“The Great Resignation” Continues

“The Great Resignation” Continues January 25, 2022

Last year we blogged about what was being called “The Great Resignation,” the phenomenon of people quitting their jobs and not returning to the workplace.  Much of that was a response to the COVID epidemic, with the lockdowns giving people a taste for not going to work and the government relief payments (including unemployment benefit supplements that paid many workers more for doing nothing than they were earning on their jobs) making that, at least for awhile, financially possible.

But now, most of those who voluntarily left the workplace back then still have not come back.  The workplace participation numbers are essentially the same as they were back in August of 2020.  This, even though pay has shot up, as companies are growing desperate for workers.  The labor shortage is throwing off the economy, but it also bodes ill for those who are cultivating idleness and for the culture as a whole.

So says an article by By Mene Ukueberuwa in the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall) entitled The Underside of the ‘Great Resignation’.

In 2000, the labor force participation rate–which includes everyone in the population, including the retired and unable to work– reached a high mark of 67%.  Today, it is 61.9%, a drop of 5%, the same that it was last August.  Among men in their prime working age, from 25 to 54, only 88.2% work.  In 1961, the percentage was 96.9%.  Put another way, among men between 25 and 54,  the proportion of those who do not work for a living is 1 out of 8.

For women of the prime working age, the high point in 2000 was 77.3%, dropping to 75% today.  The overall percentages are lower, since women often opt out of the workplace to have children and to take care of them, but the decline is also lower compared to men.

The work rate today is lower than it was during the Great Depression.  Thirty years ago, according to the article, Americans had a 10% higher work rate than the European Union, but today Americans have fallen “a couple of points” behind the supposedly easy-going Europeans.

The reporter interviewed the economist Nicholas Eberstadt, who wrote a book on the subject in 2016 entitled Men without Work.  It turns out, this phenomenon pre-dated the pandemic, with the work participation rate declining ever since the turn of the 21st century.

This is not the same as unemployment.  This is people not looking for jobs.  What are they doing instead?  Watching TV!  Taking advantage of all of the streaming services!

“By and large, nonworking men don’t ‘do’ civil society,” Mr. Eberstadt says. “Their time spent helping in the home, their time spent in worship—a whole range of activities, they just aren’t doing.” His source is the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, which compiles respondents’ self-reported habits.

What is filling idle men’s time? “There’s a lot of staying at home, it seems. And what they report doing is ‘watching.’ They report being in front of screens 2,000 hours a year, like that’s their job.” Women again trail the men, but not by much. In 2019 childless women without jobs said they spent seven hours a day in “leisure,” a category dominated by entertainment.

How can they afford to do this?  The answer would vary from person to person, probably including cashing in IRAs; government assistance; living off of a spouse, girl friend, or parent.  The number of people getting disability payments has almost doubled  from 2.2% of the working-age population in 1977 to 4.3% in 2021.  Most of those disability claims are surely well-deserved, but today’s workplace would seem to be less hazardous over all than back then, though perhaps our health has declined due to our bad diets and inactivity.

Surely, many of these folks will eventually run out of money or support and have to re-enter the workforce, especially as the number of jobs keeps growing and the labor demand is sending paychecks higher and higher.  But there are other factors at work.

[Eberhardt]  notes that widespread contempt for many ordinary jobs may be making the problem worse. Journalists and economists who cheer on the Great Resignation often stigmatize work in the same breath, writing off low-paid jobs as not worth taking.

“It’s astonishingly condescending to say that some work is meaningless,” Mr. Eberstadt says. “And it shows an astonishing ignorance of how other people live.” It’s wonderful that millions of people are finding better work. But there are millions more who could fill the jobs they’re vacating, and disdain for low-skill work helps keep those people away.

Instead of stigmatizing low-skill jobs, we would do better to stigmatize idleness, especially among men. Not long ago, Mr. Eberstadt says, “the idea that 1 in 8 men should be neither working nor looking for work would have been an absolutely horrifying prospect.” Re-embracing that perspective could do a lot of good for the economy, as well as for idle Americans.

It seems that many Americans have lost the work ethic that we used to be famous for.  Americans have also lost the doctrine of vocation, which gives work of all kinds meaning, value, and spiritual significance.



Photo by AllaSerebrina via DepositPhotos, attributed free license

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