How Does the Corona Crisis Affect the Future of Work and Our View of It?

By Jürgen Kocka

As long as we do not know when and how the Corona crisis will end, its social consequences are impossible to predict. These consequences will be different in East Asia, the West, and the “global South”. Assuming a relatively controlled, but extended course of the Corona crisis, I propose some possible implications for the German labor market. I will develop them using two examples:

First, presently we are experiencing a jump ahead on the way towards more digitalization and into widespread working from home. These changes will not be fully turned back once the crisis ends. While the spatial and institutional separation of household/family and market-related work/labor was a secular and constitutive trend in the 19th and 20th centuries, market-related work (Erwerbsarbeit) is now returning into the family and household sphere, on a massive scale. This, together with digitalization, will change the space of family and household, making it less private, more regulated (since working from home will increasingly become an object of protective labor administration), and more differentiated within itself. On the other hand, work/labor is gradually being redefined by processes of de-institutionalization and individualization. It is therefore to be expected that the socializing (vergesellschaftende) effect of work/labor will further decrease, and work will become less important as a formative, collectivity shaping force in society. It is surprising that the unions, at least on the top level, openly support this trend (Recht auf home office), which will further reduce their base support and their power.

Second, contrary to what critics deplore, there has been no period of pronounced “neoliberalism” in the world of work/labor in welfare states like Germany in recent decades. Arbeit has been structured by a highly variable combination of market, state, and collective self-organization. The crisis is making this system more statist. While this change is not likely to be fully turned back in the future, two unintended consequences are likely to emerge, as long as we succeed in remaining an open society and a democratic community. On the one hand, there is a risk of overburdening the political system, which would lose legitimacy if it regulates too much (or rather: by being expected to regulate more and more). On the other hand, new or reinvented strategies of escape (or avoidance) might spread, as the rise of black markets for services and other forms of violating or circumventing regulations. This might be a field of conflict and lead to a strained search for a new balance. Work and politics have always been closely interrelated. They might get even closer.

Statements like “after the present crisis, everything will be different from before” that abound in the media are hardly sustainable. Against those who claim that the crisis is leading to a kind of slowing down (Entschleunigung), the two examples above suggest, on the contrary, that it is functioning as a kind of accelerator: speeding up processes of change long on the way. We would find similar patterns if we added the analysis of other aspects: e.g. increasing inequality; or the impact of growing anti-globalization sentiments and strategies on the world of work. This last point would lead us towards looking beyond the economically developed West and focusing on the varieties of “informal labor” in the “global South”. Such an extension of the analytical frame would be healthy.

This text is part of the #DossierCorona thread #workingfutures and was first published as part of the series “Wiko Briefs – Working Futures in Corona Times” of the Working Futures Network at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. The authors are members of the transnational network “Working Futures” or Fellows of the Wissenschaftskolleg.

Jürgen Kocka is Professor Emeritus of History, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam, and Permanent Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg “Work and Human Life Cycle in Global History” (re:work) at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He is a former Permanent Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and a member of the “Working Futures” Network at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

Further articles in the thread #workingfutures of the #DossierCorona on TRAFO:

Introducing #DossierCorona #workingfutures, 14 May 2020.

Lisa Herzog, How Can We Strengthen the Contributory Logic of Work?, 14 May 2020.

Martin Krzywdzinski, The COVID 19 crisis accelerates structural change in the world of work, 15 May 2020.

Elena Esposito, The Need for De-Integration in Pandemic Times, 18 May 2020.

Dirk Helbing, The Corona Crisis Reveals the Struggle for a Sustainable Digital Future, 21 May 2020.

Laure de Verdalle, “Useful”, “Indispensable”, “Essential”: Is the Health Crisis Changing the Categories With Which We Consider Professional Activities?, 25 May 2020.

Citation: Jürgen Kocka, How Does the Corona Crisis Affect the Future of Work and Our View of It?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.05.2020,

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