Nice gestures, but … applauding the heroines and heroes of the everyday

13. Apr 2020

Lessons (to be) learnt from living with Covid-19 (#5)

by Ursula Holtgrewe

In the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems that current valuations of various types of work are being rearranged. For service work in particular, some well-known conundrums come into sharp focus. Service workers on the ground, in care, food retail, cleaning and public infrastructures on all skill levels are suddenly raised to “systemically relevant” status. Civil society and politicians have found symbolic ways of showing their appreciation. However, this is a mixed blessing: care and service workers, the majority of whom are women, are being applauded as they find themselves overburdened with work in health, food retail or school teaching, and with additional health risks.

Meanwhile, others, for example in non-food retail, tourism and hospitality, and other providers of personal services are severely underemployed, with more or less access to social security and income replacement depending on their employment status. Precarious and informal work is more likely to fall through the gaps even as social security arrangements are being adapted. The stresses of moving from a pressured worklife with plenty of social interaction to involuntary idleness and isolation may be an extra burden. Being deemed “systemically irrelevant” or an outright infection risk may add insult to injury. Yet these services are not just inessential luxuries. They are sorely missed as they provide quality of life, social interaction and conviviality in their own right.

It is thus worthwhile to revisit some social theory of recognition at work. An old colleague of mine, Stephan Voswinkel (2012), distinguishes two forms of recognition that actually mirror distinct forms and modes of working: appreciation and admiration. Appreciation is awarded for the daily grind, the steady performance of menial tasks. It may even be thought to compensate for inadequate pay and poor job quality. Admiration is received for the extraordinary performance of “stars”, not just in football or on stage, but also in the rituals of business in sales, consulting and other such services. Contrary to appreciation, admiration at first sight is complemented with financial incentives and sometimes, quite extraordinary incomes. Yet in recent decades, formats of admiration have crept into more menial contexts: Investigating low-wage service work, we discovered cleaning companies awarding the “co-worker of the week”, and some call and service centres have also been known for exuberant celebrations of successes – with rather limited gratifications attached.

Now, applauding the heroines and heroes of the everyday: interestingly, a ritual of admiration is being conducted to show society’s appreciation. No question, service and care workers deserve all the recognition they can get. But the ritual has a certain self-congratulatory “Mothering Sunday” flavour to it. Admiration is expressed in the sense of “I never could do that” that especially workers in care and social services know well enough (and do not particularly appreciate). Appreciation is attached to the expectation that they will gratefully get back to work and continue their extraordinary efforts uncomplainingly.

The question will be how to reconnect this shift in recognition to care and service workers’ other legitimate interests: living wages, good working conditions and social security. It appears that before the Covid-19 pandemic, workers and unions in the public sector and social services have started to make some inroads on these issues in Europe. Some social innovations in social and health service delivery have also been developed that empower both workers and clients. Picking up on these initiatives during an economic recovery, unions, workers and innovators will be well advised to connect the newly discovered recognition with some real-life redistribution, to achieve a more sustainable and equitable balance of relevance with material and symbolic recognition. The pandemic should teach European societies how underinvestment in the sectors of health, education and social services generates enormous cost across the economy. Puzzling over economic impacts, “systemic relevance” of care, social and personal services means just that: keeping essential prerequisites of the economy running.


Voswinkel, Stephan (2012): Admiration without Appreciation? The Paradoxes of Recognition of Doubly Subjectivised Work, in: Nicholas H. Smith/Jean-Philippe Deranty (Hrsg.), New Philosophies of Labour: Work and the Social Bond. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 273–299.

Holtgrewe, Ursula (2016): Working in the low-paid service sector: What is to be learned from the analogue world?, in: Wobbe, Werner/Bova, Elva/Dragomiresco-Gaina, Catalin (Hrsg.), The digital economy and the single market. Brussels: Foundation for European Progressive Studies, 93–110

Holtgrewe, Ursula/Hohnen, Pernille (2015): Reciprocity, allegiance and the market: social integration still at work, in: Ursula Holtgrewe/Vassil Kirov/Monique Ramioul (Hrsg.), Hard work in new jobs. The quality of work and life in European growth sectors. Houndmills, London: Palgrave, 250–271.



Verwandte Artikel:

Tags: Corona Virus

Leider ist dieser Inhalt in der ausgewählten Sprache nicht verfügbar.