British research firm Crosby Textor ran a survey last month across various world geographies. Worries about job losses were the highest in India as 86 per cent of those surveyed feared losing their jobs and livelihood post-Covid-19 lockdowns. In comparison, this fear is only 31 per cent in Britain, 33 per cent in Australia and 41 per cent in the US; and yes, a reasonably high 71 per cent amongst Hongkongers.
India today has a population of about 138 crore. Of this, about 75% or about 100+ crore are said to be in the working-age, usually calculated at above 15 years. Taking the broadest definition of employment to include any kind of paid work, formal or informal – salary, daily wage or self-employment, in February 2020, pre-coronavirus pandemic and the national lockdown, about 40.4 crore Indians were employed, as per CMIE. At that point, 3.4 crore were estimated to be unemployed. The CMIE report, two weeks into the lockdown flagged some alarming numbers. The CMIE estimated that only 27.7 per cent of the working-age population (103 crore, by the report) was employed soon after the lockdown began. That translates to 28.5 crore. So, within two weeks, the number of gainfully employed came down from 40.4 crore to 28.5 crore, a drop of 11.9 crore. That in effect means that about 12 crore Indians lost employment in the first two weeks of the lockdown itself. If, say, 8 crore of these are the main or the only earner of their family, then one-third of the country’s 25 crore households (GOI figures from 2011) are today facing a livelihood crisis. Add to that the 3.4 crore who were in any case unemployed before the virus hit us. And you know how utterly dismal the situation really is.
Just to complete the picture, sector wise employment in the non-agriculture sector is: 72 per cent of the casual workers are engaged in construction, 14 per cent in manufacturing and 12 per cent in other services; about 12 per cent of the self-employed are engaged in trade, hotel and restaurants, 10 per cent in manufacturing, 5 per cent in transport, storage and communications sectors and 4 per cent in other services. Among the regular or salaried workers, 22 per cent work in manufacturing, 14 per cent in trade, hotel and restaurants, 13 per cent in transport, storage and communications, and 8 per cent in finance, business and real estate etc.The sad part of today’s reality is that the job losses are going to be across the board, across levels, across industries and across geographies. Some maybe less in sectors like IT and ITES, and more in travel, tourism, aviation, hospitality and food. Also retail. Most likely manufacturing too. But the impact is going to be near universal.
So far in this Future Shock series I have covered possible change, and trends, post the pandemic. In this piece, it is not change that we are going to be discussing. We are headed into a discussion on human despair, despondency, dejection, dread, devastation, and destruction … of not just dreams, but real lives. This essay is not on just jobs and careers and possible changes that are in store, but really on the carnage the virus will leave behind in its wake and how humankind will combat (if it will) the flattening out of the economy, which will create its own set of problems in hunger, disease, deprivation, social unrest, homelessness, and more. In Alvin Toffler’s book from which this series derives its name, Toffler talks about copability becoming more important than capability in the times to come. In the job market of tomorrow, both capability and copability will become of paramount importance as jobs change, work changes, working spaces change, compensation changes, work hours change and work availability itself becomes a source of stress and anxiety.
Accenture has put out a report on outmaneuvering uncertainty and navigating business through insights paired with tangible actions to turn the massive complexity of this pandemic into meaningful change. Some of the points made, vis-à-vis how business organizations will try to traverse overwhelming, competing challenges and uncharted waters can define for us how jobs will get re-architectured and re-configured to stay in sync with the resetting of the world.
– The journey to agility. Accenture says that organizations will want to build competencies they wish they had invested in before: to be more digital, data driven, and in the cloud; to have more variable cost structures, agile operations and automation; to create stronger capabilities in e-commerce and security. This agility will be the core to the future.
– Redefined, reskilled, redeployed – the resilient workforce. The post Covid organization will look to doing many concurrent initiatives … predicting demand shifts, assessing skill profiles, connecting workers at scale sometimes even through highly unlikely alliances, create platforms for accelerated learning, and nurture and foster shared resilience. The effort will be to try and simulate future challenges, and try to get the organization, especially the human resources to measure up.
