Where Do You Think You’re Going?


I know I’ve said this before, but I think we’re about done with COVID. I’m not saying it’s done with us, and it’s beginning to look like it never will be, but I think Americans have simply moved on.

It all reminds me of our accustomed experience with hurricanes. People see the storm coming and take some hurried precautions like boarding up their windows and stocking up on canned goods. Then everybody finds shelter somewhere and waits for the thing to blow over.

So now we’re in that phase where the survivors emerge from the rubble, survey the damage and begin to rebuild their lives. The difference with this storm is that not everyone seems to have come back.

I heard on the news today that there are approximately two job openings for every person who is looking for work in the United States. In a September 2nd article for The Wall Street Journal, entitled “The Americans Who Never Went Back to Work After the Pandemic,” author Nicholas Eberstadt put it this way: “Never has work been so readily available in modern America; never have so many been uninterested in taking it.”

The town where I live is very popular with tourists in the summer, and partly for that reason we have a large number of local restaurants. This past summer we seemed to have more tourists than ever, but more often than not they had a hard time finding a place to get something to eat. It wasn’t that the restaurants were out of business, but they certainly weren’t doing business as usual.

Restaurants had shorter hours, days when they were closed, curtailed menus, fewer servers, and much higher prices. Quality varied from week to week as chefs got better offers elsewhere. Every window had a sign in it saying, “help wanted,” and I got the feeling it applied to more than just employees.

Employees are the main thing, though, and everybody is looking for them. I get emails from the country club where I play golf, asking the members if they know anyone who would want to work in the kitchen, or mow the fairways. It always makes me laugh, because I don’t know the membership that well but they don’t strike me as the sort of people who would be much help with recruitment.

We’ve been shorthanded here in the office for years, but the combination of a tight labor market and a tight budget have kept us from trying too hard to address the situation. Lately it has become more acute, and we have begun advertising for experienced publishing professionals.

I don’t know whether or not you’ve been through that process recently, but if so I’m guessing you found it to be frustrating at best (and maddening at worst). I have found that most applicants fall into one of three categories.

The first is people who have reasonably sufficient qualifications, but live a thousand miles away from our office. Most of them don’t say it explicitly, but I get the feeling they are assuming they could work remotely. If not I’m not sure why they would want to relocate when there are plenty of jobs available where they live now.

The second group is made up of people who have little to no relevant experience, but do live around here. They tend to stress their availability and willingness to learn new skills, but I have to wonder whether they simply don’t want to work in a restaurant, and apply for everything else in the area.

Finally there is the third group, who don’t live around here and have no background in publishing whatsoever. I have no idea what they’re thinking.

We really prefer that people work here in the office, although we have made exceptions in the past and may need to consider doing so again. For those of you who are brick-and-mortar retailers such an arrangement may not be possible, which would leave you to make the most of group number two.

At any rate, the whole process begs the question, “What happened to all the workers?” According to the Journal article, they left the labor market of their own volition.

Among men of prime working age (25-54), there has been a “flight from work” going on for the past 50 years. Even before the pandemic, for every unemployed prime-age man looking for work, there were four who were neither working nor looking.

Emergency measures taken during the pandemic appear to have made that situation more pronounced. In an effort to avoid an economic collapse, the U.S. government in 2020 and 2021 handed out an additional $2.5 trillion in payments to individuals, over and above its customary transfers.

As a result, disposable income actually rose higher during those years that it had ever been. After the initial shock of the pandemic wore off, consumer demand also rose above previous levels, fueling a rapid rebound in the economy and our current bout with inflation.

Even with all that spending going on, however, there was so much money being dished out that the saving rate went up sharply as well. The saved money served to nearly double the net worth of the lower half of American households, triggering a phenomenon that economists refer to as the “wealth effect.”

Basically, that is the theory that people will behave differently when they perceive that their assets have increased significantly in value. A typical example would be that when the stock market goes up, people who own stocks tend to spend more money on other things.

In this case, it means that people who feel richer are more likely to make lifestyle changes. It turns out that the change many want to make is to quit working, resulting in what the media has been calling the “Great Resignation.” They have joined the approximately 38 percent of working-age Americans who are neither working nor seeking work.

My parents came of age during the Great Depression, and some of their most basic values were forged by that experience. One of those values was that there is nothing more important in life than having a job, any job, and that anyone who has one should be grateful for the opportunity to work.

For better or worse, I’m their son and I absorbed their sensibilities. In any case they were reinforced by my own experience, graduating from college during the worst job market in generations. I spent the following two years “kicking around,” taking whatever odd jobs I could find.

Even now, when I am well past the traditional retirement age, I have a hard time imagining life without some sort of work. Maybe all those absentees from the labor force know something I don’t.

Or maybe not. After a couple of years on the sidelines, perhaps people will decide to get back into the game.

You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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