Remember a time long, long ago (early 2020) when soft-hearted commentators were worried about precarity and the ill effects on workers of the gig economy? It turned out that relatively few people were actually in the gig economy, though almost all work is indeed precarious. Two short—if admittedly extraordinary—years later, the dominant labor-market worry finds the shoe on the other foot: in the words of a New York Times headline on June 5, 2021, “Workers Are Gaining Leverage Over Employers Right Before Our Eyes.”
At first, this seemed only a matter of employers discovering that people were not so eager to return to their jobs after the pandemic for the old 9 or 12 dollars an hour, at a moment when restaurants, bars, and other establishments wanted to reopen as quickly as possible. Republican lawmakers were sure this was because of the ill effects on morale of the 300 or even 600 dollars unemployment supplements some workers were still receiving from the emergency stimulus bills; many states moved to end these payments to discourage laziness. Glenn Hubbard, a professor of economics and finance at Columbia University, who chaired the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, opined that “generous pandemic unemployment insurance benefits” are keeping workers from new jobs. This, he thoughtfully pointed out, is not only slowing down the return of prosperity but delaying “future gains” for those misguided workers “in the form of higher wages workers might earn from a new and better job.”1
Meanwhile, workers with jobs have begun to quit them at a rate high enough for employers, labor economists, and newspaper columnists to notice, amplifying the puzzle of hard-to-find workers in a moment of high unemployment. Clues to the mystery can be found in the signs people are posting in the windows of their workplaces as they walk away: “Closed indefinitely because Dollar General doesn’t pay a living wage or treat their employees with respect,” read a handwritten notice on a store in Maine, with an addition providing a fairly complete analysis of the situation: “Capitalism will destroy this country. If you don’t pay people enough to live their lives, why should they slave away for you?” These workers posted thanks to their customers, “who treated us with respect,” a sentiment echoed by the employees who announced their exit from a Dollar Store in Pittsburgh with a jolly “Staff quit—Y’all be easy!”
Such events provide a new perspective on a trend studied in recent years by labor statisticians and economists: the “abnormally large increase in the number of people who have stopped looking for work,” producing a decline in the so-called labor force participation rate (LFPR).2 The rate has fallen since the early 2000s, with even more people dropping out of the labor force during the Great Recession of 2008. The trend continued, surprisingly, after the “recovery” of 2009. Experts identify multiple factors: an aging workforce, people spending more time in school and starting careers later, effects of the opioid epidemic, and gender discrimination (the pandemic’s outsized effects on women workers have been noted, but the decline in the female LFPR long antedates it). In fact, the decline in the LFPR was responsible for much of the appearance of low unemployment in the pre-pandemic decade, as government statistics on unemployment do not count people not looking for work (for the obvious reason that counting them would reveal the much larger real unemployment numbers).
The shutdown of much of the economy, of course, increased the number of unemployed by any method of counting. What is interesting—and inspiring—is that the return of economic activity, rushed well in advance of care for health and safety, seems to have provided an occasion for large numbers of people to seriously consider how they want to spend their lives. The pandemic forcibly threw people out of normality, breaking the routine of getting up in the morning (or evening) and going to work, just as for a moment it suspended the pollution of air and water, letting people breathe, see their families, and enjoy a moment of quiet and freedom from low-paid toil. At the same time, the brutal disregard of employers (and some customers) for the welfare of their workers was drummed into those kept on as “essential”; those who received hazard pay at the height of the emergency saw it quickly taken back. And capitalist normality is hardly a thing to celebrate: the majority of jobs seeking workers today (45 million of them) pay less than 750 dollars a week; 23 million of them pay less than 500 dollars a week, or 26,000 dollars a year.3
I suspect the same sharp experience of the nature of the system we live in—which at the height of the pandemic helped move unprecedented numbers of people to a national rebellion against police violence—is part of what is inspiring the wave of strikes covering the country. There have been an astonishing 1,300 strikes since the pandemic began; the last few weeks saw, to take a few examples, Connecticut service plaza workers protesting working conditions and union-busting, nurses striking at a San Francisco hospital over working conditions, 2,900 Volvo workers still on strike in rural Virginia, a school-full of teachers in North Carolina walking out to demand long-promised air conditioning (they got it almost immediately). Something is stirring in the American working class, part of the worldwide sense that things just can’t go on as they are. The failure of federal, state, and city governments to respond to the George Floyd rebellion with any real change, as cops continue to shoot citizens freely; the horrors of the badly managed medical emergency; the depressing return to catastrophe-headed normality, including elevated CO2 levels; looming housing evictions; and the pull of employment at low wages to keep life going—none of this should blind us to the latest cheering demonstration that if history is a slaughter bench, it is also unpredictable. One thing the past can teach us is the ever-present possibility that people will, at the moment it is least expected, decide that they have had enough, at least for a while, and try new modes of thought and action.
- Glenn Hubbard, “How to Keep the Economy Booming — And Meet the Demand for Workers,” New York Times, June 8, 2021.
- Jason Furman and Wilson Powell, “Unemployment continues to fall but workers still not returning to the labor force,” https://www.piie.com/blogs/realtime-economic-issues-watch/unemployment-continues-fall-workers-still-not-returning-labor.
- See Daniel Alpert, “Americans Don’t Want to Return to Low Wage Jobs,” New York Times, June 1, 2021.