Where Did All the Workers Go?

28 May 2021

Jeff McCarty

Some were shocked, others were not surprised at all, but when the April 2021 Jobs Report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics was released, there was no denying that Americans weren't joining back into the workforce at the rate many were expecting. The reasons for this varied. The Unemployment Insurance benefits passed in the American Rescue Plan being too generous was the right's reasoning. From the left, employers' wages and benefits were not gracious enough to encourage workers to rejoin. Although each of these beliefs is different, they amount to the same narrative of having misaligned incentives to promote the desired behavior. I believe that each of these concerns played a part in the results of the April 2021 Jobs Report, yet I can't help but feel there is something deeper rooted within our culture that has brought these results about.

There are a few cultural norms that I have observed that are perhaps leading to this decline in working-age people participating in the workforce. The first is a shift away from the principle of being a hardworking person to that of being an autonomous person who can pursue happiness. Now, this shift isn't to say that those who seek their happiness aren't necessarily hardworking, but that there is a certain stigma attached to the idea of what constitutes a hard worker. Many people think of a hard worker as someone who dedicates themself to their company. Someone who will show up to work no matter what the circumstances are (before Covid, the expectation for hard workers was to show up to the office even if they were sick). We think of a hard worker as someone who tows the company line (as the saying goes) and supports the company despite their endeavors. People have begun to shift away from seeing themselves as hard workers in this context.

Part of this reason for the shift away from being a hard worker is that most people view companies and corporations as evil entities. Although small businesses still hold a special place in many people's purchasing habits, most people find themselves subject to patronage at large companies. In many ways, this has created a sense of resentment that consumers have for these large corporations. Many people feel forced to shop from a big-name chain store and deal with incompetence within these companies due to their large-scale bureaucratic style. It is only natural that consumers may resent these same companies for those reasons. This effect goes past just brick and mortar stores that people shop in, though. Many people feel the same about other companies they interact with, such as T.V. and internet providers, eCommerce sites, and even utility services. These contribute to the perception that many people hold today in which corporations and companies are the 'bad guys' of society. There is guilt by association assigned to those working at these corporations, and if you work for any corporation, you are part of the evil.

This assumption is, of course, far from the truth, yet people seem to operate with it in mind. In turn, we see many who work for these corporations have a particular disdain for their employer, seeing them as the bad guy in their life. This perception disincentivizes people from working hard and incentivizes any opportunity to stop working.

Aside from this perception of evil corporations being undesirable places to work, another force impacts how people feel they should utilize their time. There has been a massive increase in the self-improvement, well-being/happiness movement. This movement puts a focus on people using their time to become self-fulfilled human beings. There is nothing wrong with this but combined with the perceptions of companies discussed above and it creates a volatile effect that leaves people feeling like they can't find their true sense of happiness while working.

There is a perfect storm brewing, one in which it makes more sense to keep out of the labor market than joining. This storm comes about based on the perceptions discussed above combined with the ability to make more money through Unemployment Insurance than the wages you'd earn at a job. This hesitation to enter the workforce is, of course, a concern for society, and it will require us to address both the perceptions of being a hardworking member of the workforce, as well as the incentives, both tangible and intangible, tied to participating in the labor market. Only with a realignment of incentives and perceptions will we shift humanity towards waking up every day ready to put in the work required to build a better society. Until this time, there will always be a shortage of workers.

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