How the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected American Workers — and What’s to Come

Businessman discussing work on video call with team members.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped not only the way we work, but the way we think about work and life priorities. From the Great Resignation to the Great Reshuffle (and the rise of hybrid workplaces), the labor landscape has morphed — and both employers and workers need to adapt to these new conditions.

A recent Bain report titled “The Working Future: More Human, Not Less,” notes that the pandemic forced people to reflect on what they want their work to look like — and what role they want it to play in their lives. In fact, 58% of workers polled — from across 10 major economies — feel the pandemic has forced them to rethink the balance between their work and their personal lives.

The report has identified five key themes that are reshaping work. First, motivations for work are changing, as gains in living standards over the past 150 years are allowing us to spend less of our time working. However, said gains are also raising expectations concerning what a job should provide in return for our time and efforts.

“As the world has become richer, workers have increasingly shifted their focus from survival to meaning, with profound implications for how we think about work,” the report noted.

The second theme is that beliefs about what makes a “good job” are diverging.

Additional themes covered by the Bain report include the fact that automation is helping to rehumanize work. Distinctly human advantages — around problem solving, interpersonal connection, and creativity — are growing in importance as automation eliminates routine work.

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“Business leaders need to recognize that their personal perspective of what a good job looks like won’t necessarily be shared by everyone in their organization, especially those on the front lines,” the report read, in part.

Technological change is also blurring the boundaries of the firm — remote and gig work are on the rise, but they are challenging firm cohesion, the report notes.

Finally, the report finds that younger generations are increasingly overwhelmed, and, especially in advanced economies, are under mounting psychological strain that spills over into their work lives.

“Younger workers have also been exposed to broader turbulence over the past decade, including greater political polarization, geopolitical tensions, and concerns about climate change, not to mention a pandemic. The lives of younger generations are characterized by a far higher degree of ambiguity and uncertainty — and they simply haven’t been educated on how to cope with it,” the report indicated.

Of all these issues, the economic stressors matter most to young workers.

“When we asked workers across Western markets to share their biggest concerns for the next 5 to 10 years, 61% of respondents under 35 cited financial issues, job security, or failing to meet their career goals. Only 40% of those over 35 cited the same concerns,” the report suggested.


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