Changes in the sphere of work have been fostered over the last thirty years by a continuous process of adapting companies and their employees to the demands of the economic and financial markets. The pandemic has blatantly revealed, if that were necessary, the limits of such a market-focused logic, while raising to a vital necessity another purpose of work: taking care.
Reaching far beyond the usual meaning of health and domestic-oriented care most often provided by women, the vital necessity of taking care has become evident in almost every area of human life. From individual behavior to public and corporate policies, it has turned into a general requirement.
The pandemic reactivated the virtues of a welfare state that takes care of vulnerable people – the sick, the elderly, workers who have lost their jobs – while at the same time revealing that the effectiveness of social policies depends on how much a society takes care of these policies, starting with dedicated financial and personal means. Furthermore, it has reminded us that economic activity not only requires care and support from public policies, but that taking care – of the workers, of the environment... – is also part of companies’ responsibility.
The political proposals that aim to make aid to large companies conditional on their taking fiscal and environmental responsibilities are heading in this last direction. But now that the bell of unlocking has rung in most European countries, economic lobbies are making their voices strong to get financial public support without any counterpart in corporate fiscal and ecological responsibility.
These developments invite us to reconsider what taking care means with respect to work. How does the world of work integrate the different facets of this vital necessity? Beyond the jobs that have been consecrated as a new category of indispensable professions for contributing to the continuity of life and society – such as doctors, nurses, cashiers, garbage collectors, delivery drivers, police officers –, it has become obvious that taking care is an issue that extends to any kind of work. What about caring about the environment and the society in interaction with which work is carried out? What about caring about those who do the job? And what does caring mean in each of these matters? Who decides about it? Addressing these questions raises the issue of the final purposes of work; it appears as an inescapable endeavor for any attempt to design socially and ecologically sustainable work.
If we agree with John Dewey (Theory of Valuation, 1939) that caring is intimately linked to what we hold dear, to what we value individually and collectively, then defining what caring means as a final purpose of work requires a lively and inclusive political democracy, but also a workplace democracy, which, in most European countries, has yet to be invented or reinvented.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bénédicte Zimmermann is a Permanent Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and a Professor of Sociology at the École des hautes études en sciences sociale (EHESS) in Paris, France. She coordinates the “Working Futures” Network at Wiko.
More articles of the series "Wiko Briefs - Working Futures in Corona Times" can be found here.