Growing divide between the ‘get-its’ and ‘don’t-get-its’
Unequal impact of pandemic on employment will feed resentment
The division between the get-its who are viscerally experiencing the pandemic’s recession, and the don’t-get-its who aren’t, may be the most profound and disruptive social and political aspect of this pandemic. Photograph: iStock
Economic inequality is often simplified as a division between the haves and the have nots. But what may become a bigger divide is the “get-its” and “don’t-get-its”.
One of the triggers of social division is resentment. Right now, there are large swathes of people who have been made unemployed or who have lost their work, simply because of what sector they happen to work in, chose to work in, or what passion they pursued.
Others are protected from the financial impact of the pandemic (for now), because of the dumb luck of what sector they’ve ended up working in. What we know is that tens of thousands of people were happily working and earning away before March, and now their work and earnings have evaporated. We have to acknowledge this bizarre division. Some people are on their knees; others are racking up savings.
The don’t-get-its haven’t had the rug pulled from under their present and future. The get-its are pondering personal and collective resets. Early on, we came to realise what “essential” work really meant, and how much of it was low paid. Ultimately, this recession will come for us all, but for now, it’s impacting jobs that tend to be characterised by a direct exchange, or involve a tangible human relationship: cooking a meal, driving a taxi, playing records in a room, rigging a stage, manning a turnstile, and so on.
Those who are able to work from home are very privileged, and may also wonder what is it about their work that is so viable, when it appears to be so disconnected from real life that it can be done from a laptop in bed.
In David Graeber’s seminal 2013 essay, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, he used the example of a school friend, an indie rock musician, who, despite his talent, had to “pivot”, let’s say, following a couple of albums that didn’t hit the mark, the loss of a recording contract, and the financial obligations of having a newborn daughter.
A functioning society should be able to hold people’s diverse talents and ambitions – pandemic or no pandemic
He went to law school and became a corporate lawyer. “There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law?” Graeber wrote, adding, “Answer: if 1 per cent of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call ‘the market’ reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.”
Some government messaging focuses on telling people to change their lives, instead of imagining a new kind of society. Instead of telling people to do something else, why aren’t we asking our society to be something else? A functioning society should be able to hold people’s diverse talents and ambitions – pandemic or no pandemic – yet we appear to exist within a society where overbearing economic forces in the jobs market funnel people in particular directions. This was true before, and it’s compounded now, another pandemic reveal.
Instructing someone to “retrain” can be devastating , as it means giving up a career they may really want and like. Telling people to “upskill” sometimes compounds the pain of job and work loss, as it insinuates one’s current faculties and talents and skills are inadequate.
What are we going to do about this burgeoning division in our society, where people who were following a particular path have been halted, and others are just continuing on? What will be the impact of thousands of people not being able to hold on to their purpose and sense of self-worth because the pandemic doesn’t allow for their work to continue? And what will be the impact of those people knowing full well that this isn’t the reality for others? How can we quell the resentment of realising that in the same place, at the same time, you’re really suffering because you pursued one career, yet your neighbour isn’t because they pursued another?
What are we going to do about the fact that this recession is particularly bad for women? While recessions traditionally tend to impact men more, because construction and manufacturing are early casualties, this recession has hit areas – retail, hospitality – where more women work. This gendered aspect of the recession was compounded by the closure of schools and childcare facilities.
This division between the get-its who are viscerally experiencing the pandemic’s recession, and the don’t-get-its who aren’t, may be the most profound and disruptive social and political aspect of all of this, partly because it’s underpinned by one of the most potent feelings that can upturn society: resentment.
There are a lot of people right now thinking: I don’t deserve my situation. The next step can sometimes be looking at those who aren’t impacted, and thinking: wait a minute, what did they do to deserve theirs? This sounds worrying, but it’s also an opportunity.
Either we acknowledge this divide, unite, and help one another, or we ignore it, allow resentment to build, and wait for someone to step in and take advantage. Playing on people’s resentments tends not to work out well for the collective. It’s an easy and cheap lever to pull, so we’d want to get ahead of it.