I am part of the “zoom” class
As our world’s more prosperous and fully vaccinated countries like the United States begin to come out from the Pandemic, there’s a lot of talk about “the office.” I have been thinking about “the office” as I spent most of the week at our Pittsburgh office preparing for one of our artificial intelligence camps at Winchester Thurston by ReadyAI.
Many business executives say that they expect employees to split time between working from home and the office, according to the latest report by McKinsey. (Click here to read the report). Savvy entrepreneurs are even making special speakers for remote workers to feel like they are in the office even when they aren’t. They’re also sending them care packages and subsidizing part of childcare services.
I agree that office debate is an essential one. In fact, I am writing this piece from my home. But billions of people around the world, this debate is not relevant to their work and lives.
Mainly because billions of people have jobs that cannot be done from a distance, for example, giving haircuts, tending to seriously ill or injured patients, or serving food. Or, perhaps jobs in occupations like sanitation, farming, deliveries, or transportation are essential but not confined to any specific space.
The International Labor Organization estimates just 18 percent of the global workforce, or approximately 557 million people, were consistently teleworking during the Pandemic. (Click here to read the report). That’s triple what it was before COVID. But it still leaves over 2.7 billion people worldwide for whom the “back-to-the office debate” sounds like something from another planet.
Let’s not ignore that those 2.7 billion people and their families have been hit hardest by COVID in terms of hours and wages lost, emotional trauma, and destructive unemployment.
Today the division between the “Zoom class” and the rest of the world tracks some of the more obvious fault lines of inequality that cut across our communities and societies.
Today even in prosperous economies like the US, only a small portion of workers can telework consistently. Here in the US, it’s about a fifth. But the numbers are far lower in middle-income countries as the size of the “laptop class” or “Zoom class” plummets. For example, in India, where more than 470 million people work in retail for agriculture, only five percent can Zoom to the job. The numbers in Africa are alike.
Let’s think about this a bit further. This is because in-person services jobs are more prevalent in less developed countries – you are five times as likely to be a street vendor in a middle-income nation as you are in a wealthy one and 16 times as likely to work in agriculture. This is also about constraints on internet connectivity and internet services. Most countries don’t have the internet infrastructure to support massive teleworking populations. On top of that, many of these countries have also experienced the additional blow of losing remittances from their citizens working abroad in jobs that often aren’t “remote-workable.”
Also, high debt obligations and lack of cash mean that low and middle-income countries cannot roll out the kinds of unemployment benefits or infrastructure rebuilding programs that we’ve seen in the US or Europe. More flourishing countries have allocated up to 30 percent of their GDP to cushion the pandemic blow. but low and middle-income countries mustered less than six percent. (Click here to read the IMF report.)
The bad news is that Pandemic has put decades of poverty reduction in reverse. In 2020 alone, more than 120 million people fell below the poverty line globally, and the number of people living in extreme poverty rose for the first time in 24 years (since 1997). (Click here to read the report)
Today even in rich countries, non-remote jobs are overwhelmingly in lower-income, economically vulnerable professions. According to a recent Pew study, more than 3/4 of low-income workers in Americans can’t work from home at all. Non-remote jobs have higher proportions of women, ethnic minorities, and younger people – groups went into the Pandemic at an economic disadvantage. All suffered disproportionate financial losses during the crisis itself.
The Pandemic is far from over, but and many things need to be done. Globally, more prosperous countries need to look at the question of debt relief for cash-strapped developing nations. But even within more prosperous countries, better compensation and labor protectins for “essential workers” are genuinely essential.
It is nice to be out on the balcony applauding the essential workers and tweeting about them, but unless we start compensating them more, what happens if another pandemic comes around?