One thing about the pandemic and its consequences I am pretty confident about is that when the virus is properly under control more and more of us will continue to work from home. For knowledge-workers it just makes greater sense. Perhaps even for Wilson, as below:
I have had the great good fortune to have been able to work from home throughout my working life. At the time it was just the way it was. As a married postgraduate student with children I was able to live in a student apartment that had a sort of study built into it. Along with postgraduate study went my care of our first baby. Her mother went off to teach, and I looked after the infant until mum came back from school in the late afternoon. It was a good trade, and kept us in money. I did that for a year. The baby is now 60, and we have a special relationship.
When my wife and I finally had enough money to buy our first house I appropriated one of its rooms for my study. She did not object, at all. At the time she thought it was the right thing to do. I had hundreds of books already. I wrote all the time, books and learned articles for academic journals. I had a super-duper IBM golf-ball electric typewriter. I wrote editorial and opinion pieces for the local paper, and earned extra money that way. She was a high-school teacher of French, and used the dining-room table as her study. As time passed I began to realise that we all need a room of our own. When we moved to Sydney we bought a house that had been owned by another academic. It had a splendid study upstairs with views of the city, the bridge and the opera house. Of course, that was mine. We made a sort of a study nook for her off the bedroom.
The house we sold to come to this aged-care facility had two studies, one for me and one for my lady. It was still the case, however, that hers was also the place where we watched television, listened to music, and gathered with one or two others. We had another family room, and a living room, but this one had an ambience that was special.
I mention all this personal stuff because I came to learn over the years that women are as important as men, that wives are as important as husbands, and that each of us needs a space in our relationship and dwelling that is our own, to which we can retire and where we can read, think and write without interruption. In my case, especially as I gained more and more administrative and teaching responsibilities, such a place was crucially important, as was the time I could spend there. To go ‘to work’ was to be surrounded by demands to do this and that. Yes, all of that was important. My staff and students had needs too. But the thinking, the ‘intellectual’, the writing work could not be done in such an environment, which is why so many academics used their vacations to seal themselves off to try to cram into a few weeks all the research and writing that had had to wait while they taught, advised, marked and examined.
To cut to the present dilemma, people who can are doing their best to work from home, and those with children are also having to supervise and partner with teachers in what is now a kind of home-schooling. A harassed father with a rueful smile said on a TV grab that he now had a new respect for teachers. I do know what he meant.
Now for those who don’t have school-age kids, and even for those who do, there are things you can do around the house that break the flow of work, especially if you are working with a computer. Apparently the DIY business is doing well. I notice that the tradey utilities are still plentifully in evidence on the roads. And that takes me to another thought about how life has changed over the past century and a half. I start with Oxford in England, where I lived in the 1960s for part of the time in a large house, since demolished, which had been the home of the Haldane family. Upstairs were the servants’ quarters. There would have been a lot of them. In 1964/5 the place was a student warren. Heaven knows how much money the Haldanes had, but a maid cost about £20 a year, though you had to feed and accommodate her. The fellow of a wealthy college might have a stipend of £1000 a year.
Australian wages were distinctly better, but the difference still applied. A Commissioner for Lands might earn £3000 a year, but maids’ wages were not much better than those in the UK. The depression of the 1890s put a stop to all that, and the big houses that had absolutely depended on cheap domestic labour fell into disuse. In the first world war they became nursing homes for injured soldiers. Another depression and another war ended it all.
Then, as postwar Australia and England grew wealthier, and the middle class began to restore houses, domestic service came back in new forms, first the labour-saving devices like vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, gas and electric heaters, and so on. These were for your wife, and came with advertisements that showed a smiling young woman with her new gadget. (My favourite: ‘Don’t kill your wife with housework. Let ELECTRICITY do it!’) Then came the tradesmen, able to fix these new gadgets. After a while came the expert franchise. Gardeners, cleaners, electricians, plumbers, painters and restorers moved into being self-employed, rather than employees. They were much better, for the most part, than the work we could do as amateurs.
But we too got more skilled at these tasks finding, for many of us at least, that skill with the hands was a useful complement to our work with the mind. We began to do things that would have been unthinkable for a 19thcentury middle-class professional, though my father (1905-1992) was adept at anything that required the use of his hands, even though he was a mathematician. Money was tight, and you re-used anything you could. I picked up some of that sentiment from him, and dislike leaving waste of any kind. In retirement my wife and I bought and restored two coastal houses, leaving the really skilled work to a friend who made a good living out of being a multi-skilled handyman, but we did all the painting, clearing, cleaning and finishing. We loved it, though we didn’t make much money from our labours.
What will happen when the crisis is over? My guess is that some of what we have all learned to do, helping the kids with their studies, painting a room, restoring the garden, becoming a better cook — will stick but, slowly and probably painfully, we will return to the way things were before we had even heard of a coronavirus. Will we have learned well how to deal with the next pandemic? And what will happen to the push for globalisation?