It was clear from the first days of lockdown to forestall the spread of coronavirus in the US that nearly every aspect of life would be transformed. But perhaps nothing was upended more than how — and whether — Americans work.
Some workers suddenly found themselves dubbed “essential,” code for working to keep the rest of society afloat under some of the most tense and dangerous circumstances of their lives. Meanwhile, tens of millions of other workers eking out livings in retail stores and restaurants would find their employment unceremoniously snatched away.
This month’s issue of The Highlight explores the state of work, and our cover story looks at what it means to be a small-business owner right now. What is ahead, says one expert, is “an extinction-level event” for the mom-and-pop shops and artists and independent retailers we’ve long mythologized as the embodiments of hard work and American entrepreneurship. Small businesses have been fragile since the Great Recession, their numbers declining for years as a result of unfavorable policies and the rising risk of doing business. The pandemic is wiping away many of those that remain.
Also in this issue, we look at the bumpy transition in the arrival of the long-awaited telework revolution. For remote employees, the toil of meetings and rare moments of deep work are now punctuated by shopping, video games, “comfort” TV, and “doomscrolling.” With a vast sea of employees now home for the foreseeable future, will “shirking from home” define the new workday?
And when The Office reached the end of its six-episode first season in 2005, nobody involved thought there would be more. The TV sitcom’s inner world is a little gray and drab, a bit like being devoured whole by a week of Mondays. But teens — who will most likely never work at a paper company — love it. Their parents, who might be worried about their jobs amid the economic collapse, love it. And right now, lots and lots of people are using the show to soothe anxieties both current and eternal.
Finally, we look at the prospects of the next generation, checking in with 2020’s graduating class about the future and exploring why the summer job has all but disappeared in recent years.
The failed dream of the American small business
Independent businesses were once pillars of communities, but economic and systemic forces had left many fighting for survival. Then came the pandemic.
by Laura Entis
Shirking from home
For remote employees, the toil of meetings and rare moments of deep work are now punctuated by online shopping, soothing puzzles, and training new pets.
by Eleanor Cummins
The enduring appeal of The Office in a crumbling world
How a nation engulfed by economic precarity turned a TV show about workplace drudgery into an aspirational fantasy.
by Emily VanDerWerff
Meet the 2020 grads entering the bleakest economy in decades
“I think about it every day, maybe even every hour.”
by Michael Waters
Whatever happened to the classic, teen summer job?
How summer gigs became a nostalgic relic of the past for many of today’s young people.
by Rainesford Stauffer