Tentative growth in trust shows COVID-19 has not yet torn the social fabric of Europe
As Europe faces into what appears to be a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, concern is mounting about the evolution and dramatic impact of the disease, with rising numbers of infections, hospitalisations and deaths. There is also a growing focus on the repercussions for the economy, the labour market, the way we will live and work (or not) over the coming period. How we respond to these extraordinary times will shape the future of our societies for decades, and understanding the lived experiences of citizens is critical to developing the most relevant and effective policies to tackle the fallout of this pandemic in the coming years.
Eurofound’s Living, working and COVID-19 survey uncovers what Europeans have lived through. Drawing on experiences from the initial outbreak in spring through to the summer period, the results show a somewhat expected improvement in the situation as lockdown lifted across Europe and there was a gradual re-opening of the economy. There is an upturn in levels of optimism, trust has increased at EU and national levels, feelings of job insecurity have reduced and the self-employed report better prospects.
Despite these improvements, however, the reduction of working time (and suspension of contracts) continued. While on the one hand this is of concern, with one in three reporting having reduced their working time in July (significantly less than the 50% in April but still notable), on the other, this probably shows the crucial role that short-time working schemes continue to play in mitigating the impact on labour markets. This buffer, however, was not able to stop the increase in unemployment, which was comparatively higher in some groups, such as the solo-self-employed, and in some countries with less robust labour markets that were strongly hit by the pandemic, such as Spain.
This is important, as the unemployed tend to amass many of the worse social consequences in general and specifically in crises such as this. They report, for example, lower resilience, more difficulties in making ends meet (twice that of those in employment), and 4 out of 10 report feeling left out of society.
Some groups with existing comparative disadvantage, such as young people and women, are among those most adversely affected by the socioeconomic implications of COVID-19. There are also less obvious groups, such as the self-employed and middle-aged cohort (34 to 49-year-olds) – traditionally perceived as comparatively better off – who report concerns, not only about employment but also about job security in the future.
For those remaining in employment, telework continues to be the most relevant change. Unimaginable on this scale just a decade ago, it appears that telework has been of benefit overall, both in terms of ensuring business continuity and in allowing workers to adjust and remain active. As the economy reopened partially in July, 50% were still reporting teleworking at least occasionally, with one-third continuing to work exclusively from home. Moreover, with three out of four employees indicating that they would like to telework in the future, at least occasionally, and the preferred option being a mix of remote working and physical presence, employment relations are likely to be transformed. Policy discussions have already started at national and EU levels, among public authorities and within social dialogue, trying to address the opportunities and challenges that the situation offers. Company practices will need to adapt, and organisations will need to learn new ways of operating.
Anyone doubting the importance of telework in our new reality should consider the fact that around 40% of paid hours worked by employees were performed from home during the pandemic. Telework is no longer just a workplace issue; it is an important macroeconomic consideration with potentially large impacts on convergence, the urban–rural relationship and Europe’s place in the global economy. It opens up huge opportunities for society and the economy at large – for example the (re-)development of rural areas is now a real possibility, enabling people to both live and work in those areas, with the appropriate infrastructure.
In this context, however, one should note that not all jobs are ‘teleworkable’ and that some issues remain. For example, less than half of the employees teleworking report having received the required equipment from their employer, and many report working in their free time, possibly exacerbating the blurring of borders between work and family life. And while those teleworking report no impact on the support received from management and colleagues, they do report feeling more isolated and that their job is less useful – important findings for job quality.
The rapid changes underway in the workplace, economy and society can also be gauged in levels of institutional trust, which is a bellwether not only of the functioning of our democracies, but the health of our societies. Some noticeable changes are evident between April and July.
Firstly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, those groups who suffered the impact of the crisis but have also benefited from swift policy reaction and financial support report higher trust. This speaks to the importance of establishing the right safety nets for those in situations of vulnerability, to ensure they are not left behind.
Secondly, trust in the EU seems to have largely recovered, having plummeted in April, particularly in the countries hit first by the outbreak, such as France and Italy. This may reflect the recognition of progress and solidarity that trumped the initial tensions at European level, with the implementation of the SURE initiative and the longer-term Next Generation EU.
This positive trend is not, however, uniform across all Member States, and trust in national governments declined in most countries. This underscores the importance of trust in this world of fragility, where citizens’ trust directly reflects their perception of solidarity and fairness in a Union that seeks to ‘leave no-one behind’. As Commission President von der Leyen said in the State of the Union address on 16 September, 'we showed what is possible when we trust each other and trust our European institutions ... to not only repair and recover for the here and now, but to shape a better way of living for the world of tomorrow.'
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Research carried out prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union on 31 January 2020, and published subsequently, may include data relating to the 28 EU Member States. Following this date, research only takes into account the 27 EU Member States (EU28 minus the UK), unless specified otherwise.