I had already been ruminating an article about the labor shortage when I saw this Spongebob meme floating about the internet, perfectly encapsulating many of my own recent thoughts:
As far as I was able to trace, it originated from user Praxiscat on a Reddit board, r/antiwork, which champions the cause of helping people “get the most out of a work-free life.” The existence of such a board speaks eloquently to where we are right now as a society in our relationship with work.
I just got back from a road trip through the North Central states, where the shortage seems to be particularly acute. One small North Dakota town I visited, an interstate rest stop with multiple fast-food joints, did not seem to have any dining rooms in service; signs on the doors directed customers to the lengthy drive-thru lines because, they said, they didn’t have enough employees to fully open. As a traveller who needed a bathroom, not just a meal, that was bad news for me.
Not every region has quite such an obvious problem, but our news is full of stories about the supply chain breaking down and employers struggling to fill jobs. What’s going on here? Early on, the easy answer was that extended COVID unemployment benefits were paying people not to work and thus creating an artificial labor shortage. But those benefits have ended, the unemployment rate continues to fall, and we’re still far from “back to normal.” What gives?
I looked up the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ own data, and confirmed that it’s not just our imagination. The workforce really is shrinking, especially in comparison to our still-growing population. From September 2019 to September 2021, the U.S. population of civilians ages 16+ grew from 259,638,000 to 261,766,000 (0.8% growth, despite excess mortality from the pandemic). But the total number of people from that group who are in the labor market shrunk considerably (from 163,943,000 to 161,392,000, a 1.6% decrease) as people left the workforce. That’s why we have a labor shortage.
Why have people left the labor force? All the reasons in the meme. Officially, over 700,000 people have died from COVID-19, but the CDC’s record of “excess deaths” (beyond the expected average) shows that anywhere from 1.5 to 1.9 million more people than expected have died since March 2020. That’s a pretty staggering statistic. People have died from COVID… they’ve died from drug overdoses brought on by despair… they’ve died from economic hardship… they’ve died because they’re afraid to go to the emergency room for heart attacks and strokes, or the emergency room simply doesn’t have attention to spare them among the flood of COVID patients gasping for breath. With so much death, it’s a wonder our population managed to grow at all, and no surprise that our workforce shrank. Add on top of that the workers who are experiencing long-term disability due to Long COVID – we don’t even have a handle yet on what the fallout from that will be.
Many of the retirement-age Boomer generation are taking this opportunity to exit the workforce, very reasonably worried about the risks to their own physical and mental health from employers who still insist that they show up in person even though they are especially vulnerable to COVID. Even without the pandemic, experts have warned over the last couple of decades that we had a labor force crisis building. The Boomers, as their generational name implies, are far more numerous than the “replacement” Gen X, Millennial, and Zoomer generations born in a similar span of time, so there aren’t enough workers to replace them as they retire. There are also issues with finding qualified workers based on the way our educational and workforce systems have kept managerial experience in the hands of the old, and the way we’ve pushed young workers into a narrow band of prestigious professions (at enormous expense) that don’t begin to cover all our needs. So even without COVID, we’d be feeling the bite by now; it is just accelerated by the wave of retirements.
What about younger workers’ attitude toward employment? Why is there an “antiwork” Reddit? Have we all become lazy? Or is something else going on? To answer this question, I think about my own personal experience in the summer of 2014 when I went on vacation to Alaska. Up to that point, I was working in a job where I was miserable, grimly clinging to it for the sake of a regular paycheck because I didn’t believe I could survive otherwise. Traveling in Alaska profoundly changed my perspective. As I traveled on ships, planes, trains, and buses, stayed in hostels and campgrounds, ate in restaurants, and visited museums and parks, I met dozens of people who lived the seasonal employment lifestyle, migrating from summer to winter jobs with all their worldly goods in a couple of duffle bags or maybe a small camper van. I began to see my steady paycheck as a form of enslavement, and to envy their freedom. A month later, when things at work reached a crisis, I found the courage to quit my job and start my own consulting business. I’ve never regretted that decision. I still work, and work hard, but on my own terms, in my own home, and with dignity – without the dehumanizing and demoralizing effects of managers who counted against me every business-day hour I spent tending to the needs of life while ignoring the copious hours of overtime I contributed to the company. I never want to go back to that life, not for any amount of “security.”
“It’s hard to understand why we are deliberately emasculating our own economy with immigration laws that deny its crying needs.”
I suspect that for a lot of people the enforced lockdowns at the beginning of the pandemic were the sort of disruptive life experience that I had from my Alaska trip (just not as fun). It’s easy to get into a routine and to assume “this is how life is.” Something that disrupts the routine can make you question everything, and can open up new horizons you hadn’t considered before. When people were forced to stop attending the jobs they’d held for years, they began to consider other possibilities for their lives.
It’s not all one story, I’m sure, for the people who have left the workforce. Some will probably come back eventually. Some may be starting their own businesses. Some people used the pandemic disruption and their unemployment wages to train for a different field where they can work with more dignity and better pay. Some may find that they are happier working part-time instead of full-time and getting by on less. Some two-income families have simplified and become one-income families so that one parent can stay home with the kids (especially if they want to homeschool to avoid school disruptions). Some have rejected the traditional workforce for the reasons mentioned in the last panel of the cartoon, and have turned to the gig economy as an alternative.
