Take This Job

Boomers are irritating. They remember the second half of the sixties when change was in the air. College would be ending soon. It was time to get out there and make a life. But choosing to be just another drone in a suit seemed like choosing death, a slow death over fifty long years of existential despair. And there were those voices. Don’t work for The Man! Follow your passion!

Okay. Be a teacher. Write poetry. Form a rock band. Join the CIA and become a spy, the next James Bond. Build sailboats. Whatever. Just don’t get stuck in a job that leaves you bored to tears and feeling perpetually used and abused, until that job finally kills you. And then the sixties ended. Boomers ended up in jobs that were not what they had ever imaged, in their counterculture daydreams, but paid the bills. Most of them put their dreams aside, forever. And that was that.

But ten years later this notion came up again:

“Take This Job and Shove It” is a 1977 country music song written by David Allan Coe and popularized by Johnny Paycheck about the bitterness of a man who has worked long and hard with no apparent reward. The song was first recorded by Paycheck on his album also titled Take This Job and Shove It. The recording hit number one on the country charts for two weeks, spending 18 weeks on the charts. It was Paycheck’s only #1 hit.

But the phrase was wildly popular. Everyone was saying that at the time, and his name, Johnny Paycheck, was wonderful. He had been born Donald Eugene Lytle but he was born for this, as close to countercultural as hyper-patriotic Nashville would ever get. This was a critique of capitalism. Paycheck was no hippie, but he clearly hated working for The Man, and he was damned angry about it.

That song may get more play now. Everyone’s angry now. Something is wrong. Paul Krugman won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on international trade and economic geography, so he can explain how this is not like the last time:

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the economy’s problems were all about inadequate demand. The housing boom had gone bust; consumers weren’t spending enough to fill the gap; the Obama stimulus, designed to boost demand, was too small and short-lived.

In 2021, by contrast, many of our problems seem to be about inadequate supply. Goods can’t reach consumers because ports are clogged; a shortage of semiconductor chips has crimped auto production; many employers report that they’re having a hard time finding workers.

Much of this is probably transitory, although supply-chain disruptions will clearly last for a while.

But there seems to be something else going on:

Something more fundamental and lasting may be happening in the labor market. Long-suffering American workers, who have been underpaid and overworked for years, may have hit their breaking point.

That’s entirely new. Krugman dismisses the supply-chain stuff as just an imbalance:

It’s important to realize that more goods are reaching Americans than ever before. The problem is that despite increased deliveries, the system isn’t managing to keep up with extraordinary demand.

Earlier in the pandemic, people compensated for the loss of many services by buying stuff instead. People who couldn’t eat out remodeled their kitchens. People who couldn’t go to gyms bought home exercise equipment.

The result was an astonishing surge in purchases of everything from household appliances to consumer electronics. Early this year real spending on durable goods was more than 30 percent above pre-pandemic levels, and it’s still very high.

But things will improve. As Covid-19 subsides and life gradually returns to normal, consumers will buy more services and less stuff, reducing the pressure on ports, trucking and railroads.

Slate’s Jordan Weissmann has more on this:

While the situation is a pain for consumers and a genuine threat for businesses that stand to lose sales if they can’t stock their shelves, it’s also important to understand that the Great Supply Chain Snarl of 2021 isn’t just a logistical Rubik’s Cube waiting for some inventive solution. Instead it’s better understood, to a large extent, as the downside of the success we’ve had supporting the economy through the pandemic. The core problem is simple: Americans are currently buying a record amount of stuff, and that spending binge is crashing the transport and warehousing network meant to move it all.

“We’ve spent decades optimizing supply chains to carry a very specific amount of cargo during very specific times of the year across very specific modes of transportation,” says Nathan Strang, an expert on ocean trade logistics at the supply chain tech and consulting firm Flexport. “As soon as we exceeded the design capacity of those systems, it broke.”

Of course it broke:

Part of the issue is that global supply chains are only designed to operate at peak capacity for a few months of year, usually in the lead-up to the holidays. Ports and warehouses can then work through any backlogs during slower seasons. “The problem is you’ve essentially had peak season since the onset of the pandemic,” Phil Levy, Flexport’s chief economist, told me. As a result, there hasn’t been a chance to play catchup after things get clogged, and so delays have simply stacked up.

