Corona Diaries 32: End Of Happy Days For The Professional Class; Dark Tunnel Ahead
Shed a tear for the professional class. No brainstorming over economic revival after the pandemic shock appears to have it in the picture. Not many pundits and politicians are talking about this faceless lot. These are people whose specialised skills and knowledge play a big part in keeping the economy juggernaut moving. The cubicles, desks and computers they share power corporate behemoths, start-ups and everything in between. And, they also have lives to take care of.
Not a single day passes without bad news. A friend has lost his job. One had to accept a huge paycut. Another knows his days in office are numbered; he will be out after the appraisal process is over. Most know that the axe is inescapable — if it doesn’t happen now, it would sometime later. Even if they survive, some are aware, the modicum of comfort their jobs earned would be gone forever now. In some cases, both couples are out of work. Everyone is in dread of that call from HR. These are truly dark days. It was never this bad.
Most of them have rent to pay, EMIs to service, education of kids to take care of, send money to old parents and insurance policies, if they have any, to set money aside for. Whatever is left as saving is hardly enough to see them through beyond a couple of months of no income. Parental support is a blessing for some, but not for the huge majority. Going back to the state of origin is not an option, because the hope of a decent job is even more bleak there. Their desperate calls to friends and acquaintances to find a job, whatever the salary, or a loan, in short, resound in the misery of this class.
We don’t call them middle class deliberately, because middle class is hard to explain in the Indian context. Economists certainly don’t give a clear picture. Several estimates based on several yardsticks put 1 to 40 per cent of the population in this bracket. That is a huge range, and we won’t know where to fit in many layers of professionals. For our convenience, we define it as people working in different establishments and drawing monthly salaries.
The lockdown has not been easy for the salaried people, and with companies eager to downsize to cut costs, the future appears grim. Why do they go under the radar all the time?
MIGRANT LABOURERS WITH A GLOSS
Our mental construct of migrant labourer is framed by our own sense of superiority. It’s time we — professionals in cities — changed that. While imagining them as uneducated, low-skilled, poor, shanty-dwelling people, we tend to forget that most of us belong to their tribe too. Take out the gloss of lifestyle and language, we are no different. Similar circumstances force us out of home states. The workplace can be harsh for both. The income level may be higher in our case but working conditions can be equally exacting. Jobs are insecure in both cases — protection under the law is a sorry little joke that’s cited once in a while but means zilch.
The pandemic-induced lockdown has exposed the vulnerability of both. Once the safety of the job and the cushion of saving gone, all are in the same boat. We may not make the long trudge home in tattered slippers, but a more sophisticated version of the flight back is never out of our minds.
INTO THE LONG, DARK TUNNEL
We appear headed into a long phase of insecure jobs and low earnings. That is if one has landed a job. For those on the wrong side of age demography, the possibility gets narrower.
Now, what does a job do? It helps one plan life. There are things to do in your 30s, 40s and 50s. The assurance that the job is a constant helps people’s decisions on marriage, children, their education, a car, a home of one’s own and finally, life after retirement. Choice of lifestyle also rides on stable earning. In fact, every single important event in person’s life revolves around this.
Some economists say there would be a proliferation of low-end jobs while the top jobs would get limited to a few. The middle space, where careers take progressive steps and financial stability of individuals concerned consolidates over time, would shrink. Now that governments are becoming more open to hire-and-fire policies and companies are looking towards artificial intelligence for low-skill work, the sense of insecurity is bound to be higher. From an economic perspective, it means people would save more for bad days and shun avoidable consumption. There would be corresponding downgrading of lifestyle too (this we save for an article later).
To sum up, the post-pandemic situation would hit the general predictability of life hard.
CASE FOR BASIC MINIMUM INCOME
If the private sector has to flourish, the argument goes: the archaic labour laws must go. Indeed they should. They have helped neither the workforce nor industries. However, any consideration of a more flexible hire-and-fire policy and revision of other laws governing labour as sought by private players must include the provision of safety net for the employees too. The onus lies squarely on the state. It represents people and cannot be seen to be bereft of empathy for them.
Poor labourers have schemes such as MGNREGA to fall back on during distress, what do their polished versions in supposedly superior professions have? The idea of legally assured basic minimum income is worth considering as is the concept of unemployment dole already in place elsewhere in the world.
Perhaps the initiative should come from the professional class itself. But is possible only when its members drop their silly sense of superiority and acknowledge that not much separates it from the underclass. The gloss of a job goes off in no time, but what matters really is running a life.