Having society shaken up has given all these folks both reason and opportunity to re-think their values and priorities instead of continuing along a “default” path. That’s the kind of disruption that can cause a sea change in how a society functions, and I think we’re still at the beginning of that process. But sea changes are uncomfortable, sometimes catastrophic, while they are in process. Employers are going to have to find ways to adapt and to attract new talent. After many years of employers holding all the cards, the balance of power has shifted dramatically according to the laws of supply and demand. We can only wait and see how all this shakes out.
Looking at all these factors together, we can see that the solution for our labor shortage is not as simple as just offering better wages and benefits to workers. That is one important part of the equation, especially given recent labor strikes and demands for better pay among workers who are genuinely underpaid and can’t make ends meet. But it’s not a panacea. Money really isn’t everything. In the 1950s, groundbreaking management theorist Douglas McGregor applied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to corporate economics. He posited that workers who aren’t paid enough to meet their most basic needs (food, clothing, rent/ mortgage) are likely to be motivated by offers of better pay, but workers who are getting a sufficient salary are more likely to be motivated by initiatives addressing their higher-order needs for belonging, respect, and self-actualization. Increasing wages of workers beyond a certain level produces diminishing returns of worker satisfaction, and it can eventually cripple the company when they are forced to raise their prices to keep up. In fact, economy-wide indiscriminate raising of wages for workers who aren’t underpaid can cause exactly the sort of inflation we’re seeing now, to economists’ great alarm. Inflation undermines pay raises by reducing real wages in comparison to costs. Given the fact that a lot of people are voluntarily taking pay cuts to leave the workforce or reduce their hours because they value quality of life over money, employers are going to have to think about how to give them what they are really wanting rather than just throwing money at the problem.
But there’s one more factor not mentioned in the cartoon, that I don’t hear a lot of people talking about. Brace yourselves; it’s a hot-button topic. Yep, immigration. As recently as 2017, experts were counting on immigration to ease the shock to our labor market of the mass Boomer retirement. But we may not be buying ourselves that reprieve after all. We had four years of a President who whipped his followers into a frenzy by promising he’d stop immigrants from “stealing their jobs.” He didn’t just try to build a border wall; he enacted policies that reduced legal immigration from countries he despised, shutting out exactly the group of low-skilled, low-maintenance, inexpensive workers that our economy desperately needs right now. In 2020, legal immigration continued a multi-year trend of slowed growth (exacerbated by COVID-19 travel restrictions); illegal immigration declined, with more Mexicans leaving the country than entering; the U.S. settled fewer refugees than it ever had since the refugee resettlement program began; and nearly half of new immigrants had a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Our current President might be from the other party, but he is continuing these exact same policies. We’re cutting off our economic nose to spite our face. Why on earth did we just send thousands of Haitian refugees back to the hellscape of their home country when our service industry sector is crying out for work they could do – work at which Americans have turned up their noses?
A realistic and compassionate guest worker program would be one of the quickest and least painful ways to solve at least some of our labor shortage woes. A program like that actually protects American workers, too, by giving foreign workers the legal standing to protect themselves from exploitation and human trafficking. This ensures the guest workers are paid minimum wage and given decent working conditions, discouraging dishonest employers from “saving a buck” by exploiting immigrants they can underpay and endanger. That way, any Americans who are still unemployed and wanting to work can compete on a level playing field.
Economic pressures being what they are, if we don’t create a legal way for the jobs to be filled, undocumented workers will end up filling in the gaps. It is neither possible nor desirable to prevent this with more stringent laws and penalties. Laws that forbid people from carrying out basic necessary functions like eating are doomed to fail; laws that keep businesses from hiring needed labor are similarly futile and counterproductive. It’s better for everyone – employers, consumers, immigrant workers, and native-born workers – to legalize the situation and bring it under the purview of labor laws.
Looking at it objectively, it’s hard to understand why we are deliberately emasculating our own economy with immigration laws that deny its crying needs. The only explanation I can see for this illogical behavior is a political climate shaped by prejudices and fears.
I personally experienced the ugly, visceral nature of this prejudice in 2006 when I served as a delegate to my state’s Republican convention. Distressed by the anti-immigration rhetoric I heard there, I drafted and presented a proposed resolution to the Platform Committee to express support for expanded legal immigration in keeping with our economic needs. I pointed out how nineteenth-century Americans and their politicians wrote endless letters to newspapers expressing fears that Irish and Eastern European immigrants would destroy the fabric of America, while in reality those peoples assimilated into the U.S. and made us far stronger. The room where I made my brief presentation was filled not only with committee members, but with other delegates waiting to present resolutions or simply listening in – many of whom, no doubt, were descendants of those earlier waves of immigrants. Before I even had time to finish reading my proposed resolution, my voice was nearly drowned by a chorus of boos from all sides, to the extent that the committee chair had to call for order. I finished my statement and fled the room, shaken by the level of hatred I felt all around me. That experience opened my eyes to the incredible difficulty of changing American immigration policy, even when it is a practical necessity. In an ideal world, we would overcome our prejudices and embrace immigrants as fellow members of the human race, worthy contributors to this unique blend of peoples that we call America. But if we can’t achieve that, might it be possible for us to at least act in our own economic self-interest by allowing in the workers we desperately need?
Vivian Bush makes her home in Houston, Texas, where she provides consulting and proposal-writing services for nonprofit organizations. She’s currently working on a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership from Johnson University. Her Facebook followers (@berninbush) have come to expect her random, researched, geeky musings on life/ the universe/ everything, as well as pictures of her gray tabby cat Peter, her six adorable nieces and nephews, and scenery from her worldwide travel adventures.