– Reset for a new mindset. Companies are starting to re-evaluate how contact centres should be leveraged, how employees deliver relevant consumer experiences, and how digital channels can be used to support business continuity through the crisis and beyond. Companies are also considering the impact of these changes on the way they design, communicate, build and run the experiences that people need & want.
– De-risk to build an ‘intelligent enterprise’. Becoming an Intelligent Enterprise means shifting from top-down decision-making, empowering teams guided by purpose, driven by data, powered by technology and enabled by cloud for faster speed to market. It calls for razing rigid structures that emphasize territory and control, and creating a porous organization with modules that plug and play. The Intelligent Enterprise is capable of dynamic self-management and continual adaptation. It is built for agility, resiliency and growth.
– Survive, then thrive. Companies are faced with short-term liquidity challenges, as also the need to look at costs and profitability. Funds are also needed for investments in new opportunities, including M&A. Faced with plummeting sales and revenues, and increased costs, interventions are needed in key technologies, processes and people. Actions taken now can have an immediate impact on the survival of the enterprise, and how quickly it rebounds from the global downturn.
– Building the strength to succeed in a ‘never’ normal world. As businesses juggle a range of new systems, priorities and challenges― business continuity risks, sudden changes in volume, real-time decision-making, workforce productivity, security risks―leaders must act quickly to address immediate systems’ resilience issues and lay a foundation for the future. Leaders are recognizing resilience as a key success factor. Once we reach the other side of this pandemic, it will be important to establish long-term strategies for greater resilience and to apply lessons learned from the experience to create a systems and talent roadmap that better prepares the company for future disruptions.
Going forward, what are the industries most likely to survive the pandemic without too much damage or losses? Well, the list is not very long, but still holds out hope. IT & ITES (as mentioned before), News & Entertainment, Finance & Banking, Pharma, Touchless & Homebody Economy, FMCG, BFSI, Online Education and Remote Learning are likely to be impacted less as industries. There will be changes, cataclysmic changes in structure and service, but loss of jobs will be minimal. In IT & ITES, lots of jobs will move to work from home (WFH) with new protocols and higher security levels, but jobs by-and-large will remain protected. Just to also elaborate what Touchless & Homebody jobs mean – services like broadband, home delivery, online gym classes, even meeting apps all are touchless homebody services which have largely survived the pandemic and will most likely rebound to even higher levels than earlier.
So let us look at the broad trends in jobs, careers, work spaces, work culture, skilling, learning-unlearning-relearning, and the choices that lie ahead:
1. Severe loss of jobs. No apologies. From India to Italy, Germany to Ghana, coronavirus lockdowns have closed businesses and kept billions of people homebound for weeks, provoking a simultaneous supply and demand shock that has snarled global production and logistics networks built without sufficient capacity to absorb a jolt of this magnitude. Bloomberg has predicted a range of scenarios, from an “optimistic” 13% drop in global merchandise trade that would rival the Great Recession of 12 years ago, to a pessimistic plunge of 32% rivaling the Great Depression of the 1930s. The optimistic view would mean a 2.5% contraction in global GDP this year, the WTO said, while the worst-case scenario would see an 8.8% decline.
All this translates into huge, unheard-of-before job losses, the magnitude of which has never been experienced before. The sad thing is that workers will get fired and face layoffs without much compassion, or much psychosocial finesse. Zoom firings, pink slips in the email, even WhatsApp good-byes are going to be the norm.
2. Salary cuts for many who do retain their jobs. More and more companies will try to ensure their continued survival by cutting costs, slashing salaries and laying off staff. Others will put employees on indefinite leave without pay or put freshly hired staff on hold. According to the Economictimes.com as many as 39% of the 3,074 respondents in its employment survey said they are facing a salary cut, while 15% are set to lose their jobs. Despite the fact that 15% respondents are facing a salary cut of more than 25%, almost 43% of these are likely to continue with their current jobs and not look for new ones. 19.6% of the respondents who say that a 16-25% salary cut is on the way, have work experience of 10-14 years. The general feeling is that if you are lucky to retain your job, even with cuts or salary freezes, it is best to hang on. Job opportunities outside appear slim to nil.
