The Great Covid Job Swap

In one short year, Covid has upended nearly everything in our lives​. But some Torontonians​ have turned that upheaval into an opportunity for reinvention. Here, nine stories of radical pandemic career changes

In early December, I bumped into a friend who told me he’d started making and selling his own ice cream. I was a little surprised—not just because December isn’t exactly frozen dessert season, but because this friend is a successful professional actor, with a long career on stage and screen. Every year, he stars in Soulpepper’s annual production of A Christmas Carol. But, of course, there was no Christmas Carol in 2020, and Soulpepper has been dark since the spring. Like thousands of other out-of-work artists, my friend was looking for something to fill the time and, maybe, help pay the bills.

Covid Job Swaps

Forever a thespian, he called his burgeoning operation The Iceman Cometh. He hung out a virtual shingle on Instagram, began making free deliveries all over Toronto, and started a monthly subscription plan. There wasn’t a ton of money to be made, but ice cream kept him plugged in to the community, and, in a year of unprecedented turbulence, afforded a degree of stability. “This is a side hustle,” he said. “But at least it’s something I can control.”

One person’s side hustle is another person’s life swap. The pandemic has inspired lots of Torontonians to reinvent themselves. Just as Covid forced us to overhaul our political, health care and economic systems, so too did it compel people to reconsider where they live, how they live, what they do.

Live performance wasn’t the only arena cast into limbo—transportation, hospitality, accommodation and salon services have all struggled with massive job losses and murky futures. At the beginning of the pandemic, in March and April, a record three million Canadians lost their jobs, the most severely affected sectors being hotels and food service (188,100 total jobs lost since March) and retail (145,700 jobs gone). By September, the economy had recovered three-quarters of those jobs, but rising case counts and second-wave restrictions thwarted the rebound.

Most people who lost their jobs were able to collect unemployment benefits, either through EI or CERB. Many waited patiently for a vaccine to restore some kind of normalcy. But others couldn’t wait—or didn’t want to—and took the opportunity to dive headlong into the unknown, finding entirely new careers, or in some cases, forging them.

In the posts above, you’ll meet some of those intrepid Torontonians. Some have taken the time to finally realize long-held dreams—the flight attendant who set up her own graphic design firm, the receptionist who started an Indian food takeout operation—while others moved into fields that seem just a bit more pandemic-proof: the roommates who opened up a bakery, the marketing consultant who launched a hand sanitizer start-up.

Predictably, some industries and professions have done well, or are likely to do well throughout the pandemic and beyond: just about everything that helps us work, learn, shop and communicate online has a rosy present and future. In most cases, these are stories of people who became their own bosses. Last October, self-employment increased for the first time since the initial shutdown in March—up 1.2 per cent, or 33,000 jobs in Canada. In choppy waters, it can be better to captain your own ship.

Ultimately, the pandemic has taught us all, like it or not, how to be flexible, how to adapt, how to improvise. Every crisis, they say, creates an opportunity. A lockdown doesn’t have to lock down the imagination; maybe, in fact, it lets loose our ingenuity. Who, in 2019, thought the development and deployment of a vaccine could happen in less than a year? Who, for that matter, ever thought that Toronto restaurants and bars could sell takeout booze?

The world looked much different throughout 2020, and will remain much different whenever we emerge from this. Whatever we end up doing for work, though, could be largely up to us. When everything falls apart, sometimes the only choice we have is to build something new.

This story appears in the February 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.