Will COVID-19 democratize our view of work?

In the eight weeks since I have been working from home full time, the questions I ask myself — in the COVID diary that details the roiling emotions of living with a lurking, faceless menace — have ranged from Can I stand this? (boredom) . . . to Will I be furloughed for the summer? (fear) . . . to the current one: What is professionalism anymore, anyway?

What does it mean to be a team member, a productive human being, when the foundation of your work life is gone? When the human resources department judges you to be non-essential? When you have been banned from your workspace?

Still, I count myself lucky.

My brother, a marketing executive with an MBA from MIT, was furloughed only months before his older son begins college. My backyard neighbor, a public relations professional, lost his job — and his family’s health insurance — at 66. My younger son, who works behind the meat counter and in the sausage-making operation of Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis, has more job security than any professional I know. Yet, he seethes at being called essential. Even though he appreciates the federally funded $2-an-hour raise, he is cynical about the sidewalk chalk messages and other public displays of affection for nurses, bus drivers and grocery workers. “I was never considered essential before,” my son tells me.

(I recall, with some shame, how I’ve explained to friends whose kids have graduate degrees and corporate positions that my grown sons are a bartender and a grocery worker, respectively, that they’re hard workers but apparently lack my “career gene.”)

Another neighbor, age 63, who was let go from her position as a college bookstore manager, tells me she has lost her identity. She’d look for another job, but what would she find during a pandemic? (And what would she find at her age?)

I went through similar angst this spring as I waited to hear whether I would be furloughed for the summer. (I escaped, but no one’s safe at 62.) Work was all I could think about, even as it threatened to go away. The pragmatic — How will we manage financially? — intermingled with the existential, the philosophical: Who will I be without my job?

Be gentle with yourself and with everyone else around you. Everyone is experiencing this heightened anxiety, this uncertainty, all together.

Susan Jackson, news editor, LinkedIn

The confusion and uncertainty I felt when I began working from home is ever present. Here I sit, day after day, perched alone on a hard chair at a small wooden table nudged against a wall in my bedroom and reading room, less than a mile but a world away from my sunny, third-floor office overlooking Summit Avenue on a vibrant college campus.

  • What is it to be professional without the trappings of professionalism?
  • Will the coronavirus ultimately blur the class distinctions that smugly separate us at work?
  • When Randy, the janitor — the building engineer — is more essential than a college-educated, director-level, white-collar professional, where does that leave us careerists for whom work is both ego and identity?

With questions.

What does professionalism look like?

Laugh if you will, and my Millennial sons do, but when I started my first full-time job in 1982, I bought a blue suit, with a bow tie and an off-white blouse. My uniform today — two months into my COVID-imposed sentence of working from home — is old jeans, baggy yoga pants, running or walking shoes and athletic vests or sweatshirts. I haven’t worn earrings or makeup in weeks. My closet full of work clothes looks like costumes from another era, a time when “dressing for success” demonstrated loyalty and earnest intention. Will I ever dress that way again, in trim wool slacks and scarves and blazers and (only when I had to) modest heels?

Nowadays, advice for appearing professional borders on the ridiculous: Wear pants during a Zoom call. (Oh, and the obvious: Don’t day-drink.)

I wonder whether what I long have considered professionalism — dressing up, deference to authority, duty above everything — will change now that many of us are living and working in the same space, now that our personal lives are a stronger presence in our workdays. Yes, I am still working, and I’m grateful for that. But two months into officing from home — an arrangement that suits neither my personality nor my job as a community relations professional — I am seeing shifts in the role that work plays in my life, in what I value, in how I want to spend my time.

Cooking for my family, donating time and money to causes where I can, giving my son rides to work so he can avoid being enclosed on a public bus, staying physically active: These actions are now the cornerstones of my day, and what I wear or how I look has ceased to matter.

How can home feel like an office?

