The wild west of modern work

Studs Terkel must be turning over in his grave. The author of the ground-breaking 1974 book “Working” spent his days chatting with people about their jobs. Terkel believed that working was “about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Close to half a century later, work does not seem as formulaic as it did in Terkel’s time, when people described how they got up, went to work, worked with energy, came home, played on days off and went back to work Monday morning. They got paid and spent money. Sometimes people changed jobs, but most of the time they stayed at the same place and got a boost in pay or increased responsibility with benefits. And they felt appreciated at work.

Today “work” is a freighted word. The world of work is chaotic, with shifting rules, unclear compensation, overburdened sectors, undertrained professions, lack of transparency and disagreements over the value of work. It’s the wild west.

Thanks to a global pandemic, supply shortages and a politically charged atmosphere, people seem down on the value of work. The so-called “Great Resignation” is reflected in the numbers. According to the Department of Labor, a record 4.4 million employees quit their jobs in September 2021. That bested the previous record freshly set in August, when another 4.3 million people dropped their two-week notices.

Americans quit their jobs at a record pace last November as job openings came close to their all-time highs in a sign that workers continue to hold the leverage and employers continue to hold the bag — begging for help.

Job openings have topped 10 million for six straight months

Much has been written about the many reasons people leave their jobs today: difficulty finding child care, stagnant wages, rising prices, unfulfilling work, the ability to work from home, frustration at new COVID requirements, burnout, a greater sense of empowerment for younger generations demanding higher work expectations, miserable labor conditions.

But how can someone afford not to work?

Well, some can put off their return to the workforce because they’re still living off government stimulus checks or generous unemployment benefits doled out earlier in the health crisis.  

Of the 5 million people who have left the labor force since the start of the pandemic, many are over 55 years old and have retired or begun to work fewer hours.

Today, society is rearranging itself to meet new work patterns. From restaurants to hospitals, demand for service is high and labor supply is low, which means closures, reduced hours of operation, fewer non-essential services and other workarounds, leaving consumers frustrated.

Prices are high and budgets are tight. Financially, young adults are turning to parents for help. Grandparents are stepping in as child care providers, and in one California community, school administrators double as crossing guards, parents teach classes and public officials are handing out lunches.

Those who remain in management at companies, restaurants, hospitals, schools, etc. say they have taken on too much responsibility for their missing colleagues. In a survey of workers by the Society of Human Resource Management, 30 percent report struggling to get necessary work done, 27 percent feel less loyalty to their organization and 55 percent question whether their pay is high enough.

Thanks to technology, there is a whole new world of work possibilities, although the rules of the road are still being developed. Gig workers complain of a lack of reliable benefits and salaries. People who used to coach sports classes inside at gymnasiums are moving online or to outdoor public spaces but still figuring out how to charge customers. Some Zoom teachers set a class rate — others just invite donations. One wonders how the accounting and financial disclosure issues will get sorted out when this Great Resignation ends.

The real question is: What’s the solution to employment dislocation? What would Studs Terkel advise?

One is to make the workplace a more inspiring and less toxic place. Many companies have adopted policies aimed at reducing bias and combating racism. For example, Starbucks and Walmart don’t ask for criminal history in their job applications to ensure their preliminary selection process doesn’t discriminate against former felons. And plenty of HR departments and supervisors have rolled out unconscious bias training to help identify patterns of discriminatory thinking and behavior.

Another answer is to make it possible for people to change careers more seamlessly with better training and resources for those making a transition. The coronavirus pandemic has forced Americans to reassess their relationships with work and job satisfaction and seek new paths. But there is no standardized way to go about shifting gears, and many tech jobs are open but require advanced training.

Alternatively, companies can better address the issues driving workers away. In a study by CNBC and Catalyst, a global gender equity firm, lack of morale was cited as a major problem.

People felt employers did not understand them, that they weren’t providing empathy. This is especially true for working parents, male or female. They didn’t feel good about the work experience. Approximately 41 percent of those surveyed said they were considering leaving their job because their company did not care about their concerns during the pandemic. And a whopping 76 percent said they wanted their company to make work permanently flexible in terms of schedule or location, or both. Of the roughly 50 percent of employed Americans who intend to make career changes because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 41 percent are seeking flexible and/or remote work, 39 percent desire a raise and/or promotion and 33 percent are interested in changing industries. 

Work matters. Societies depend on workers and workers depend on working. If we want to live in a productive world, where work is valued, we must rethink norms and patterns. When it comes to shaping a new, post-COVID workplace with equity, excitement, and good results that keep us competitive, we have a lot of work to do.

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

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