In this zombie apocalypse, your homework is due at 5pm

Academic Views, Coronavirus / Thursday, April 9th, 2020

Teo You Yenn is Associate Professor, Provost’s Chair, and Head of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University.

This week marks the beginning of the shutdown of schools and childcare centres in Singapore. All over the island, in households with children, adults are no doubt struggling to maintain some semblance of normalcy in abnormal times.

Fixed timetables; the sounds of buses arriving and leaving; the rituals and totems of canvas shoes and ironed uniforms, flags and pledges, recess queues and school bells; the teacherly voices of authority figures straining above the din of students; the presence of other little bodies doing exactly the same things at exactly the same time, peppered with regular micro attempts at flouting rules—these and more are the pillars of school-going children’s lives. Year in and year out, when school’s in, children know that they are to be at certain places at certain times, doing particular tasks in particular ways. And now, weeks loom ahead where they are faced with many of the same tasks, absent of all the pomp and circumstance. This is the ultimate zombie apocalypse nightmare—a pandemic has hit the world with a mighty force, schools and tuition centres are shut, and homework is still due. Children are adaptable creatures, but it will be challenging for many, if not most, to do all that they are expected to do under these altered conditions.

Across Singapore, classrooms are now emptied for the month-long ‘circuit breaker’ to limit further transmission of COVID-19. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Children’s and adults’ lives and wellbeing are intertwined. With social structures receding and the private sphere literally holding everyone in, the inequalities that we know exist will become more palpable and consequential than ever. This is the feminist sociologist’s nightmare—the work of social reproduction now resting entirely in the household and weighing on certain members within them. The many hands holding the fort together—teachers, bus drivers, canteen operators, tutors, grandparent caregivers, day or afterschool care staff—now stand parted, fingers pried open, a delicate and precious circuit broken.

The unfolding story of COVID-19 is a story of inequalities, long experienced by those who bear its brunt, coming to the surface of our collective consciousness. In the weeks to come, who will care for children? What inequalities will be especially consequential when ‘work from home’ and ‘home-based learning’ kick in? Without institutions and services providing supporting roles and to some extent mitigating gender and class inequalities, parents and children will find their gendered roles and class positions mattering more than ever in shaping their wellbeing, both now and, for some, also in the longer term.

Over the past year, and up until I had to suspend fieldwork due to the COVID-19 crisis, I have been interviewing people about their experiences with balancing wage work and raising children. I have spoken with both women and men, with people across the class spectrum and from various ethnic groups and across some range in age, with both married and single parents. I aim to do at least 100 interviews and have conducted about 70.[1]

Some patterns are already obvious and relevant here. First, among married couples, women bear heavier responsibilities for housework and caregiving than do men. Even if individual exceptions exist, the pattern is strong—across class and ethnic lines, as well as among both younger and older respondents.

Second, the labour of ‘care’ for parents in Singapore today is deeply tied up with meeting children’s schooling and educational needs. While the specific contours of those needs vary across class lines—insofar as people articulate expectations and aspirations differently—what is widely shared is a deep sense of responsibility, and intense feelings of anxiety and stress. That this is a key component of parenting today translates into deep inequalities in what children receive by way of cultivation outside of school.

Third, many people are in employment situations that are unaccommodating to household and caregiving responsibilities. Workers are expected to prioritise work over home, to sacrifice familial wellbeing for the good of the company, and there is limited collective bargaining power. People therefore regularly stretch or bend themselves to be both workers and parents—mothers making more adjustments and doing more on the two fronts than fathers, and people with lower income having far fewer options for flexible work and the “outsourcing”[2] of care labour than those with more.

That these patterns exist, in clear form and with well-defined contours, suggests that we can speak of the practices of individuals not merely as individual actions and choices, but as social phenomena. Work-life conflict (not ‘balance’) is a social phenomenon in contemporary Singapore. Gendered and classed variations within this work-life conflict are also social phenomena. The things people do in a society, regularly, day after day, form the society’s shared habits and norms, its culture. Work-life conflict, whether we like to admit it or not, is Singaporean culture.

The application Microsoft Teams, widely used for working remotely since the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Screenshot by Teo You Yenn, taken on 8 April 2020.

This week, we embark on a great involuntary experiment—work and life will now be in conflict not only in a temporal way, but also within constrained physical spaces. The challenges will moreover be amplified because important socially-organised, extra-familial parts of the care circuit have been broken. What are we likely to see?

Housework and caregiving have long been gendered, designated as the role and responsibility of women. Now women who have always been in charge of cooking will have to cook more; women who have always been in charge of cleaning will need to clean more; women who have always overseen children’s education will need to supervise more. To say that this work is gendered is not only to say that it is mothers and wives who are presumed to be responsible, but also to point out that in the Singapore context, where a significant number of households employ live-in domestic workers, this labour has been deeply marked as women’s work and indeed work that, if one can afford it, is better displaced to lower-status women.[3] One hopes a circuit breaker can break habits too, and it probably will in some households, but gender egalitarianism cannot be built overnight. Housework and caregiving require knowledge, expertise, and experience; children will gravitate toward the person who knows how they like their milk, the parent they know is in contact with their classmates’ mothers.

Many of our employers, and indeed our government, seems to expect continued productivity from individuals who are also cooking, cleaning, and ensuring the kids are off their devices and on their homework. Ironically, prior to the crisis, many of my respondents expressed the desire to work from home. They felt that this would save them time spent commuting or in pointless meetings, and accord them the flexibility to pick up or drop children off at childcare, school, or other activities. They thought working from home would allow them to be more efficient while also being more present with their children.

