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Lockdown was not a sabbatical

Don’t worry if you haven’t grown as a person during the pandemic.

A person’s hands knead bread dough on a table dusted with flour.
It’s okay if you didn’t learn to make bread.
Getty Images

Did you become a better person during the pandemic?

It’s a question many of us are being asked, in ways large and small, as more people get vaccinated, restrictions lift, and public life starts to return to some semblance of normal.

Sometimes the question is explicit, like when a job interviewer asks if you used lockdown to pursue “passion projects.” More often it’s implicit, present in stories about how to rearrange your “friendscape” after the pandemic or personal finance lessons to learn from the last year.

But overall, as our second pandemic spring turns into our second pandemic summer, there’s a certain pressure to have learned or grown as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, even if it’s still going on. The pressure is part of a larger tendency in American culture, some say. “When we’ve been through a traumatic experience, a lot of people try to rush to make meaning of that,” Joy Harden Bradford, a psychologist and host of the podcast Therapy for Black Girls, told Vox.

It’s also just the latest iteration of a narrative that’s been around since the beginning of the pandemic: that people should be using their quarantine time productively, whether that meant learning a new language, writing a play, or even starting a business. That narrative has always ignored the reality of pandemic life, during which many people did not have the luxury of staying home, and even those who did were often too anxious to pursue personal growth. “The pandemic has been hard for people,” David Blustein, a professor of counseling psychology at Boston College and the author of the book The Importance of Work in an Age of Uncertainty, told Vox. “It hasn’t been like a staycation.”

But the narrative that we should have learned and grown over the past year — potentially transforming ourselves into better workers for our employers — persists, and with it damaging expectations for how people process pain and trauma. If anything, some say, what we should learn from this year is to give ourselves and others space to heal in our own ways. Sometimes, “the lesson is that I survived,” Bradford said. “If that is all you took out of this, then really, that should be enough.”

The pandemic gave rise to new, weird kinds of productivity discourse

The pressure to be productive started almost as soon as the pandemic did. Time-consuming hobbies like baking sourdough bread became popular. Viral tweets told us that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined during a plague epidemic. Someone came up with the word “coronapreneur.”

The idea was that people — especially those lucky enough to be able to shelter in place during the pandemic — were supposed to be using this so-called free time to better themselves. The implication, as Vox’s Constance Grady wrote in April 2020, was: “Shouldn’t you be using this time to become more productive? Shouldn’t you be buckling down and writing a masterpiece or inventing a genre or discovering fundamental laws of the universe?”

Inevitably, there was backlash, with many people questioning whether an unprecedented public health emergency was, in fact, an ideal opportunity for self-improvement. “For many, this is neither a hygge snow day nor an extended vacation,” Michelle Ruiz wrote at Vogue last spring. “It’s a crisis.”

But the attitude persisted, with one hobby trend giving way to another (tie-dye!) and seemingly everyone offering pandemic productivity tips. And now it’s summer 2021, and at least in the US and Europe, vaccinations are up and cases are down. People are starting to use the phrase “post-pandemic” — even though the pandemic continues to rage around the world and unvaccinated people remain at risk. And the productivity discourse might be starting to shift slightly, toward the idea that the pandemic should have been a learning experience, helping us optimize our skills, our lives, and ourselves for post-pandemic living.

Take a recent New York Times story on how to manage friendships in a post-pandemic world. “The pandemic shook us out of our social ruts, and now we have an opportunity to choose which relationships we wish to resurrect and which are better left dormant,” Kate Murphy wrote. “Ask yourself: ‘Who did I miss?’ and ‘Who missed me?’”

The story was widely criticized, with many taking it to imply that perhaps overweight or depressed friends shouldn’t make the cut: “depressed friends make it more likely you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll become obese, and friends who smoke or drink a lot make it more likely you’ll do the same,” Murphy wrote in an original version. (The Times later edited the story and issued a note saying that references to studies of obesity and depression “lacked sufficient context and attribution and did not adequately convey their relevance to the issues discussed in the article”).

But the attitude that the pandemic should propel us toward better, smarter living isn’t confined to one how-to piece. With a quick search, you can find lessons from the last 15 months to help you with personal finance, investing, leadership, and more. And at least in some cases, employers seem to be embracing the idea of quarantine self-improvement plans.

“I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I’ve just been asked in a job interview if I used lockdown ‘to pursue any passion projects or personal development,’” Niall Anderson, who works at a university in Dublin, tweeted earlier this month. “The market really does want us all to think we’ve just had a generous sabbatical.”

His tweet quickly went viral, generating thousands of replies. Most, he told Vox in an email, expressed “comic incredulity,” while “a few Rise & Grind types showed up to say the question was entirely fair, as did — more worryingly — a few HR types.” The responses that struck Anderson the most, however, were the hundreds who said they’d been asked the same question.

“One of the reasons I tweeted about it in the first place was that it felt like such a grim novelty,” Anderson said: “I hadn’t seriously considered that it could be widespread.”

Workers are supposed to think of the pandemic as a growth experience — even though it isn’t over

It’s not clear how much the question Anderson encountered represents employer expectations more broadly. “There are always outlier employers who will ask all sorts of weird or inappropriate stuff — and those, of course, are the ones you’re most likely to hear about,” Alison Green, author of the work advice column Ask a Manager, told Vox in an email.

