Publications

- October 1, 2021: Vol. 8, Number 9

U.S. workers have brush with mortality: A lethal virus can be bad for a nation’s mental and economic health

by Mike Consol

People have been wondering what’s going on with all the HELP WANTED signs. There are 10.9 million U.S. job openings, according to the Labor Department, the highest number since the government began tracking the data two decades ago.

Some have blamed generous and extended federal unemployment benefits. But in states where those benefits have been discontinued, the employment needle has barely moved. Others blame low wages that discourage workers from returning. But even entry-level Goldman Sachs employees with starting salaries of $150,000 have rebelled against the boot-camp hours required to make the grade at the Wall Street investment bank. Still others say the rampant delta variant of the COVID-19 virus has convinced people that job-based exposure to others is still too big a risk.

There is something else going on. Actually, a couple of things are going on.

For starters, when the coronavirus became pandemic it shoved human mortality into the faces of both the young and old. Remember that when the pandemic first broke, we feared it was going to be far more virulent than it turned out to be. The prospect of dying on an ICU ventilator from an invisible, airborne force of Mother Nature is still a present and horrifying danger to many people.

Bottom line, we confronted our mortality and not all of us liked what we saw. In one way or another, many of us asked ourselves: “Am I doing with my life what I really want to be doing?”

For many, the answer has been “no,” as evidenced by the number of people who are re-careering or have decided to simply take a break from the professional day-to-day grind. Ever since the global financial crisis, people have been asked to do the work of those who were furloughed and never reinstated. The burden of that increased workload has never been alleviated. How many people do you know who don’t feel as though they’re buried in work?

When the pandemic struck, the millions who were laid off and sent home to isolate found themselves catching their breath for the first time in perhaps years. A lightbulb went on. That lightbulb illuminated a thought bubble that read: Life is about more than just work.

As the adage goes: “Nobody ever said on their deathbed, ‘I only wish I had spent more time at the office.’”

What I’m pointing to is an attitude change in the population, and this is not a solely American phenomenon, though no other nation can embody a zeitgeist and influence others like the United States is capable of doing. But close behind is China, where the tangping or “lying flat” movement has gone viral. As reported by The Economist, in China this April, a 31-year-old former factory worker named Luo Huazhong drew the curtains and crawled into bed. Then he posted a picture of himself to the Chinese website Baidu along with a message: “Lying Flat is Justice.”

Millions of Chinese did the same, sharing pictures of themselves lying in bed, demonstrating their longing to escape the pressures of modern life in China, where young people are expected to work long hours, buy property, get married and have children. Many young Chinese, those in their 20s and 30s, grumble that hard work no longer rewards them with a better quality of life, and they feel society is stagnating and inequality growing.

Transport yourself back to United States, where the working class is unresponsive to the proliferation of HELP WANTED signs. U.S. workers are feeling the same instinct to lie down, at least for now, and take a break and think about their lives.

Meanwhile, they are being accused of laziness rather than credited for thoughtfulness.

Employers also need to be more thoughtful about the professional and emotional rewards they offerer. Research has shown time and again that employee satisfaction is only partially tied to financial compensation. People need work that is psychically rewarding, where they are learning new skills and working with people with whom they have rapport, even friendship. Those things don’t prosper under suffocating workloads. You must field a team large enough to reasonably accomplish the task at hand; maybe even a bit of surplus capacity to ensure flexibility.

Employers also pay too little attention to workplace chemistry. In almost every case, skills are not the difficult piece of the puzzle, it is hiring for the kind personality and chemistry that keeps the team cohesive. It’s about keeping people engaged and aspiring. It’s about keeping them from lying flat.

 

Mike Consol (m.consol@irei.com) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter @mikeconsol to read his latest postings.

 

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