Both the irony and the symbolism were evident as members of the California Future of Work Commission zoomed in last week to a virtual meeting, hastily rescheduled in the midst of an unfolding crisis.
The pandemic, and the recession all but certain to follow, threaten to pre-empt and overwhelm efforts to shape the future of work, and thus the future of — how to create good jobs, reduce poverty, redefine relationships and structures to narrow the enormous income inequality.
Thus the meeting became not only an experiment for doing business in a post-coronavirus world but also a conversation laden with doubts, fears and aspirations about how the future may evolve.
The coronavirus will have a silver lining if it serves as the impetus for constructive upheaval, in the way that the sudden forced reliance on telecommunication is already having an impact.
“We are conducting a natural experiment,” said Peter Schwartz, a futurist and member of the commission. “One we would prefer not to have conducted. But we’re going to learn the hard way, rather quickly and by necessity, everything that can be done remotely. We’re not going back to zero afterward. What do we learn out of all this in terms of how our society can change?”
As millions of college students — and their teachers — adjust to remote classes, will the universities continue to battle the idea of online education? If overcrowded jails in some places safely release inmates awaiting trial in order to mitigate the danger of widespread infection, will they go back to locking up those who cannot afford bail?
Will the 80,000 “super-commuters” in the Central Valley city of Stockton — more than a quarter of the population — return to their cars for daily multihour drives to the Bay Area?
Economic fault lines
The coronavirus has also exposed economic fault lines that were still too easy to ignore in peacetime. The 1 per cent wanted the homeless to disappear and the poor to stop stealing packages from porches and breaking into cars. San Franciscans placed boulders on the sidewalk to discourage the homeless from sleeping there.
Now the risks have become exponentially greater, and the connections more obvious. Infected food workers and Uber drivers who lack sick days can spread the disease to even the most well-off. Will the virus force an overdue reckoning with structural inequities built into a society that depends on a service class that can barely get by, even in good times?
Some see reason for hope. Saru Jayaraman, who has organised restaurant and other low-wage workers, pointed to the recent decision by the Darden Corporation, owner of Olive Garden, to reverse its long-standing position and give workers paid sick leave.
“All along they had said, ‘It’s not possible, it’s not possible, it won’t work.’ And suddenly, it’s possible,” said Ms. Jayaraman, also a Future of Work commissioner who runs the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “I just think a moment like this is an opportunity to do things that have needed to move for a very, very long time.”
No return date
Within the past week, six million children across California were sent home from school, with no return date. The state hastened to help devise plans to feed the 60 per cent of public-school students who depend on free meals at school. Three public college systems that educate almost three million students shut down and went online.
The California Legislature unanimously granted the governor authority to spend $1 billion on emergency measures, and then it took the extraordinary step of adjourning for almost a month — the first emergency shut down since the great floods of 1862.
“Shelter in place,” a phrase used until now to describe last-resort behaviour in disasters like wildfires, has become the new norm to cope with a catastrophe whose scope outpaces fast-moving fires.
Even when smog clouded that future so badly you could not see the skyline, people in places like California identified the culprit and led the way in imposing emission standards.
Last week, as the world sheltered in place and left freeways eerily empty, the air-quality map for Los Angeles was bright green. Perhaps that, too, can be part of the future.
— Miriam Pawel is a noted author