3. Older employees, mid-level employees, more at risk. ‘Last hired, first fired’ should normally be a good HR policy, that is fair and equitable. Covid-19 is an equal opportunity disease but somehow in matters of employment, discriminatory practices – perceived or real – seem to be getting amplified. The first possible victims of downsizing are likely to be older employees. They are invariably more expensive due to their number of years in the business. They are less likely candidates for re-skilling or up-skilling, more difficult to retrain. The Covid disease also is said to afflict older humans more, with those above 50 likely to be most at risk. Older employees will therefore need to be shielded in any case from travelling, and public facing frontline jobs. Hence, they become easier candidates for exit for HR managers. Lots of early retirements are in the pipeline.
Another high risk category of employees are mid-level employees. The Economic Times Jobs Disruption Survey found not surprisingly that mid-level workers in companies face bigger risk of losing their jobs than those who work at senior or junior level. 11,000 employees interviewed by ET Online, felt that mid-level workers are at the front of the firing line. 66 per cent said it was the mid-level employees most likely to be fired first. 22 per cent respondents said it was the employees at the senior level while 12 per cent said those working at the entry level were more worried about getting laid-off. The reasons are not far to seek. Most of the mid-level employees mainly manage junior employees, track work flow and quality, and train new employees. A good part of their work is now getting automated, which in difficult times renders them as first choice for being made redundant. Machine-learning platforms are already helping project managers take decisions to make better trade-offs between the number of people needed for a project and the timeline for completion. No mid-level managers need to guide such decisions anymore. Hence, the fear of the axe is most potent amongst the 35-50 years segment.
4. Anxiety, frustration, helplessness. Even suicides. There is a very poignant article in the latest issue of Scientific American. It says that of all the literary masterpieces describing humanity’s experience of disease pandemics, none describes suicide more vividly than Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when in response to the psychosocial distress of the plague the citizens “hanged themselves, to kill the fears of death by death’s own hand.” Just like a pandemic became a reality for the first time in more than a century, in a destructive “life imitating art imitating life” way, news of suicides linked to the Covid-19 crisis have swept the globe and sadly show no signs of abating.
Older adults especially are sensitive to loneliness and isolation, as they depend on strong social support, especially during difficult times. Social contact in the community is now as it is at a minimum with social distancing encouraged. The elderly have been especially advised to reduce their social contacts and remain homebound. The weakening of social networks disrupts normal social lives and feelings of worthlessness emerge even more for those who have been laid-off, furloughed or pre-maturely retired. There is lot of bad news on the way.
Helplessness, hopelessness, desperation, frustration, social stigma, isolation, anxiety … are all manifestations of unemployment, and triggers for mental health issues.
5. Constant Sword of Damocles over new joinees at work. Gartner, an American business research and advisory company, withdrew its job offers to 11 IIT students from Delhi, Kanpur and Madras and six IIM Calcutta students. Schlumberger, the world’s biggest oilfield service provider company, wrote to the IITs on April 6 saying that it was forced to either reduce the package or withdraw some job opportunities in order to adjust to the “sudden reduction in customer spend”. Students across IIM Lucknow, IIM Kozhikode, IIM Calcutta, MDI, SPJIMR have been affected by Uber’s withdrawal of job offers – many said to be for the US, and said to pay Rs. 1 crore a year.
Joining dates have been universally postponed. ISB MBAs, most of whom were to start work on May 15, have been told by companies like L’Oreal, Bain & Co, Accenture and more to postpone joining till Nov 1. Even that is not certain.
Cambridge University has officially declared that all classes in this academic year will only be online. HBS has communicated to all students that the summer-fall semester will only be conducted digitally. This has led to wholesale requests for deferments by both current students, and those with fresh admissions.
