This week's Sunday Long Read comes to us from the always prescient David Dayen, who covers the post-lockdown, post-Trump labor market where two out of five American workers are actively looking for new work, but what we're really looking for is a little dignity.
Things could accelerate from there. According to a July survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, 41 percent of U.S. workers are either actively searching for a new job, or planning to do so in the next few months. Two-thirds of those searching have considered a career change, rather than moving within their industry. Bankrate’s job seeker survey in August found even more turbulence; 55 percent of the workforce said they would likely look for a new job in the next year.
This trend has been characterized as the Great Resignation, and just about every economist and pundit has taken their crack at teasing out why it’s happening. Explanations have included health and safety fears, child care needs, a tight labor market, boosted savings from stimulus funds or reduced ability to spend money on bars and movies, enhanced unemployment benefits, increases in business formation, desire to work from home, early retirements, restrictions on immigration, demographic shrinking of the prime-age workforce, and my personal favorite, expectations of a labor shortage creating a labor shortage.
Some of these ideas have merit, though none can quite explain everything. In these moments, it’s best to actually ask the workers themselves. I did that, talking to dozens of people who have recently quit their job, or experts who closely track workers who have. And some patterns emerged.
The most vulnerable people in America have started the closest thing we’ve seen in a century to a general strike.
Work at the low end of the wage scale has become ghastly over the past several decades. With no meaningful improvements in federal labor policy since the 1930s, employers have accrued tremendous power. Workers were afraid to voice any disapproval, taking whatever scraps they could get. “The U.S. needs a reset, needs a big push, to get to a place where work is more secure and livable for a lot of the population,” said MIT economist David Autor, who has tracked the misery of American deindustrialization and the shock of China’s rise as a manufacturing powerhouse.
The pandemic functioned as that reset, creating a mental escape hatch from the immiseration and even danger of ordinary work. If you call someone an “essential worker” for long enough, they start to believe it. They start to wonder whether they deserve more, given their essential nature. Gaining courage from social media, the most vulnerable people in America have started the closest thing we’ve seen in a century to a general strike.
For now, it’s working to deliver higher wages and better conditions. But from my talks with workers, they’re really seeking something more ineffable than a couple more bucks an hour. Work is the largest time block of the day, in a moment where we’ve all learned how precious time can be. People simply want to spend that time getting the dignity and respect denied to them for so long.
WORKERS ARE QUITTING ACROSS the labor force; people I’ve talked to range from minimum-wage employees to senior executives. But quit rates and job-to-job transitions in the Great Resignation are mostly taking place among workers with less than a high school education, whose daily toil is typically spent in dead-end low-wage jobs, an engine for corporate profits that produces some of the grimmer existences in the industrialized world.
The particulars of low-wage work have been well documented for years: stagnant wages, short staffs, poor conditions, erratic schedules, no benefits, overbearing managers, and the constant fear of losing your job. The low-wage worker must fend off thieves who are writing their paychecks; a 2014 report from the Economic Policy Institute estimates that wage theft steals $50 billion from low-wage workers every year. The uniquely American innovation of constant worker surveillance, perfected by Amazon, now has workers’ every move tracked, every ounce of performance measured, every slip punished. All for 15 bucks an hour, if you’re lucky.
The point of this is to deliver lower prices and higher profits on the backs of labor exploitation. Low-wage employers rely on an endless reserve of desperate workers willing to break their backs for a pittance. Unsustainable wages are a problem for government benefit programs. High turnover is not a problem as long as there’s one more job application in the door.
As of 2020, nearly one-quarter of U.S. jobs were low-wage, the highest percentage in the developed world. “We think it has to be this way,” said Autor. “But look at peer countries, it doesn’t fit. All have rising educational attainment and drops in worker power. But many have higher wages and lower economic insecurity at the low end of the spectrum.”
The pandemic has made permanent the gradual changes in the workforce that we were slated to see this decade in just a year. We'll be dealing with these changes for a while to come.