For most people, notably people without full-time domestic workers and/or people with children who are younger or have disabilities, the next weeks will almost certainly not be this work-from-home dream. As every parent who has tried to work while children are present already knows, children are great interrupters. They are not interested in the emails we receive all day long from colleagues and bosses asking us for things, nor the deadlines and task lists we worry about getting through. Some of us are lucky enough to be in jobs that can be done at home;[4] the luckiest amongst us even have rooms of our own. Still, even the luckiest will find out that children do not knock before entering, and they will not be as committed as we are to the invisible boundaries we try to build around a corner of a bedroom or around a dining table. The work culture respondents described to me is one where workers are expected to put work ahead of everything else, to not let down colleagues and bosses, to prioritize ‘the economy’—that thing held up like life itself.[5] Now, in times where people will be more worried about losing jobs, where multiple people have to share the same flat 24-7, these pressures will be felt more intensely. In the weeks to come, homes will have to house work-life conflict,[6] with very little respite. 

How will children fare in all this? Prior to the crisis, class already mattered greatly. The income, wealth, and educational background of parents strongly shape the resources they can put into tuition and enrichment classes, the time and capacity they can spare to help with homework and coach toward exams, and therefore ultimately how a child fares in exams. But still we had schools—where there were spaces for sitting, individual desks to write on, time-chunks to mark activities, rooms shared by others doing the same thing at the same time, teachers to ask when one did not understand something. A few weeks ago, when tuition centres were told to shut down, I had a fleeting moment of fantastical naiveté—this will level the playing field! Of course, within days, tutors moved online, the branded tuition centres one step ahead of the rest of us in discovering Zoom. The Ministry of Education has displayed a high level of consciousness about inequalities the shutting of schools will create. Various individuals and community groups have stepped up to try to provide necessary hardware to support the transition. But in spite of this, we are likely to see the gaps that have always existed now pushed further open—laptops and wifi are one barrier, but beyond this, students will not have equal access to quiet rooms and desks, adult supervision and help, and alternative means of seeking peer group support. Tuition centres may be shut, but I suspect those tutoring sessions now conducted online will be more important than ever in coaching kids toward the exams that remain on the horizon.

An ad for Tesco, a supermarket which operates in neighbouring Malaysia, soon after their lockdown. Screenshot taken by Teo You Yenn on 28 March 2020.

Numerous commentators have pointed to the current crisis as illuminating the pitfalls of our existing systems.[7] The deep inequalities that exist within societies and across the globe have been made even more obvious than before—the picture is bleak and the depth and length of the fallout of this major global humanitarian challenge as yet unknown.

The patterns I have described will not be easy to overcome during the crisis, but we must begin now. We have to start assigning value to housework and care—what feminist scholars have long referred to as social reproduction—recognising it as crucial labour for society. It is, moreover and rather uniquely, labour that when lopsided is deeply burdensome, but when shared enhances everyone’s lives. We have to stop insisting that productivity is our national value and economic growth our highest priority, particularly at a time when existential questions[8] have come to the surface as never before (at least for most people alive today). And in the realm of education—there is no better time than now to begin realigning what we want kids to learn when we teach, what we want to achieve for an entire country’s children when they school, and what we really should shed because it damages our collective wellbeing.

After the zombie invasion, if we are lucky enough to go back into our city—a city I already miss—our job must not be to put things back where they are, but to take things where they could be. 


[1] I have also done earlier empirical work on this issue, focusing on low-income households. See Teo You Yenn, This is What Inequality Looks Like (Ethos Books, 2018).

[2] “Outsourcing” was a word my respondents used to describe part-time cleaners and tuition teachers, signaling the ways in which the space of family and household are viewed through the lenses and vocabularies of the workplace. See Arlie Hochschild’s book on this topic: Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times (Metropolitan Books, 2012).

[3] Elsewhere, I have elaborated on this: Teo Youyenn, “Support for Deserving Families: Inventing the Anti-welfare Familialist State in Singapore”, Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society, 20(3):387-406 (2013); Teo Youyenn, “Not everyone has ‘maids’: class differentials in the elusive quest for work-life balance”, Gender, Place & Culture, 23(8):1164-1178 (2016); Teo Youyenn and Nicola Piper, “Foreigners in our homes: linking migration and family policies in Singapore”,  Population, Space and Place, 15(2):147-159 (2009).

[4] There is a divide here between white- and blue-collar work, between higher and lower-wage work, that others have pointed out. See, for example, Charles M. Blow, ‘Social Distancing is a Privilege’ in the New York Times, 5 April 2020.

[5] I wrote about the valorisation of ‘the economy’ in earlier work. See Teo Youyenn, Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How family policies make state and society (Routledge, 2011).

[6] In the worst cases, as has already been reported elsewhere, this conflict will escalate existing violence and abuse. See, for example, Amanda Taub, ‘A New COVID-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide’ in the New York Times, 6 April 2020.

[7] See, for example, Arundhati Roy, ‘The Pandemic is a Portal’ in Financial Times, April 4, 2020.

[8] Environmental activists in particular have highlighted the current crisis as part of a larger pattern of climate crises we are witnessing, and what is at stake if we try to go back to business as usual. See for example SG Climate Rally’s recent commentary.

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