But that’s a sign of success:

Christmas shopping might be a bit frustrating this year, and visiting the store might not feel normal again until our spending patterns calm down. But it’s important to look at the bright side of the situation. America, after all, is still in the middle of a pandemic that led to millions of layoffs. But because our government has supported household incomes by sending checks and extending unemployment insurance, the country is also in the midst of a retail spree that has just happened to tangle the supply chain. As the Harvard economist and former Obama adviser Jason Furman has pointed out, it’s basically a luxury problem compared with the aftermath of the Great Recession, when families were simply broke.

“The only reason we’re having supply chain problems is because people can afford to buy things and are buying things, which is much better than the alternative,” he told me. He added that versions of this story are playing out all over the world. “It’s more severe in the United States, but it is happening to various degrees everywhere. This is the first recession where in the U.S. and most other advanced economies, people’s incomes were protected.”

That was the right thing to do. That saved the economy. That saved actual lives. That also screwed up everything else. Weissmann adds this:

The irony of our supply chain woes is that shoppers can’t find what they want while they’re buying more stuff than ever. In that sense, we’re victims of our own success.

But that will sort itself out. Krugman worries about the other half of the problem:

The labor situation, by contrast, looks like a genuine reduction in supply. Total employment is still five million below its pre-pandemic peak. Employment in the leisure and hospitality sector is still down more than 9 percent. Yet everything we see suggests a very tight labor market.

On one side, workers are quitting their jobs at unprecedented rates, a sign that they’re confident about finding new jobs. On the other side, employers aren’t just whining about labor shortages, they’re trying to attract workers with pay increases. Over the past six months wages of leisure and hospitality workers have risen at an annual rate of 18 percent, and they are now well above their pre-pandemic trend.

But no one is happy:

The sellers’ market in labor has also emboldened union members, who have been much more willing than usual to go on strike after receiving contract offers they consider inadequate.

But why are we experiencing what many are calling the Great Resignation, with so many workers either quitting or demanding higher pay and better working conditions to stay?

The reason may be a shift in the culture:

Until recently conservatives blamed expanded jobless benefits, claiming that these benefits were reducing the incentive to accept jobs. But states that canceled those benefits early saw no increase in employment compared with those that didn’t, and the nationwide end of enhanced benefits last month doesn’t seem to have made much difference to the job situation.

What seems to be happening instead is that the pandemic led many U.S. workers to rethink their lives and ask whether it was worth staying in the lousy jobs too many of them had.

It’s the late sixties again, or 1977 in Nashville. Take this job and shove it:

America is a rich country that treats many of its workers remarkably badly. Wages are often low; adjusted for inflation, the typical male worker earned virtually no more in 2019 than his counterpart did 40 years earlier. Hours are long: America is a “no-vacation nation,” offering far less time off than other advanced countries. Work is also unstable, with many low-wage workers – and nonwhite workers in particular – subject to unpredictable fluctuations in working hours that can wreak havoc on family life.

And it’s not just employers who treat workers harshly. A significant number of Americans seem to have contempt for the people who provide them with services. According to one recent survey, 62 percent of restaurant workers say they’ve received abusive treatment from customers.

Given these realities, it’s not surprising that many workers are either quitting or reluctant to return to their old jobs.

But something is different about this, something new:

Many Americans hated their jobs two years ago, but they didn’t act on those feelings as much as they are now. What changed?

Well, it’s only speculation, but it seems quite possible that the pandemic, by upending many Americans’ lives, also caused some of them to reconsider their life choices. Not everyone can afford to quit a hated job, but a significant number of workers seem ready to accept the risk of trying something different – retiring earlier despite the monetary cost, looking for a less unpleasant job in a different industry…

Why not follow your passion, or at least take care of yourself as best you can? Krugman is fine with that:

While this new choosiness by workers who feel empowered is making consumers’ and business owners’ lives more difficult, let’s be clear: Overall, it’s a good thing. American workers are insisting on a better deal, and it’s in the nation’s interest that they get it.

