Almost no one during the past several months of pandemic restrictions would consider these the best of times. Indeed, for many people these are the worst times they have ever experienced. Lockdown, loss of employment, illness, even death are the unfortunate lot of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens.
Nevertheless, a gentleman of my acquaintance is managing to cope with the current hardships fairly well. He has been retired for almost one-third of his life and—thanks to prudent financial decisions made during his earning years—lives, not extravagantly, but comfortably on his investment income. His children are grown and gone, raising families of their own, and he visits with them a couple of times a week on social media. Never an overly-gregarious sort, though not a hermit by any means, he has always enjoyed time alone, so the isolation wrought by stay-at-home orders has not unduly affected him.
He has a relationship with a younger woman, some fifteen years his junior. She, too, has grown children, all of whom live in far-distant cities, and it’s been more than two years since she’s seen them, or her grandchildren, in person. Unlike the gentleman, however, she is not retired; she continues to ply her trade as a housecleaner, the very occupation that brought the two of them together. She spends three hours in his home every Thursday afternoon, vacuuming floors, dusting furniture, polishing silver, cleaning bathtubs, and doing whatever other chores are required.
The gentleman cares about her, treats her respectfully, but never allows his fondness to cross bounds of propriety. She, although mindful of the employer/employee relationship they have, is fond of him, too. They generally spend five or ten minutes chatting when she first arrives, not just about the chores he has lined up, but a general catching-up on each other’s news. While she’s working, he stays out of her way, then moves to one of the rooms she’s finished cleaning when asked. Occasionally they call back-and-forth, each comfortable in the presence of the other. Before she leaves, they chat again for a few minutes and wish each other good health until next time.
All in all, the gentleman and the woman enjoy a pleasant relationship. But deep down, they both know it is an unequal relationship. He engages her services for reasons both pragmatic and personal, not because he has to, but because he wants to. On the practical side, he can afford to pay the cost, and he does not want to do the work himself. As a personal matter, he understands the woman must earn a living, and is more than happy to contribute to that in return for her labour.
To that end, he is generous, paying the woman more than double the minimum wage, but not as an act of charity he fears she might construe as condescending. He truly values the work she does and the care with which she does it. More importantly, he is not prepared to lose her services to a higher bidder; consequently, he is happy to reward her work commensurately.
The woman, for her part, is happy to accept the wage he pays. She is proud of her work, looking after his home as if it were her own—as she does for all clients—and believes she gives full value for the money she earns. She gazes pridefully around each room as she finishes—looking for anything she might have missed, yes—but also basking for a moment in the glow of a job well-done.
Still and all, she doesn’t do this work because she wants to; she does it because she has to. Retirement for her will not be early or voluntary, as it was for the gentleman; rather, it will be begrudging and financially unwelcome, even if ultimately necessary when age and health will have rendered her no longer able. She appreciates the gentleman’s obvious satisfaction with the work she does, of course, and loves that he tells her so every week. He enables her to look upon herself as not just a paid employee, but a valued one.
Nevertheless, the facts remain: the gentleman is the employer, the woman is the employee, and the relationship, no matter how personally pleasant, is unequal. For him, the service she provides is beneficial; for her, the job is crucial. The exchange of capital for labour is, for him, convenient; for her, it is critical. Where he regards her as a respected employee, she sees herself as an essential worker.
The gentleman tells me he has no plans to alter the situation. The woman, I suspect, also has no desire for a change. Having found an optimal arrangement that addresses their respective needs, they have settled in for the long haul. In this pandemic-assailed world, despite the baked-in inequalities of their situations, their relationship is estimable.
It marks the best in these worst of times.