I started a Microsoft Word doc the first day I worked from home last March, and for the first couple of weeks I wrote down any little rule that came to me, from the obvious to the previously undiscovered.

Weeks later, in the face of record unemployment and furloughs among my friends, the self-help tips seem like a luxury not afforded to people equally:

  1. Get up and get dressed in the morning (easy for me, as an early riser).
  2. Call a colleague every day whom you otherwise might have run into on the job.
  3. Move your computer to a different room to combat Zoom fatigue when your calendar is overloaded with meetings. A new view can spark a better attitude.
  4. Recognize that almost no one sits at their desk for eight hours straight each day. Doing dishes or sweeping the floor or making a fresh pot of coffee are the home-based equivalent of wandering down the hall for inspiration.
  5. Don’t let “fear of firing” alter how you’ve always done your job.

Because I answer phone calls and texts and emails when they come in, which is often nights or weekends, I have never worked a standard weekday schedule. I remind myself that it’s OK to talk to a friend or take a walk or ride my bike midday. Microsoft Teams, with its colored buttons to indicate “available” (green) or “busy” (red) or “appear away” (yellow) need not tie me to a conventional schedule that doesn’t suit how my work works.

How can we value all employees?

I was raised by white, middle-class parents in an era of white, middle-class exceptionalism. Though I raised my own sons on the saying that “all work is honorable,” pointing out examples of postal workers or waitresses who did their jobs well, in truth I valued the professional class over any other. A career was freedom to me, a chance to support my family as my father had done, to have a life as different from my homemaker mother’s as society and my own ambitions would allow.

Now, the lingering coronavirus shows me anew the privilege inherent in that upbringing, in those beliefs. I had access to college and to interesting, well-paying jobs, just as I have access now to a decent income while working from a safe and well-appointed home.

COVID-19 “has become a disease of the vulnerable,” writes a critical care doctor in the New York Times. Minnesota has experienced more than 24,000 positive cases and topped 1,000 deaths, and yet the disease has not touched my family or circle of close friends. How is that possible?

  • I live in a modest, middle-class house with one other person that might squeeze in six people in a lower-income neighborhood.
  • I work for a university that responded to the virus swiftly, based on data, and reshaped its human resources policies to allow most of us to work from home.
  • I live among educated people who follow reputable news sources and who recognize the long-term gain of having their freedoms curtailed for now.
  • I have so many face masks that I keep one in my kitchen cupboard, one in my car, another in my purse, one in my bike bag.
  • I have employer-funded healthcare coverage.

Everyone wants answers: When will life return to normal? Will my career ever look or feel the same? Here’s what I know: Being professional doesn’t make me special. It makes me fortunate, born into circumstances I did not earn, with opportunities denied others because of race or class.

A dose of humility would do us good. It might also reconcile us to the radical uncertainty in which we are always living.

Dr. Mark Lilla, New York Times

Yes, I work hard. I always have. But the equality — and equity — for all workers that I claim to seek will happen only when folks like me do more than contribute money to good causes or deliver Meals on Wheels during a pandemic. It will begin when I ask my employer to reinstate my 5 percent COVID-19 pay cut toward the wages of an hourly employee and when I look my son the grocery worker in the eye and say: I’m proud.

Why 'older' can be a strength during the Coronavirus crisis

The first inkling that society sees me as vulnerable during the Coronavirus pandemic — as older or weaker, as potentially infirm — came with a reminder from Union Park District Council that any board or committee member over age 60 could skip in-person meetings without penalty. (For the record, all meetings now are digital, and yes, my younger colleagues taught me Zoom.)

The next hint was the notice from grocery stores such as Lunds & Byerlys and Whole Foods that I am eligible to shop with others past 60 during the first hour of business, after the stores have been freshly cleaned and before hard-to-stock items have run out.