6. Jobs in ‘contact with others’, ‘physical proximity’, ‘exposure to disease’ will fall from favour. Medical professionals like doctors (yes, doctors!), acute care nurses, family and general practitioners, respiratory therapists … emergency medical technicians, ambulance drivers, ward boys … firefighters, and police officers … people who make and serve food, deliver goods, and keep stores open … barbers, fast food workers, physical therapists, athletic trainers and manicurists … retail salespersons, concierges, restaurant servers, and cashiers … service workers and small businesses … flight attendants and airline pilots … choreographers, dancers, actors, and singers – they are all headed to become ‘negative’ professions for a while. Dangerous jobs because of potential risk and exposure to the infection; and jobs that may dwindle in some cases because of falling consumer demand – not the health related ones of course, but the retail facing ones for sure.
7. ‘Frontline’ jobs will lose attraction. A day after a 52-year-old police officer died due to COVID-19, the Punjab Police decided not to deploy policemen who are over 55 years of age or those with pre-existing medical risk on the frontline jobs. Police personnel over 55 years of age or those with pre-existing and enhanced medical risk factors, such as hypertension issues, cardiac history, asthma or a compromised/suppressed immune system for any reason, have stopped to be deployed on the frontline. Punjab is not the only state to do so. Frontline deployment has resulted in 1671 police personnel getting infected by the coronavirus in Maharashtra, with 16 dead. Jobs like the police, otherwise highly coveted in India, are likely to lose some of their sheen if work conditions and safety concerns are not adequately addressed.
8. Entrepreneurs at risk. The US $2 trillion coronavirus relief package of President Trump offered up to $349 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses as part of the Paycheck Protection Program in the US. There was no real choice. 57% of businesses in the US saw revenue drop by 75% or more due to Covid-19. Eight in 10 have closed temporarily as a result of the coronavirus crisis. 3.5 million small businesses are said to be closing permanently in the next two months, and 7.5 million over the next five months. Nearly 7.5 million small businesses are at risk of closing their doors permanently over the next several months if the coronavirus pandemic persists. Around two-thirds of entrepreneurs said they may have to shut forever if business disruption continues at its current rate for up to five months.
The MSME sector employs over 110 million Indians and contributes nearly 30% to India’s GDP. The Union Minister for MSMEs Nitin Gadkari has announced a Rs10,000 crore ‘Fund of Funds’ for MSMEs with high credit rating. This may however help only those enterprises that are operating professionally. As the lockdown continues, most small businesses will be fighting for their existence. The threat is even greater for millions of organised and unorganised workforce that they employ; which will most likely soon be accosted with layoffs and job losses.
Being an entrepreneur is going to be very very tough in the days ahead. Only the brave will want to set up or run small businesses in these uneasy times.
9. Start-ups will falter. Maybe even fail. Not only are investors pulling back funds — and even canceling the term sheets that represent funding commitments — but whole segments targeted by startups are in serious trouble, meaning the potential market for tech innovations beyond the short term is also at risk. A friend of mine who runs a decent sized VC fund estimates that about two-thirds of startups don’t have the capital to survive past September: 10% can’t survive as is past April; 31% can’t survive as is past June; and 24% can’t survive as is past September. Another 21 percent can’t make it intact past March 2021, leaving just 10% with enough reserves to survive beyond a year.
10. Greater opportunities for women in WFH. The only silver lining of the coronavirus has been the boost to women’s employment opportunities. Flexible work and remote work, in particular, will help women return to work after having a baby or while caring for a family member. 8 in 10 caregivers in India are women. With the 65+ population starting to grow, the number of women expected to care for others will also have to grow, limiting career opportunities.
For a long time, moms returning from maternity leave have had very little choice in balancing their new duties at home with work. The best option has often been a reduction in hours, which, more often than not, has led to reduced career opportunities. Remote work will allow women the flexibility to be part of their children’s lives, while also maintaining a consistent presence at work.