Maybe the sixties hippies finally won the original argument a bit more than fifty years later. Don’t work for The Man.

But that’s a political decision too, and the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman see us at a pivotal moment here:

A record 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in August, a phenomenon most observers regard as complicated, intriguing and revealing – both about the state of the economy and how people are thinking about the nature of work nearly two years into the coronavirus pandemic.

This is an extraordinary opportunity to look at the economic life of the country in a slightly different way, an opportunity millions of people are already taking. But it may not last. We could look back at this period in our history as a watershed in our approach to work, but the forces of backlash are never far behind any hint of progress.

You can see it at the elite level, with those whose message to the public is simple – Get back to work, you bums! And stop complaining!.

This is not Nashville 1977 with Johnny Paycheck refusing to get back to work. This is all new:

What is now being called the “Great Resignation” has many causes. Many of those quitting are doing so because they think they can get a better job elsewhere. Some are starting their own businesses. Some have decided to retire early, even on a smaller income, because they’ve realized they value time more than money.

The quitting is happening at the highest rates in low-wage industries such as restaurants, hospitality and retail. Many have gotten fed up with low pay, difficult working conditions and abusive customers. And many who are still in their old jobs are thinking about moving on.

This isn’t happening by accident. From the beginning, the pandemic was a public health and an economic crisis, and the nature of employment was at the center. When we put the economy into an induced coma in early 2020, we began talking about “essential workers” who put themselves at risk for the rest of us. But what did they get from all those expressions of thanks? Not much.

It was worse than that:

From the earliest moments of the pandemic, Republicans worried that workers might start getting dangerous ideas about their self-worth. In April 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order declaring meatpacking plants to be “critical infrastructure,” forcing the largely immigrant workforce to stay in already dangerous jobs; thousands went on to contract covid-19. But as a White House economist said a month later, “Our human capital stock is ready to get back to work.”

Well, no:

As Democrats forced enhanced unemployment benefits into relief bills, Republicans loudly objected that they would make Americans lazy and unwilling to work. GOP-controlled states moved to cut off those benefits, claiming that doing so would produce an explosion in job growth as layabouts would be forced to get jobs. They were wrong; states that cut off enhanced benefits early did no better than states that didn’t.

Today, as Democrats argue about whether to extend the enhanced child tax credit and improve our health-care and child-care systems, the same arguments can be heard, sometimes from conservative Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.): If we make people’s lives too secure, they’ll reveal themselves as the moochers they are, so let’s make benefits as stingy as possible and force people to run a bureaucratic obstacle course to get them.

That’s the real battle here:

This is an ongoing struggle playing out in Congress and workplaces throughout the country. For this brief moment, the balance of power has shifted a bit in workers’ direction, because labor shortages are allowing them to demand better pay and working conditions.

A more robust system of social supports would shift that balance further: If your health insurance weren’t dependent on the whims of your boss and you had affordable child care, you wouldn’t always live in terror of losing your job. The fact that you could quit without fear to find something better would give you more power.

But that’s not new:

We shouldn’t forget that, for most Americans, this isn’t remotely the situation they are living with. We’re seeing a wave of strikes – not only because workers feel they have a chance to succeed, but because their pay and working conditions have become intolerable. In one recent poll, nearly 40 percent of Americans said they had faced serious financial difficulty in recent months.

This is dire. Reconsider everything:

We have long told ourselves a story about America as a land of limitless opportunity, despite the fact that we know it isn’t true. We tell and retell stories of the extraordinary people who pulled themselves up from dire circumstances to achieve wealth and success, never acknowledging that it’s precisely the exceptional nature of those stories that is the problem. In a just society, you shouldn’t have to be a one-in-a-million genius or a maniacal workaholic to haul yourself to a life free of deprivation.

So here we are:

We could go either way as we emerge from the pandemic: toward an economy that provides people a baseline level of security that allows them to live meaningful lives free of fear of economic misery, or toward one that tells people they should be happy to have any job at all and don’t deserve much more.

Our history does not suggest that things will work out well for ordinary people.

Things never do work out well for ordinary people.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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