Real people, not robots: The pandemic is an opportunity to bring back old-fashioned jobs with a new narrative

Milkman

People everywhere are looking for jobs. Everyone knows someone who has had their job disappear or their hours slashed as COVID-19 rewrites our lives and livelihoods.

As the jobless rate climbs, the number of school-leavers applying for university next year also rises. That’s a challenge for policymakers, universities and families.

But perhaps, also, it offers an opportunity to change the employment paradigm; to align it more closely to those careers we value, and to bring back old-fashioned jobs with a new narrative.

Daily, early milk delivery in reusable glass bottles. A manned service station, where someone will check your oil, water and tyres. Real people to collect our tolls. Coffee vans, or even Prosecco vans, trawling the neighbourhood, stealing Mr Whippy’s thunder.

They’re the suggestions raised when someone asked this question to her followers on Facebook this week: “As people now find themselves out of work, what jobs would you happily pay to see come back?’’

The response was immediate and strong.

Other suggestions included ushers with a torch to stop you falling; real people, not robots, at the end of the phone; the ability to buy mixed bags of lollies at milk bars “where you agonise over how you will spend your 50 cents for half an hour’’.

Yes, we can dismiss it as nostalgia. Or we can think of how our communities have changed, and how we need to refashion our lives. We could consider how the need for connection with others is an almighty big gate to our health and wellbeing.

As restrictions ease in Victoria, the need to connect with others is a lesson for everyone. The lure of a hug. The need to see a grandparent. To value what we might have forgotten.

That word ‘value’ has been lost in the employment debate. But it’s where any new employment narrative should begin.

What is the value of a nurse? Because it’s a damn lot more than we pay them now.

The same with teachers, whose commitment to our children often mute their calls for better remuneration.

This pandemic has been a lesson in the importance of childcare workers and farmers and police officers too, whose workload has included a 10% increase in domestic violence call-outs. At no extra pay.

Barbers, brewers, cheese-makers, tailors, butchers and cartographers might also fall into the same category.

How about proper remuneration for those who care for the elderly or disabled?

Or recognition through permanent employment and salary for people who perform the valuable task of helping users navigate the maze of insurance claims/My Aged Care/telephone and internet plans and everything else that locks us in voicemail jail?

But instead of dancing around the minutiae, why don’t we disrupt our age-old employment model to consider the jobs landscape we need.

University is terrific for those whose hearts are set on jobs that need it.

But TAFE needs to be better funded for those whose pursuits are better served there.

Apprenticeships used to carry more value. So did service.

Before we heard of COVID-19, we were hearing a lot about the disruption to work from technology. By some estimates, up to 40% of jobs will go by 2030 and there’s been no serious coordinated plan for what to do about it.

What a shame and a scandal it will be if we don’t use the reset forced by the pandemic to have a good look at that.

We need to stop and think on how we reimagine the economy to spare a generation being condemned to gig economy jobs and the widening of the gap between rich and poor.

Around the COVID-19 cabinet table, our politicians are squabbling over state-of-origin politics and federation. They are cardinal issues.

But so too are the types of jobs that could rebuild our economy and our communities, the types of skills we’ll need in 20 years as well as two years, and the value we put on personal service.

More than ever, it should be obvious to us that the future can’t be robots replacing humans.

It might be easy to dismiss a milkman delivering to your front door, or a postie that also carries your lunch order.

But unless we look at the ‘value’ of those, and compensate them accordingly, we’ll rise from this pandemic with more of the same.

Or even worse, less of the same.

This is an edited version of an article first published by Crikey.

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