But there’s a larger norm at work behind questions like this, and behind the greater expectation that people could use lockdown to boost their coronapreneurial profiles. An obsessive focus on productivity is “part of late-stage American capitalism,” Blustein said. “This productivity ethos has gotten transported into our hobbies, it’s gotten transported into our relationships, into our physical and mental health.”

And it’s not just about productivity. The pandemic has intensified a pressure to internalize the demand for constant work, with people striving to use their time in marketable ways, even if no boss is telling them to do so. Anderson sees the question about quarantine “passion projects” as a symptom of “the universalization of the concept of management altogether, whereby everyone is encouraged to think of themselves as ‘CEO of Myself.’” Indeed, much pandemic productivity discourse has centered not on getting things done because your employer makes you, but on getting things done because you make you.

In a viral tweet last April, for example, marketing CEO Jeremy Haynes argued that if you didn’t use lockdown to learn new skills or start a business, “you didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline.”

The implication was that people should use the supposed extra time provided by quarantine to squeeze additional labor out of themselves, doing the work of capitalism without even being asked to do so. We’re so used to treating our time — our very selves — as a resource for the market that we do so even during a global crisis. And when a boss isn’t buying our time — when it’s allegedly “free” — we’re supposed to figure out a way to sell it on our own.

“I’ve been working with young people on the cusp of adulthood for the past two years, and the problems they’ve brought my way have all tended to revolve around perceived failures to be their own CEO,” Anderson said.

And now, on top of those pressures, we’re supposed to be our own CEOs during a pandemic, when more than 600,000 people have died in the US alone, and many more have been sickened, bereaved, or had their lives disrupted by the virus. For people who lost a loved one, and for health care workers and other essential workers who have been working under dangerous conditions, the pandemic has been a source of very real trauma. That’s especially true for Black, Latinx, and other people of color whose communities have seen the biggest impact from the pandemic and from the economic crisis, and who have been overrepresented among essential workers. “A lot of the lives that were lost were Black and brown people,” Bradford said. “Our communities have really been hit hardest.”

Meanwhile, even for those who’ve been able to work from home, the pandemic has not necessarily been a source of endless free time to pursue personal projects. For starters, there are the many parents who picked up additional child care responsibilities when schools and day cares closed their doors — often on top of working or looking for work (as of last fall, 65 percent of remote-working parents said they also had child care responsibilities while they were working, with a majority of moms saying those responsibilities were difficult to handle). Then there were the changes in daily life, from the closure of offices to the isolation of social distancing to the fear injected into once-ordinary tasks like grocery shopping.

“A transition is a source of anxiety for everyone,” Jessi Gold, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told Vox. And “we’ve just had a year of transition upon transition.”

You don’t have to look hard to find tips on how to turn even your anxiety into productivity. But for most people, stress just makes it that much harder — and slower — to get things done. As Blustein put it, “managing anxiety is time-consuming.”

“There’s nothing you’re supposed to get out of this”

Even though more than half of Americans have now received at least their first vaccination and some states have fully reopened — New York celebrated with surprise fireworks — that doesn’t mean the stress and worry are gone. Patients are still coming in with high levels of anxiety, as well as difficulty concentrating, Gold said. Throughout the pandemic, she added, “I’ve never had so many people who used to be on meds come back and ask for meds.”

Meanwhile, more than a third of eligible Americans remain unvaccinated, and racial disparities persist, with Black and Latinx Americans less likely to be vaccinated than white people. And billions of people around the world remain at risk — in many low-income countries, fewer than 1 percent of people have been vaccinated.

The pandemic isn’t over, its psychological effects certainly aren’t over, and it’s too soon, many say, to expect us to translate the pain of the last year into tidy lessons for the future. “There really hasn’t been enough distance,” Bradford said. “Sometimes when you rush to make meaning too quickly, you haven’t given yourself time to really sit with the feelings.”

“As a society, we don’t do well with grief, and processing what it means to have lost so many people,” Bradford added. Moreover, “we live in a culture where, for some reason, the goal is happiness” rather than sometimes being okay with just existing, Gold said. “We always need to be striving for the silver lining of everything.”

For people who want to, there’s nothing wrong with trying to reframe their experience of the pandemic in a positive light. That can be a coping mechanism for some people, Gold said. So can things like baking bread or taking up a new hobby. “Some of that has been people’s attempts to manage their own anxiety,” Bradford said. “It feels like, ‘oh, my gosh, the world is falling apart, I’m not in control of anything. Let me control the things I have control over.’

The problem comes when we face pressure — from friends, from prospective employers, or even just from a culture that expects every experience to be somehow productive — to swiftly transform the pandemic into an opportunity for learning or growth. “There’s nothing you’re supposed to get out of this,” Gold said. “If what you get out of this is, like, you’re breathing, congratulations.”

For those who don’t yet feel ready to find silver linings in the pandemic, the good news is that the last year has also intensified the backlash against productivity pressure and the drive to self-improvement. Throughout the pandemic, young people, especially, “have resisted this kind of push to work and be productive,” Blustein said, instead trying to “enjoy the moment and find things that are meaningful in their lives.”

Whether it’s people quitting their jobs rather than going back to the office or shifting their priorities away from career advancement, there’s evidence that the pandemic is causing some people to rethink their relationship to capitalism and American work culture. Now the question is whether this shift will be enduring and broad-based, supported by policies to create protections for workers and a true social safety net, rather than something confined to those privileged enough to have choices.

That, perhaps, would be a real silver lining — though one it never should have taken a pandemic to achieve.

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