What World War Z Teaches Us About Essential Workers

by | Apr 8, 2020

World War Z' Author Max Brooks on Surviving Zombies - TIME

If “World War Z” only makes you think of a crappy movie starring Brad Pitt, you are missing out. World War Z is actually a fantastic book from 2006 that has almost nothing in common with the movie. The book, by Max Brooks (son of filmmaker Mel Brooks), tells the story of the spread of a virus that turns people into zombies and humanity’s fight against the virus and the zombies.

The book is quite unique as it is entirely made up of news reports and interviews — there are no main characters. As a review on Amazon said “The way the eyewitness interviews develop over time, spanning countries and viewpoints, come together as a single, coherent picture of just what happened, how we solved it, how difficult it was. This book is truly something different. And that’s not common in today’s lit. A fantastic read.”

An interesting point in World War Z that has stuck with me over the 14 years since I read it is apropos today: much of our economy is made up of highly specialized service-based skills that are nearly useless in the face of a huge crisis. The lawyers, investment bankers, consultants and other specialists who make a lot of money in our economy weren’t essential during the zombie war; rather it was the carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and people who knew how to make and repair things who were essential.

We are seeing a version of this today: essential workers are those who work in healthcare, grocery stores, agriculture, delivery, supply chain and who actually make things. (I say this as a person whose job and skills are non-essential.)

The following excerpt from World War Z is an interview with a government official after the zombie war and makes this point perfectly:

Ours was a postindustrial or service-based economy, so complex and highly specialized that each individual could only function within the confines of its narrow, compartmentalized structure. You should have seen some of the “careers” listed on our first employment census; everyone was some version of an “executive,” a “representative,” an “analyst,” or a “consultant,” all perfectly suited to the prewar world, but all totally inadequate for the present crisis. We needed carpenters, masons, machinists, gunsmiths. We had those people, to be sure, but not nearly as many as were necessary.

The first labor survey stated clearly that over 65 percent of the present civilian workforce were classified F-6, possessing no valued vocation. . . . You would have entire suburban neighborhoods of upper-middle-class professionals, none of whom had possessed even the basic know-how to replace a cracked window. Those with that knowledge lived in their own blue-collar “ghettos,” an hour away in prewar auto traffic, which translated to at least a full day on foot. . . .

Anyone F-6 but physically able became unskilled labor: clearing rubble, harvesting crops, digging graves. A lot of graves needed to be dug. Anyone A-1, those with war-appropriate skills, became part of our CSSP, or Community Self-Sufficiency Program. A mixed group of instructors would be tasked with infusing these sedentary, overeducated, desk-bound, cubicle mice with the knowledge necessary to make it on their own. It was an instant success.

America was a segregated workforce, and in many cases, that segregation contained a cultural element. A great many of our instructors were first-generation immigrants. These were the people who knew how to take care of themselves, how to survive on very little and work with what they had. These were the people who tended small gardens in their backyards, who repaired their own homes, who kept their appliances running for as long as mechanically possible. It was crucial that these people teach the rest of us to break from our comfortable, disposable consumer lifestyle even though their labor had allowed us to maintain that lifestyle in the first place.

Yes, there was racism, but there was also classism. You’re a high-powered corporate attorney. You’ve spent most of your life reviewing contracts, brokering deals, talking on the phone. That’s what you’re good at, that’s what made you rich and what allowed you to hire a plumber to fix your toilet, which allowed you to keep talking on the phone. The more work you do, the more money you make, the more peons you hire to free you up to make more money. That’s the way the world works. But one day it doesn’t. No one needs a contract reviewed or a deal brokered. What it does need is toilets fixed. And suddenly that peon is your teacher, maybe even your boss. For some, this was scarier than the living dead.

Thank you to all the essential workers and those who keep our country running!


  1. From one useless, non-essential worker to another, great IFOD John. I’m going to order the book, although I may wait to read it until after we are once again allowed normal human interaction.

  2. Powerfully relevant, John. Thanks

  3. That’s a great post thank you. I grew up in a very self-sufficient household in the boonies. I hope I retain some of those skills, but I don’t use them very often. My younger brother, self-isolating on a houseboat in Belgium with his wife and dog, uses them all the time. There are always things to fix on a boat, especially if you’re retired.


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