in the Tradition of Adam Smith (Arlington, VA: Mercatus Center at George Mason University, 2016); Stefanie Haeffele and Virgil Henry Storr, “Adam Smith and the Study of Ethics in a Commercial Society,” in Mark D. White, ed., Oxford Handbook of Ethics and Economics (Oxford, CA: Oxford University Press, 2019).
 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1982 ).
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1958).
 Virgil Henry Storr, “Why the Market? Markets as Social and Moral Spaces,” Journal of Markets & Morality 12, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 277–96.
 Ethan Bayne, Conor Norris, and Edward Timmons, “A Primer on Emergency Occupational Licensing Reforms for Combating COVID-19,” Mercatus Policy Brief (Arlington, VA: Mercatus Center at George Mason University, March 26, 2020).
 Daniel Griswold and Jack Salmon, “Lower Barriers to Immigrant Healthcare Workers to Help Combat the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Mercatus Policy Brief(Arlington, VA: Mercatus Center at George Mason University, April 8, 2020).
 See Stefanie Haeffele and Virgil Henry Storr (eds.), Bottom-up Responses to Crisis (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020); Virgil Henry Storr, Stefanie Haeffele-Balch, and Laura E. Grube, Community Revival in the Wake of Disaster (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).