Opinion

What’s in store for the salaried post-Covid?

Sandip Ghose | Updated on August 31, 2020 Published on August 31, 2020

New reality: Dignity of labour will be at a premium   -  istock

For white-collar workers, the reshaped economy will mean not just right-skilling, but relocation and a flexible work attitude

A senior C-Suite corporate executive at a large Indian conglomerate put in his papers in the midst of the lockdown. At a time when people were holding on to their jobs for dear life, his decision to quit came as a shocker to his employers and colleagues alike. While peers speculated on possible reasons, he insisted the pandemic had changed his perspective. In fact, he urged some close friends to pause and reflect on their own life’s priorities.

Discussions on post-Covid life so far have been dominated by potential impact on jobs and the future of work. From thinking it is a temporary crisis that will blow over, there is a growing realisation that the problem is not going to disappear in a hurry. There are further apprehensions that even after the present pandemic recedes there is every possibility of further waves of corona or similar killer viruses. The spectre of biological warfare now appears real more than ever before. Life in the future could well be all about managing disruptions.

Extended period of remote working is forcing organisations to invest in digital infrastructure for virtual interface. As mental blocks and psychological barriers collapse — it will most certainly prompt rethink about the future of work even among the most traditional and conservative business houses. The first casualty is likely to be the office — that includes not just real estate, self-owned or rented, but also all support services and utilities that go with it. Next in line will be travel.

The fallout of these changes will come down like an avalanche upon the working population — causing large-scale displacement in the employment landscape. The reverse exodus of migrant workers during the lockdown started discussions on the implications of this shift in the unorganised labour market. But, similar conversations have not been heard about the organised sector and white collar workers — except for talks of headcount reduction and need for rapid re-skilling. However, the socio-economic impact of dislocation among the educated middle class can have equally serious consequences. As per various estimates over, 20 million jobs may be at stake besides possibilities of cuts in wages and perks.

India does not have a system of unemployment dole. There is no urban equivalent of MGNREGA or Ayushman Bharat. An EMI-backed culture of consumerism has up-traded lifestyles, which cannot be dialled down overnight. In our desi Maslow’s hierarchy of Roti, Kapda, Makaan — the last still remains a dream for millions of Indians. Thus, the “salaried class”, as they are called, will be pretty much left to fend for themselves in the aftermath of Covid-19.

The good news is that, as the economy gets back to a recovery path jobs will be created again. But it will not necessarily be in the same form or place. The reshaped economy will also bring with it new opportunities. Today’s white collar workers will have to anticipate these changes and proactively position themselves for the evolving scenario. This will call for not just right-skilling but also being present at the right place in the right time. The latter could mean active relocation and a flexible work attitude.

Two major changes can be predicted for the foreseeable future. First, from a traditional model of a principal “bread-earner”, families will look at other members to contribute to the household kitty. The shift to ‘work from home’ will allow the leeway for taking up a second job or additional freelance engagements. It will also open career and income options for home-makers, unlocking their hitherto untapped talent and unused academic qualification.

Second, Indians will have to stretch their active working life. Advances in medical science and greater awareness about wellness is already reflecting in longer life expectancy in India — which has gone up by nearly 30 years (from 40 to 70) in the last six decades. As a corollary to this, Indians will need to extend their income life-span. Rising cost of healthcare, education for children and superior lifestyle aspirations will not allow them the luxury of retiring at sixty.

Maximising earning capacity

Going forward, just as organisations will be looking at minimising costs and growing revenues by increasing their geographic footprint and entering new market segments taking advantage of the digital transformation sweeping the world, families will need to operate as a business unit to maximise their its earning capacity.

The challenges will be varied, according to age groups and stage of life or career. There are no easy one-size-fits-all solutions. Each segment will have to devise its own strategy without being fixated on outcomes. Dignity of labour will be at a premium. They will need to shed old prejudices and be open to new realities. Being agile and nimble footed will be key in the gig economy — which is likely to create most number of jobs.

Youngsters entering work life or starting professional careers will have to eschew the old template of life-time employment. Even “sarkari” jobs will not come with any ‘guarantee’.

Front-ending higher education with degrees may turn out to be a disadvantage. Parents would be well advised not to spend their life’s savings to send children to “coaching factories” for engineering and medical college admissions. Instead, the next generation will have to prepare for multiple changes of jobs — so would need to budget for re-skilling along the way and take sabbaticals for going back to school to learn new disciplines according to the needs of the time.

Those in mid-life and mid-career have the tasks cut-out for the entire family. This is a time when dual careers will thrive. As location becomes redundant in a digitally connected world, they will have the option to move to smaller towns not only to save costs but also to have a better quality of life. Work from home will open up new earning avenues such as distance teaching, virtual personal assistants and content creation.

As young parents realise, the premium placed on skills and creativity over pedigree and school labels in an egalitarian system, home-schooling may take off at the cost of expensive “international” and “public” schools. Here, the New Education Policy can also make a difference.

The most vulnerable set are, perhaps, those above fifty and nearing superannuation. By definition they would be relatively more expensive resources and constitute a significant chunk of the wage bill. So, in any restructuring exercise, this group of elders will attract disproportionate attention.

At this stage in life, they would also find it difficult to learn new skills. Given today’s cost of living few can afford to hang up their boots early. But, the fungible assets they carry are experience, maturity and wisdom. Packaging it smartly they can reinvent freelance careers even in the new ‘gig economy’. Planned well and timed right, this can take them far beyond the traditional retirement age and enjoy the work-life balance that they craved for while running on the corporate treadmill.

Perhaps, this is the choice the executive mentioned at the beginning of the article exercised. Whether he can make it work, in an ‘Atmanirbhar’ India, only time will tell.

The writer is a current affairs commentator

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Published on August 31, 2020
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