11. Informal economy in tatters. Unlike workers in the formal economy, who benefit from legal and social protections, informal workers earn their living without a safety net. They are mostly women and mostly self-employed, engaged in occupations as varied as street vending, domestic work, transportation, and garbage collection. Some also work as off-the-books day laborers in factories, farms, and other formal businesses that don’t extend full rights or protections to all of their employees. India has 450 million workers in the informal sector. Many of them, migrants from other states, have been trudging home dejected and disappointed. The informal sector is in tatters. Jobs are going to be tough to get, and make a livelihood out of in the months ahead.
12. Gig economy jobs could see an uptick. A shift from a full time 9-to-5 job to an on-demand, freelance and task-based economy is termed as the gig economy. Gig workers include self-employed, freelancers, independent contributors and part-time workers. This project-based gig economy allows the service adopter to cut overhead costs, and the gig worker to get paid for a specific task performed instead of receiving a fixed salary. Gig economy allows task ownership, convenience and flexibility. India has emerged as the 5th largest country for flexi-staffing after US, China, Brazil and Japan. The current pandemic may further open up the gig economy with WFH and flexi-timing being big advantages.
13. Teaching & learning will turn remote. The virtual everyday classroom is already a reality. For most teachers this is a new experience. So also for their students. But all the coaching classes, like in Kota from where thousands of students had to be rescued and restored to their parents, are suddenly at a loose end. Which is why the Byju’s, Toppr, Vedantu and Unacademy are likely to gain traction. Also, global brands like LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, Udemy, Khan Academy will surge in popularity. India is home to over 4,450 edtech startups. Business will boom for them. So also job opportunities in remote learning.
14. New contours in many industries: entertainment, live performances, spectator sports. The Events, MICE, Wedding industry is an integral feeder market for both the hospitality and tourism sectors and like everything else has been hard hit by the pandemic and the lockdown. The overall value of MICE, corporate events and weddings could be as much as INR 100,000 crores in the Indian economy. Social distancing will keep this business in serious doldrums for quite a while. Jobs in this domain are going to be seriously affected.
15. New opportunities in data literacy, data sciences, data analytics & data visualization. Statistics indicate that global data usage has increased as much as 38 percent year-on-year in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Already, job opportunities for data engineers, data analysts, and data scientists were growing steadily. With the surge in data usage, we can expect this demand to go up even more quickly. Data jobs, more so since they can, with enhanced security protocols expected to be in place soon, will work well in WFH environs too. Big opportunity area for reskilling and upskilling too.
16. Greater demand for Cloud Computing, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Blockchain & Cybersecurity Skills. Even Gaming. As with data, all of these skills will have multiple takers. There is really no merit in elaborating on these opportunities, which are self evident in an environment where digital services are going to grow exponentially. Jobs in these domains will be plentiful, and will pay well. Expect serious demand-supply gap and many edtech players rushing in to make a quick buck by providing quick-fix learning solutions.
17. Jobs for those with higher Emotional Intelligence. Emotional Intelligence (EI) is really about giving and receiving feedback, meeting tight deadlines, dealing with challenging relationships, not having enough resources, dealing with change, dealing with setbacks and failure – all premium requirements in these difficult times. Jobs in customer care, logistics, tracking, counseling, consumer research, qualitative analysis and such will open up for those who can demonstrate a higher than normal EI.
18. New types of ‘service-at-home’ jobs. In my earlier piece on food trends I had mentioned how a tribe of professional ‘Chef-on-Call’ will get created in the current environment where restaurants may be avoided for a while, yet there will be demand for restaurant like food. Similarly top quality, health-certified home service providers – hair stylists, masseurs, manicurists … on-demand doctors, care-givers … will find many takers, that too at premium prices.
19. Multiple jobs to make ends meet. The pandemic is shining a light on the deep inequalities that exist in our economy, which have left some people much more exposed to risk and much less prepared to weather the crisis than others. The word ‘migrants’ to describe workers from other states has been a new addition to our lexicon in these troubled times. Many of these, and many grey/blue/white workers might be headed to taking up more than one job to meet demands of livelihood.
