The online meme referred slyly to one of the hottest topics in a tumultuous year. It depicted two hardened criminals sitting around in a prison exercise yard, chit-chatting to pass the time. “What are you in for?” asked one of the convicts. The other replied: “My mask slipped off in Walmart.”
There’s no denying the pain of losing a family member or friend to COVID-19, which too many us did in 2020. But the year’s coronavirus pandemic also thrust us into new modes of work and fresh ways of thinking and relating to those around us, often with grace, grit, adaptability, resilience and unexpected humor.
Back in March and April, such “gifts” were hard to foresee. That’s when widespread U.S. lockdowns were first imposed, shuttering workplaces and schools and delivering a gut-punch to the entire economy.
For many of us, mandatory shelter-in-place orders also triggered a frenzied run on stores to stock up on cleaning products, sanitizing wipes and … toilet paper? TV news stories showed customers stampeding the TP aisles, where actual fights broke out over the dwindling supplies.
“What’s next?” cracked late-night talk-show host Trevor Noah. “Are people going to be running around Walmart, like, ‘Aaaaahhh, where’s the car wax?’” Another online meme suggested that “if you need 144 rolls of toilet paper for a 14-day quarantine, you probably should have been seeing a doctor long before COVID-19.”
The spring season is also when we discovered a new-found appreciation for “essential” workers like nurses and doctors, who put their lives on the line tending to patients with coronavirus. It’s when we began social distancing, washing our hands frequently and donning those face coverings. Sales of lipstick plummeted, and fashion designers like Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent jumped into the mask business. Suddenly, it seemed like a great time to get that plastic surgery done.
The Ups and Downs of Working from Home
Perhaps most notably, as many as half of all U.S. employees embarked on the novel experience of working from home (WFH). Seemingly overnight, we picked up the nuances of video tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams for work calls and conferences – some of us quicker than others. Memes including one called Conference Call Bingo listed the new language of WFH: “Hi, can you hear me?” “Can everyone see my screen?” “I’m sorry, you cut out there.” “You’re on mute!”
Another imagined Jesus presiding over the Last Supper via Zoom: “Judas, you on?”
For the first time we were seeing inside our co-workers’ homes, perhaps getting to know and understand them better. We learned that you could change your Zoom background to whatever you wanted, for better or worse. One business leader accidentally “potato-fied” herself with a Snapchat filter during a virtual work meeting in April, and then couldn’t undo the special effect. She became known as the “Potato Boss” and later tweeted, “I yam potato boss.”
Pets showed up on video calls and so did homebound children, mostly making people smile. “Pandemic hair” became a thing. While it was important to look sharp – or at least presentable – above the waist on these calls, many employees relaxed their standards from the waist down, slipping into sweatpants or pajama bottoms … or less.
An ABC News correspondent making an appearance on TV’s “Good Morning America” learned the importance of the angle of the camera. It caught him appearing to be pants-less beneath his suit coat, though he later claimed he’d been wearing shorts. (A famous writer for The New Yorker magazine found himself in a pickle of a different sort on Zoom. We can’t go into that though, because, well, this is a family-friendly newsroom.)
Sheltering-in-place gave rise to all sorts of other new phenomena, too. Like binge-watching Netflix shows or poring over animal videos on social media. Many of us learned how to make sourdough bread, doubtless contributing to our “Quarantine 15” – the amount of weight Americans were said to have gained during the pandemic. Reportedly, others took to binge drinking. Said one Facebook meme: “Your quarantine alcoholic name is your first name followed by your last name.”
Great New Hope for 2021
No doubt, the downsides of the pandemic have been numerous and hurtful. Nearly 22.2 million jobs were lost in March and April, hitting women, African Americans, service industries and younger employees especially hard. Parents, mostly mothers, have had double-duty working and overseeing their kids’ school lessons at home. Industries like Leisure and Hospitality have been brought to their knees, and tens of thousands of restaurants and businesses have permanently closed their doors.
Still, there’s reason for optimism in 2021. More than half the jobs lost in the spring have already been recovered, and LaborIQ by ThinkWhy forecasts over seven million jobs will be added. Sectors like online retail, professional and business services and financial activities continue to thrive. Savings are up. Coronavirus vaccines were developed at warp speed and should be on their way to the general population by spring or summer. The environment is cleaner, with fewer employees commuting to work.
And, due to widespread social-justice awareness, organizations are more committed than ever to fair pay and diversity and inclusion initiatives. Indeed, some contend the year’s travails could be a catalyst for long-term societal transformation.
For the last word on all we’ve been through in 2020, consider one final online meme. “I’m going to stay up on New Year’s Eve this year,” it went. “Not to see the New Year in, but to make sure this one leaves.”
LaborIQ by ThinkWhy reports, forecasts and advises on employment conditions and the impact to jobs, industries and businesses across the U.S.