“I’m a job creator and I’m here to help.”
Our seemingly never-ending pandemic, like all such crises, will at some point be behind us. It will also, like all pandemics, usher into place historic changes that will probably seem obvious in hindsight, but are more likely than not completely unseen by us today.
One of the significant trends that has been present for awhile is “The Great Resignation,” which refers, of course, to the staggering number of people who have either left the workforce or quit a job to pursue other activities. The trend is already large enough that is has a broadly accepted name, so it must be real! The form is takes over the long term is not yet determined, but it is incredibly difficult to conceive that work will not have forever been changed by the past two years. We just don’t know precisely how, though I suspect the answer will largely determine the course of history for the next fifty years.
The biggest question for me is whether our answer will benefit all of us, or just some of us. For the past forty years or so, the answer has been “some of us,” maybe even a “few of us,” and that, I think, is what has, more than anything else, defined us as a people and a country. And, I think, staying that course is entirely unsustainable.
It is no secret that labor’s influence has been on the decline for decades. When you hear elected Congresspeople speak of how we can celebrate the critical work of entrepreneurs and so-called “job creators” on Labor Day, you know that things have run dramatically amok. Yes, entrepreneurs are to be celebrated, but on Labor Day? Come on, we should know better, no? Entrepreneurs don’t get anywhere in the long run without the benefits produced by employees. Not a single one.
Indeed, the language of our national discourse has shifted over the course of my lifetime very much away from the needs of workers. In hindsight, you could argue that a better strategy for diminishing the collective power of labor could not have been consciously designed. I think the “Great Resignation” is primarily a reaction to a dramatic general loss of respect for labor that’s developed over many decades. Working people have become either invisible or irrelevant to both managers and policy-makers, at least in deeds.
In a previous piece I talked about the corporate raiding of the 1980s, a practice that consistently included the massive cutting of costs, typically starting with labor. Entire communities were lost as factories were shuttered by business leaders such as Jack Welch of GE, who was known as “Neutron Jack.” He, like a neutron bomb, left the buildings (read, factories) standing, but the people were gone. On balance, we celebrated the success of such leaders, which was not completely wrong.
For example, during this same era, President Ronald Reagan may very well have been right to fire the unionized air traffic controllers. One can easily argue that the PATCO union’s actions were very much “out of bounds,” legally and otherwise. However, the message received from Reagan’s action was that it was acceptable to break unions. Business leaders responded as you’d imagine.
By the end of the 1980s, the winds had shifted dramatically for working people. But it would get worse.
The big economic story of the 1990s was probably the dramatically increased pace of globalization. With the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and its unexpected, but resoundingly successful, “reconceptualization” in China, the global labor market dynamics shifted dramatically as the world was flooded with low cost, but relatively high quality, labor. U.S. policymakers from across the entire political spectrum basically declared themselves “all in” on free trade and the new global economic order. The “country” and its highly skilled workers did exceptionally well, but a whole swath of our citizens experienced dramatic and seemingly permanent economic upheavals. The domestic benefits of globalization have accrued to a very small portion of the population even as the country’s economic indicators reflect an immense increase in national wealth.
Throw in the relentless advance of technology and you’ve got the nearly perfect recipe for destroying labor’s will to live. For well over a hundred years, technology has driven an annual increase in farming productivity of roughly two percent per annum. For the past sixty or so years, it has done the same for manufacturing. For the past twenty or so, it has started to do the same to “white collar” and service work. Two percent in a single year doesn’t sound like much, and it really isn’t. However, when it occurs repeatedly over a long period of time, the effect of compounding is the important measure of the impact. It’s not two percent; it’s two percent on top of two percent on top of two percent in perpetuity. When compounding is applied to productivity growth, the result is simply, but predictably, dramatically lower demand for labor in existing industries. Most of us would have been farmers 120 years ago—today it's a tiny percentage of the population. And, the rate of change seems to be accelerating. Even if this is not the case, the amount of change of late has simply been too much for our society to absorb in a short time period, thus much of the social unraveling we see today.
Which brings us to today. With the trifecta of reduced public and policy support for labor, new cheaper pools of global human resources, and better, or at least more, use of machines, management teams across the economic spectrum have come to pay mere lip service to “people being a company’s greatest resource.” They say it, but don’t really mean or believe it. Watch the walk, ignore the talk.
And, then, there was a pandemic. And who turned out to be the “essential workers?” The people who feed us: farmers, meat packers, and checkout clerks. The people who care for us: nurses and care aides for the elderly and people with disabilities. People who deliver things. People who take care of our children. People who, largely, have long not been deemed worthy of a living wage and the basic benefits needed for a decent life. They’ve been struggling for a long time, but we’ve not been paying close enough attention to see their pain. Or, worse, we didn’t care.
And, so, after many years of suffering disrespect in the form or pay, benefits, and/or treatment, a sizable part of the nation’s workforce has proclaimed that they’ve had enough. They’re right to do so and we get the Great Resignation and a supply chain crisis caused, at least in part, by a lack of basic labor resources.
Ronald Reagan famously quipped that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” We probably needed an adjustment back then, but perhaps today the nine words might better be spoken as “I’m a job creator, and I’m here to help.” Or, “I’m a candidate for office and here to help.” We’ve come to believe far too strongly in our business and political leaders. Our experience of the most recent decades show these sentiments to be complete rubbish! I love the free market, but it needs rules, boundaries, and bumpers to operate successfully and sustainably. Our leaders have lacked the interest, the creativity, and the courage needed to prepare our country to function well in our quickly unfolding future. And, thus, we have today’s mess.
So, what are we to do? As is often the case, and maybe especially so in today's environment, we need to ditch ideology and dogma and get back to the hard work of solving real problems. All of us! This is a novel concept these days, for sure. But, can we not agree that any person who works full-time is worthy of a living wage that allows them the time to raise a family and have a life? That they also are worthy of health care that doesn’t cause financial distress or disaster during times of sickness? That at the end of their working lives, they should be able to live in dignity without fear of poverty? And that, throughout it all, they’re treated respectfully? Seems to me like a really good place to start our efforts.
We are awfully good at finding things to disagree on lately, but it seems to me that we should be able to agree to these basic principles regardless of our ideological viewpoints.
The 2020s are starting to seem like the 1930s in terms of social dysfunction. We can diminish and disrespect our neighbors and their contributions without ramifications for awhile, but I think the Great Resignation is a loud and clear message that people have had enough and that serious changes are needed. It’s time for our business and political leaders to get back to work of restoring dignity and respect for honest labor in any of its forms, but especially for all of those who have been overlooked, but turned out to be essential for all of us. And, it’s the responsibility of the rest of us to play a part in ensuring that these efforts are serious. We all need to get back to the difficult work, both large and small, that lies in front of us. And, we need to do it in a way that all contributions are treated with respect and dignity.