20. More employment in smaller towns. When multinats in India declared WFH ahead of the lockdowns because of global compliances, 30-40% of their employees actually headed out to their hometowns – smaller towns – mostly in other states. In fact, many of these smaller towns are in green and orange zones, much less impacted by the virus compared to Mumbai and Delhi, both red zones. So, suddenly, small towns have become focus for HR heads for purposes of Business Protection & Continuity Plans as spreading manpower in remote working to more geographies helps de-risk business operations. So, maybe, more jobs will open up in smaller towns.
21. More flexitime jobs. Likely underemployment. There is likely emergence of serious underemployment across sectors – restaurants not working at full capacity, for example could employ the same number of employees but get them to work half the number of hours at half the salary. This is a serious possibility.
22. Robots may replace humans. I wrote in my health trends piece published earlier as part of the Future Shock series, about robots serving food and medicines to patients in isolation wards. Well, robots will start to come into active use for many ‘contact less’ functions. This could negatively affect some jobs but could also minimize exposure of workers in many frontline jobs.
23. Overseas migration & intra-country migration may slow down. Already there is much uncertainty over foreign work visas. Going forward, expect a substantial slow-down in students joining foreign Universities and then seeking jobs there. It is likely to remain tough for atleast a couple of years, that is presuming that the pandemic abates and economies limp back to normal by then. Even grey/blue collared Gulf returnees will find it difficult to go back for some time.
Closer home, migrants who have taken the Shramik trains back to their villages in their native states, will take atleast 6-9 months to come back. Local industries may suffer from lack of labour.
24. More automation in agriculture. My friend Jassi Khangura, a former MLA from Qila Raipur in Punjab, wrote a very erudite piece on migrant labour a couple of weeks ago. “Use of agricultural automation in harvesting wheat and maize, and shortly in transplanting paddy”, Khangura said, “by some farmers for the first time, may mean that these machines have replaced much of the labour forever. It was going to happen anyway, but it took a crisis to trigger”. But now it will most likely be for keeps, changing forever the contours of agricultural employment in India.
25. Rhythmic workplaces in the future. The Rhythmic Workplace — that organizations could adopt to fuel culture, strengthen team spirit, boost morale, and ultimately drive business performance is perhaps going to be the ‘new’ normal. The ‘workspace’ of tomorrow will not be viewed as a mere physical entity but as a curation of mental-modes for different work tasks; a connected ecosystem of physical realms and virtual touch points for human interaction. ‘Rhythmic’, means the capacity to flex space according to personal and professional preferences and needs. The model, postulated by Eight Inc. who do retail spaces for Apple, is a composition of four ‘spaces’: TEAMspace (traditionally known as the office), MEspace (the home), OPENspace (anywhere in-between, such as cafes, co-works, commutes, lobbies, parks), and VIRTUALspace (the holistic connector to each). If jobs are going to transform, so will the work spaces.
The gloom on the job front is for real. It is going to stay that way, at least for a while. Yes, re-skilling and up-skilling can help. But realistically, it is not easy to do either. Especially, if you are getting older. That is the fact of the matter. Technology is not easy to learn, or get used to.
So what does one do? Unfortunately, not too many options. Jobs will be under huge pressure. Entrepreneurship is not easy.
Just some helpful tips for these difficult times:
– Write a good CV. Actually create a CV relevant to the job you are applying for. No untruths. Just the parts most relevant go upfront.
– Don’t keep bench-marking the past. These are new realities, a ‘new’ normal. Your past CTC cannot become a stumbling block for future offers.
– Keep your ego in the refrigerator for a few months. If you are out of a job, it is more important to get back to work than make peer comparisons.
– Don’t put yourself in a silo. “Oh, I am a brand guy, how can I be in sales?”. Well, you can either get real, give the new profile a go, or risk becoming obsolete.
– This is not the time to get upset – a rude HR guy? An arrogant boss? An insensitive client? Well, for now, just grin and bear it (or gin and beer it!).
The author has been both a working professional, and an entrepreneur, in his 36 years in the business across JWT, Grey, DDB Mudra, Rediffusion, Zee and Dentsu.
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