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Columns Tom Baxter

Americans’ reluctance to rejoin the workforce has been a long time coming

By Tom Baxter

There’s a low-end and a high-end explanation for why so many jobs are going unfilled right now. Neither fully explains what’s going on.

The low-end explanation is that all the pandemic-related federal money being thrown around has conditioned American workers to living off the dole, leaving them with no incentive to look for employment. That was the conviction voiced by Gov. Brian Kemp last June, when he ended the $300-a-week federal supplemental employment benefit in Georgia, claiming it was “hurting our productivity.”

Kemp’s action seems to have had little effect one way or another. An analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution compared Georgia’s jobs performance in July and August with the 25 states and the District of Columbia which continued the payments. For the category which comes closest to measuring incentive — the number of people working or seeking work — Georgia fared better than 12 of those states, and worse than 13 states and the District of Columbia.

The high-end explanation is that the pandemic made American workers more thoughtful about what they really wanted to do with their lives, touching off this year’s Great Resignation, in which millions of Americans have quit their jobs. Disenchantment with the workplace ranges from the frivolous to the fundamental. We read about tech industry workers who want gyms and healthy snacks at their workplaces, and service industry workers who’ve had it with being yelled at by unruly customers.

Much of the Great Resignation is actually ambitious people moving from one job to another, at a time when they have unusual flexibility to do so. There does seem to have been a larger shift in attitudes about the workplace, but how much that has to do with the shortage of servers in your favorite restaurant is hard to say.

The pandemic and the emergency relief which came with it touched off this curious period in which jobs are plentiful while joblessness remains high, but the behavior of the American workforce perfectly reflects the forces it was subject to before COVID-19 shook things up.

Outsourcing and just-in-time manufacturing has resulted in an attitude of just-in-time employment and outsourced dedication. The model for much of the economy in recent decades has focused on streamlining benefits and cutting the traditional ties which engender employee loyalty. Now there’s little of that loyalty to fall back on. The growth of the gig economy has accustomed many workers to a lifestyle in which the paychecks don’t come in regularly. They are in no particular hurry to get back to any new normal.

It’s been a long time since the economy was based on the model of a single breadwinner with a spouse at home, but that old norm seems to be coming back with a new twist.

“The people missing from the ranks of employed are made up of men who have financial support because their wives are working (and) some women who have financial support because their husbands are working,” Michael Wald, a former government economist, told the AJC.

We’ve heard a lot about women leaving their jobs because of the demands of child-rearing, but not as much about women as a family’s lone breadwinner. Yet that appears to be another trend quickened by the pandemic.

Some combination of higher wages, economic necessity and workplace innovation is eventually going to draw back into the job market most of those who have left it by choice this year. Many of them will be better off for taking their time, and so will the businesses that hire them.

It’s those who didn’t choose to leave the “ranks of employed” who are the more troubling problem. Neither the low-end nor the high-end explanation for why businesses are having such a hard time finding workers takes into account how much trauma could be affecting the equation. For broad swaths of the American workforce, that trauma stems not only from the isolation and loss of the pandemic, but from the insolation and loss of the opioid epidemic which preceded it. Bringing them back as productive members of the workforce is going to take more than putting out a help wanted sign.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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1 Comment

  1. Bill Fotsch October 12, 2021 9:43 am

    Of course job switching does not account for low participation rates.
    That said, the notion that loyalty to employees or to companies is dead is well understood, except in those companies where loyalty and performance are thriving. This was really put to the test during the Pandemic, when so many companies laid off employees, making it clear how loyal they were to their employees.
    This article lays out the choice, and how to set your company apart: https://www.inc.com/bill-fotsch-and-john-case/layoffs-or-loyalty-which-should-your-company-choose.htmlReport

    Reply

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