clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Welcome to the Work Issue of The Highlight

Small business was already risky — then came Covid. Plus: distracted at work, swaddling ourselves in “The Office,” and 2020 grads on their prospects.

Small businesses that at first shuttered during the early days of the lockdown have remained closed even as cities have begun to reopen their economies.
Marcus Russell Price for Vox

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.

Marcus Russell Price for Vox

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

A person sitting at a desk with a child in their lap. Getty Images

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

Glenn Harvey for Vox

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

A person wearing a graduation gown and mortar board and facemask sits in the back seat of a car and holds up a diploma. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Meet the 2020 grads entering the bleakest economy in decades

“I think about it every day, maybe even every hour.”

by Michael Waters

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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

Future Perfect

How the US is preparing to fight — and win — a war in space

Even Better

How to make your anger work for you

Future Perfect

We have treatments for opioid addiction that work. So why is the problem getting worse?

View all stories in The Highlight

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.