Stepping up: Mini-mes as the new auxiliary workforce

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Recently, I asked someone to send through a photograph of himself to accompany an article we’d written. He provided a very nice one, which he admitted had been taken at home, using a cellphone, by his seven-year-old. Every professional CC’d on the conversation went to great lengths to congratulate the seven-year-old on the quality of the photography.

It wasn’t an isolated occurrence. With remote work and home school now the on-again/ off-again way of doing things, children are increasingly evident and welcome in virtual work environments around the world. We’ve come a long way from the time we all laughed at the man whose BBC interview was interrupted by his boisterous kids.

I’ve dialled in to meetings only to be admitted by exceptionally tiny people, who informed me very officiously that Mommy or Daddy were coming now. Then the little assistants – who were likely watching videos before I intruded – would toddle off to call parents to attend their meeting.

Very small people are heard shushing pets in the background because ‘Mommy’s on a call’, and young children obligingly go in search of files and paperwork while their parents are mid-videoconference: “No, darling, the big orange file on the middle shelf! Orange – like your T-shirt.” This new environment is probably as educational as it is a bonding experience.

Elsewhere, young digital natives are suddenly helping to keep the wheels turning on work and daily life.

Silver linings

Teens are being roped in to install applications and carry out basic IT maintenance to keep home offices running. Youngsters are giving remote crash courses in online shopping to elderly relatives. Tech support for senior citizens is in such high demand that some teens around the world have launched tech support services catering for this market.

In this strange new environment, even babysitting is going virtual, with teens and young adults keeping kids amused for as long as possible, to allow their parents to work.

In my own family, we have introduced a system in which my daughter (in Johannesburg) guides her young cousin (in the UK) through his home schooling curriculum via daily video calls. They’re doing long-distance reading practice, spelling, and arts and crafts. Trying to guide a six-yearold through his schoolwork remotely isn’t without its challenges, however: should he decide he’s had enough and go skipping away from his table, she is left calling helplessly, ‘Oy, come back…’ to an empty room on another continent.

It’s not a perfect workaround, but it does give his home-working parents some time to focus on their own jobs, and it lets cousins bond even though they haven’t seen each-other IRL in years. It's a strange and challenging new environment, but it does have some silver linings: children are probably more involved in their parents’ work today than they have been since before the Industrial Revolution. And teens and young adults have suddenly moved up the social hierarchy to become important contributors to the modern way of life.

TRACY BURROWS is a freelance IT and corporate writer and a long time contributor to all of ITWeb's platforms.

This article was first published in the Q1 2021 edition of The Margin magazine

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