"Useful", "indispensable", “essential”: Is the health crisis changing the categories with which we consider professional activities?
Laure de Verdalle
The health crisis we are experiencing makes some professional activities appear more socially useful than others. Hospital medical staff, on the "front line" in the daily management of a pandemic, embodies this common perception that some activities are "indispensable" or “essential”, while others could be interrupted for an extended period without too much harm to our societies. Of course, these indispensable activities are not limited to medical and health professions. The unprecedented situation we face leads to new forms of categorizing work, depending on whether it can be carried out from home, but also according to its social utility; the decisive question being here if it is necessary or not to continue to work in the usual way, regardless of the health situation and even if it implies exposing workers to risks to their own health?
Is this new categorization – especially when it mobilizes a criterion of social utility – likely to reverse or modify how we regard certain types of professional activities? With the notable exception of doctors, who are professionals traditionally valued and endowed with high social prestige, many activities considered indispensable today, and that are still carried out in a "normal" way, are activities previously accorded little social value, poorly remunerated, and involving underappreciated skills. This is the case with supermarket cashiers, garbage collectors, deliverymen and home-helpers, who enjoy little social recognition. These "second-line" staff, with no choice but to remain in their jobs, are gaining new visibility in confined societies. Once the crisis has been overcome, will the risks these workers have been exposed to (in often degraded working conditions and sometimes in disregard of the most obvious protection rules) enable a new collective appreciation of the services they render to society? In any case, the current period will have highlighted that the criteria that we traditionally use to prioritize professional activities and give them a certain prestige do not necessarily match their degree of social usefulness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laure de Verdalle is a sociologist at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin and a researcher of the CNRS/France. She is a member of the “Working Futures” Network at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.
More articles of the series "Wiko Briefs - Working Futures in Corona Times" can be found here.