Because I recently — and sanctimoniously — urged one of my sisters to start writing a daily gratitude list as an antidote to anxiety about the falling stock market and the drip-drip erosion of freedoms in our daily lives, I have reflected on how being 62 helps me weather the uncertainty of a COVID-19 world, where every day the headlines scream a new disaster.COVID-19_blog

We Baby Boomers were trained to use the telephone.

Talking on the telephone is a learned skill, one that my generation was taught to value (unlike the Millennial who told me he would consider it an “intrusion” if someone called him to check in). It’s convenient, of course, that my iPhone allows me to check two email accounts, post to social media, pay my bills, watch silly videos and listen to podcasts. But it is my phone’s use as just that — a phone — that is tethering me to friends and family as I shelter in place.

This past Saturday, I had an impromptu call with my sister in Denver, who lives alone since her husband died a year ago. My friend Sara and I turned a coffee-shop date into an hour-long telephone call. My childhood friend Janey and I each will fix breakfast this week and then “eat together” while we talk on the phone. Not ideal or what we originally planned, but good enough.

I’m OK with time at home; in fact, I crave it.

Even before Minnesota Governor Tim Walz declared a “peacetime emergency” and limited public gatherings to 10 or fewer people, I was spending the majority of my nonworking evenings at home during the frigid months of January and February: reading, trying new recipes, watching Netflix, following the Democratic debates. My see-and-be-seen partying days (and nights) are long behind me, so staying home more — though a drag during my current staycation, when I wanted to see films and art exhibits, take day trips and explore the city — is not that big a sacrifice or change.

I am practiced at daily exercise.

My yoga studio has shuttered. The athletics and recreation facility at the university where I work is locked up tight. That leaves yoga on my living room floor, with my younger dog, Gabby, licking my face during Savasana, or lifting weights in my basement while half-listening to the bleak news on CNN. Morning dog walks and 2-mile jogs keep me moving around outdoors.

Contrary to stereotypes about people my age, I never have to convince myself to move. Decades of experience have shown me that exercise always strengthens and sustains me. Lately, it also helps keep fear at bay.

Home officing may moderate my Boomer workaholism.

However productive I may be at home, I am simply not going to work as many hours now that nighttime meetings are via Zoom, hallway conversations with colleagues have been eliminated and the events I was to be co-leading for our students this spring — including Day at the Capitol and “Get Counted” Census 2020 workshops — have been cancelled.

A generational differences chart from 2008, though dated, shows how working less may enlarge my life. Described as “competitive” and “ambitious,” Boomers have “traditionally found their worth in their work ethic.” That is me, the mother who willingly ceded at-home parenting to her husband, the “tireless” employee whom one manager called her “gold standard,” the breadwinner who took her responsibilities so seriously that work always came first.

These days I am connecting more with friends, urging my sons to stop by for homecooked food, reviving my sagging spiritual life and learning that a less calendared existence yields a calmer, less chaotic perspective. Motion does not equal meaning. Community and collaboration more than personal achievement will get me — get us, together — through this crisis.

Minnesotans, older women define year-end giving

In this season of giving — and shopping and spending — year-end appeals stuff my mailbox and e-mail in-box from nonprofit organizations and political causes that are making a difference, that deserve my donation.

Their creative approaches both amuse and annoy me:

  • Governor Tim Walz’s dog, Scout, sent an appeal to “keep Minnesota blue,” which I took to be a program for clean water, but it turned out to be a fundraising campaign for the governor’s One Minnesota initiative. Since Scout is a rescue pup — a cause dear to my heart — I hung onto the e-mail for consideration. (Plus an earlier message from Walz’s finance director shamed me into seeing that I had contributed nothing in 2019.)
  • The one I will ignore, though the subject line grabbed me, is Jane Fonda’s appeal to support the re-election campaign of Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey. Given that I had to Google who he was, I decided to keep my dollars local.
  • Prairie’s Edge Humane Society in Northfield, Minnesota, where I adopted my sons’ childhood dogs, Skip and Lucy, prepared a letter to Santa from a different animal every day for its “12 Days of Giving.” Because I appreciate the opportunity to donate supplies as well as money and am touched by the animals’ stories (including an obese dog named Root Beer abandoned last summer at age 7 and now nursed back to better health), I plan to give something.

