It was the second week of the pandemic. Late March 2020. I was driving back home from the office, trying to figure out what this would mean for Denver Institute, and for my own work. As I headed south on Santa Fe, just across from Aspen Grove mall, I stopped at a stoplight. I could feel my scalp tingling, at the base of my neck. At that moment, I realized I was holding my breath. I put my hand over my chest. My heart was racing.
I could feel in my body the tension and anxiety of a changing world.
At a recent online event we hosted for nearly 200 people from all walks of life, 86% said they had felt deep anxiety in their work since the pandemic began.
The news cycle often drives this constant stream of anxiety, but rarely do we have a chance to really step back and take a look at the big picture and calmly evaluate our role in that big picture.
First, in this article, I’d like to give a wide-angle lens to how the pandemic has shifted our work on a macro scale in three main ways. Second, in a subsequent article, I’d like to narrow in on three systemic trends that I believe are here to stay, and ask both how we might understand them in light of our faith and what practices we might consider in response.
The first major change is dislocation. That is, nearly all of us have experienced some kind of uprootedness in our work. The most obvious is physical dislocation. Millions of offices emptied. Hotels, restaurants, children’s activities — literally, billions were ordered to go home. The places we worked shifted drastically. We lost a sense of place as those who could work in front of screens went home, and others had to find rides to work and mask up.
Also, millions actually moved homes. Pew reports about one in five Americans either moved due to the pandemic, or know somebody who did. We experienced new neighborhoods, but not necessarily new relationships. Our work and weekly rhythms were immediately interrupted.
We also were socially dislocated. By this I mean the obvious things: how do you now greet a co-worker? Fist bump? Elbow? Handshake? Or no touching at all? If you’re wearing a mask, should you still smile and say hello to somebody you walk past on the street? Does it matter if you smile? Is it possible to socially distance and remain relationally close?
How we interact with people at work and in our communities changed drastically in the course of just weeks, causing stress and uncertainty in a bobbing sea of unknowns.
The screens of the tech sector kept many industries going. And for that we can be thankful.
Yet the CDC reported that two in five Americans have faced real mental health challenges since the pandemic. Now millions are uprooted and placeless, grasping for norms even as we feel far from home.
The second change is major job loss and job change. Since February, the US has lost 9.8 million jobs. Before the pandemic, average unemployment claims were around 350,000 per week. At the outset of the pandemic, jobless claims spiked to 3.3M and 6.8M in less than 30 days. Even as late as mid-January 2021, 847,000 people still claimed unemployment in a single week, high above normal levels.
Some estimate over 30 million people lost their jobs (I’ve seen articles claiming anywhere from 22-40 million). Many of those people had to quickly find new work, change industries, or simply wait it out until businesses could re-open. Others never did find new work and dropped out of the workforce altogether. Low-income and minority workers in industries like retail and restaurants have been hit hard in particular.
About 100,000 businesses had to shut down due the pandemic, and 60% of them are estimated to stay closed. Just the other day, I headed to one of my favorite pubs here in Denver with my friends for a reading group, which I hadn’t visited since the pandemic. There was simply a sign that read: closed until further notice, March 2020. It was a stark reminder of an estimated 60,000 businesses that have gone under, and with them, the jobs they provide.
Losing a job can crush the spirit and cause deep pain and questioning. (Actually, Denver Institute just did an honest, emotional podcast on losing your job.) But if you either lost a job or had to change jobs, you’re in good company with millions around the US.
Third, entire industries were transformed. On a macro scale, just think of what we saw this last year.
The world of work has changed. And many feel deep anxiety and loss. Many feel overwhelmed and helpless.
What can we really do in such a tidal wave of change?
Editor's note: Part two of this series answers this question by looking at three systemic changes to our economy and how people of faith can respond to the changing world of work.
Jeff Haanen is a writer and entrepreneur. He founded Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a community of conveners, teachers and learners offering experiences and educational resources on the gospel, work, and community renewal. He is the author of An Uncommon Guide to Retirement: Finding God’s Purpose for the Next Season of Life and an upcoming two-book series on spiritual formation, vocation, and the working class for Intervarsity Press. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Denver and attends Wellspring Church in Englewood, Colorado.