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No one knows the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the workforce

COVID-19 might lead to a new re-imagined labour force
Employers are trying to find ways to entice workers back to the office after COVID-19 made working remotely a popular option for many. (Photo credit: Mohamed Hassan/pxhere)

By Elvenia Gray-Sandiford

The economic pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that households are facing are universal. Low-income families in Canada and the rest of the world felt the effects of job layoffs, cuts in job hours, and uncertainty about job security. Job losses reduced the earnings of many displaced workers in the short term, but also had long-term effects.

This is what economists call the “scarring effect”: a short-term event (like being derailed from the labour market) has long-term effects, leaving a visible “scar”. This scarring is estimated to last approximately 20 years. The actions of, and reactions to, the pandemic have resulted in a crucial moment for the labour force.

There are factors affecting both the decision to re-enter the workforce, and the choice of jobs available. The conversations about employment are different now, and include talk about resistance to returning to an office because people have acclimatized to being at home. One contributing factor is that the COVID-19 pandemic had many employers and employees figuring out how to be very productive in a hybrid or completely remote setting.

So now, when we ask “When will we get back to normal?”, we realize that there will never be a “normal” again. There is caution about returning to what we knew as normal. The pandemic did not cause all the disparities we now see, it just magnified and exposed them. Workplace flexibility is a new currency when negotiating a job. Two or three years ago, flexibility was considered an accommodation. These conversations were impossible then!

The opportunity for us to re-imagine the workforce is hopeful for everyone, as it may open the gates for true equity, diversity, and inclusion practices. But will this new re-imagined workforce alleviate the talent drain that the labour force is experiencing? Will this be enough to encourage and invite people back into the workforce?

There have been all kinds of theories about why people have exited the workforce. One of the biggest life lessons coming out of the pandemic is that we do not need that much of anything! We all learned to be content with a little bit of everything at the height of the pandemic. Many of the job losses that exist resulted from contingent, part-time, temporary, or self-employment, in which women and men under twenty-five, new immigrants, and racialized people are over-represented. What are the incentives to attract people back to brick-and-mortar spaces?

Maybe the pandemic will escalate the redesign of jobs and careers. Some big questions remain. What will be the long-term effect of the redesigned labour force participation? Will the “New Re-imagined Labour Force” be the re-institution of the traditional division of labour? Will it have a lasting negative or positive effect on women? Does flexibility — working from home — change sufficiently to make a difference here, and if so, what scar will it leave?

What can be done? This is what we wonder, and we are still unable to make those long-term predictions.

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