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The long American tradition of complaining about lazy workers

A Help Wanted sign
Employers may need to fundamentally rethink their relationship with their workforces amid staffing shortages.
(Associated Press)

“It’s become apparent nobody wants to work in these hard times.”

Such statements have become emblematic of the Great Resignation and the years around the COVID-19 pandemic when workers quit en masse, refused to return to offices and embraced self-employment the most in more than a decade. The latest jobs report provided only more evidence: The labor force participation rate fell to the lowest level this year, and many restaurants, hotels and other businesses are still struggling with painful staffing shortages.

It turns out the quote comes from an editor of the Rooks County Record in Stockton, Kan., lamenting coal mines shut down by strikes in April 1894. But it echoes recent sentiment: A Forbes story published in January, for example, cites a poll of executives that found 1 in 5 agreed with the statement “No one wants to work.”

In a viral Twitter thread, political scientist Paul Fairie of the University of Calgary in Canada curated a collection of newspaper clippings from each decade decrying the death of the work ethic. Although the last few years have their own unique characteristics — not the least of which is a global pandemic — the thread captures the timelessness of the sentiment.

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“It’s a conversation about work — about COVID and inflation and the pace of the economy right now — that caught people’s interest,” Fairie said of the response the thread generated. “It’s that point of, there’s nothing especially wrong with workers today.”

Employers in California and the U.S. are scrambling to fill jobs as the dust from the pandemic begins to settle. Just don’t call it a labor shortage.

While there’s been a revival recently of the notion that people simply don’t want to work, it’s a long-running trope in American history, Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University, said.

“You find a lot back in, say, the 1870s. There was a recession in 1873 and there was a ‘vagabond scare,’ they called it at the time: People were hitting the road to avoid a working life and trying to sort of bum around the country,” he said. “Really what was happening is often these are migrant workers looking for work elsewhere, but in the public imagination at the time, there was this idea that there are people that just don’t want to work.”

In the same way, McCartin said, tropes about today’s labor shortages in sectors such as trucking, healthcare and service get linked to the idea that people don’t want to work. “But that sidesteps the key issue, which is that a lot of jobs, for the amount of wear and tear and the hard labor involved — they just don’t pay enough,” he said. “Very often what this kind of rhetoric, whether it’s people don’t want to work or there’s a labor shortage, what that often speaks to is that wages simply aren’t attractive enough for workers.”

A $15 hourly wage no longer cuts it for most workers in terms of covering basic expenses, especially as housing costs surge.

“Ten years ago, when the fight for $15 began, it seemed like Nirvana,” McCartin said. Now, the living wage for a family of two working adults and two children is $24.16 per hour, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator. To make a living wage, a single parent with two kids earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 would need to work 235 hours per week — almost six full-time minimum-wage jobs. Although wage gains remained strong last month, raises aren’t keeping pace with inflation.

Pent-up demand, pandemic savings, back-to-office mandates -- experts say it will all add up to a historic wave of people leaving their jobs.

Emily Rose McRae, senior director of research at consulting firm Gartner, said ongoing staffing shortages present an opportunity for employers to fundamentally rethink their relationship with their workforces — especially as low immigration, an aging workforce and lack of affordable childcare create structural shortfalls that are likely to reemerge even if recession temporarily curbs demand.

McRae said while many service-sector employers have invested heavily in desk workers, the front-line workforce is a tool that’s replaced constantly. This model is backed by the assumption that there will always be a supply of front-line workers. This approach isn’t inherently bad, she said. “But if the workforce is a tool, you need to be upfront or compensating accordingly — otherwise nobody will work for you.”

An alternative model is to see the workforce as a cornerstone, a more permanent relationship in which front-line workers form the foundation of the business. That means investing more in workers and offering training and career development, though it comes with the risk that those workers could still choose to leave.

“The second part of the sentence often goes unsaid: Nobody wants to work — for what I want to give them,” McRae said. “If your entire business model is dependent on paying the lowest possible wages and now you can’t pay people enough, you have a problem, you have to adapt.”


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