This time of year, “we work harder to share stories that resonate with the majority of our donors,” says Mary McKeown, president and CEO of Keystone Community Services in St. Paul, whose food mobile helps address food insecurity at the University of St. Thomas, where I work, and Hamline University, where my sons earned their degrees.

Mary McKeown

Mary McKeown, Keystone Community Services

Days after I already had mailed a check, Keystone’s year-end appeal arrived at my home. The story that McKeown promised featured Jean, who “has worked hard and supported herself independently her whole life,” but who had to quit her job because of emphysema. (It could happen to any of us, right? Who isn’t living paycheck to paycheck?)

I drive Meals on Wheels and serve on a strategic planning task force for Keystone. That means more to me than Jean’s story because I see firsthand the good that this organization does.

“We’ve never bought donor lists,” says McKeown, who also happens to be my neighbor, increasing Keystone’s hyper-local appeal. “We’ve just been thoughtful about how to establish a year-round relationship with our supporters. So, when they’re making that choice, out of all the envelopes in front of them, they think: I know Keystone, and I know what they’re doing with my money.

Who gives, and why?

Minnesotans are the most generous people in the nation, donating more money and time than other Americans, according to a poll released in December by WalletHub, a personal finance website. And the “average donor,” McKeown says, is a 68-year-old woman less interested in “experiences,” as younger adults tend to be, than in giving money back to her community.Blog_MSP volunteering

As a female, 62-year-old, lifelong Minnesotan, I am thus a prime target. So, which of the many worthy appeals — from Move Minnesota, the Elizabeth Warren campaign, the Animal Humane Society, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation — will grab my attention, and my wallet?

This year I relied more on data than emotion, reviewing my checkbook for 2019 and listing every cause to which I had donated money throughout the year, from $10 a month recurring payments to one-time gifts of over $100. The patterns were eye-opening:

  • Female political candidates, including Warren, garnered the highest number of donations, though not always the greatest amounts.
  • “Green” is a value and a practice in my household, so in addition to regular, small donations to the Nature Conservancy and the Arbor Day Foundation — which inexplicably sent us trees to plant in early December — my husband and I gave our largest one-time gift to Environment Minnesota.
  • Public radio, public television and local food co-ops such as Seward — whose hiring practices demonstrate its commitment to diversity — get my membership dollars, but I am using their services, so those monthly contributions don’t really count as donations.
  • The women’s health organization to which I consistently give my time received no money until the “matching gift” plea showed up on Facebook and in my e-mail after Christmas.

Turns out, Minnesotans “love a deal,” McKeown says. A marketing director from Best Buy, one of the Twin Cities’ 17 Fortune 500 companies, serves on Keystone’s board. Originally from Atlanta, he tells McKeown that Best Buy markets differently in Minnesota to appeal to our bargain-hunting ways.

That’s why matching-gift appeals are so popular at the end of the year, she explains, even though it’s a heavy-spending season: “Someone who would give $100 may give $150 because they’re getting a match.”

Seventy-four percent of Minnesotans describe themselves as “somewhat” or “very religious.” That matters, too, especially in a state that is still primarily Christian. At a national conference in October, McKeown learned that year-end philanthropic appeals relate less to tax benefits — which are shrinking anyway — than to the tradition of being generous at Christmastime to your church.

The last three days of December are “the three busiest days for donations each year,” according to GiveMN, which promotes philanthropy in Minnesota. National data show that 12 percent of all gifts are made between December 29 and 31.

The handwritten list of where I donated money this year is less a budgetary tool than it is a list of values: from feminism and political engagement to environmental advocacy, animal rights, and supporting local shops and farmers. I am privileged, and it is a privilege to give.