“Nobody wants to work anymore” 

As of recent, this phrase seems to comprise of almost every headline in current (right wing) journalism, and is thrown around in nearly every conversation amongst individuals tired of handing over a significant chunk of their paycheck over to Uncle Sam. This phrase also comes to fruition frequently during day to day life, especially when it comes to the service industry.  

For instance, this weekend, I had plans to meet a friend for dinner in downtown Raleigh. As I walked to the restaurant where we were meeting, I passed a number of signs hanging on the doors of different restaurants and retail shops saying “Please bear with us as we are understaffed.” When I got to the restaurant, the hostess informed my friend and I that they too were understaffed because a few of her coworkers decided not to show up to work that night. As a result, our server was overwhelmed and the service was subpar. 

My experience this weekend lead me to realize that the frequent use of the phrase “nobody wants to work anymore” is certainly justified, however, it also caused me to consider when it began that “nobody wants to work anymore,” and why it is that “nobody wants to work anymore.” This lack of willingness to work couldn’t have just emerged, and it has to be more complicated than just the result of government subsidization. 

A recent article published by Forbes points out that America once had one of the strongest work ethics in the world. This strong work ethic has long been a defining characteristic of the American people. A study from the Institute of Labor Economics in 2017 found that Americans work 25% more hours, take less vacation time, and are retiring later relative to other workers throughout the world. Today in 2022, however, data shows that the work ethic among many Americans has declined. According to data from CNBC, there are 11.3 million jobs available, but employers are having a difficult time filling these vacancies. Many people point to the pandemic as a reason for this decline. As COVID-19 certainly contributed to many individuals either quitting or losing their jobs, this decline in work ethic was evident prior to 2020. In fact, it’s argued that it began 10 years ago, when the millennial generation entered the work force. 

A study from the Pew Research Center conducted in 2010 reported that the millennial generation – about 50 million people between ages 18 and 29 – is the only age group in the nation who do not cite work ethic as one their “principal claims to distinctiveness”. Today, Millennials and Generation X make up a large majority of the workforce. The characterization of these younger generations as being “lazy” is common among Baby Boomers and Generation X,  but these groups who have grown up in the contemporary era of digital technology and likely have a different perspective and approach to employment; Millennials and individuals in Generation Z have unique priorities different from those of older generations – social media, innovative technology, liberal tolerance, etc. Additionally, those in the job market are seeking “atypical” jobs in emerging industries like social media or even in the gig economy that are compatible with their priorities. 

The pandemic caused a year of forced unemployment where 46.2 million Americans received at least one week of the $749 billion dollars issued in weekly payments. During this time, many Americans were getting paid more money to stay at home than they would have made working. However, the pandemic was twofold in its effect on the workforce: it made room for emerging industries like social media and the gig economy that millennials and generation X favor.  

Some people argue that an increase in wages would incentivize people to return to work and solve the labor shortage altogether. However, the solution may not be so simple. In an article from the Wall Street Journal, the president of W.W. Canon in Dallas, Greg Brown, said that he was offering wages up to $30 per hour, and still could not find people willing to come and work. Perhaps this is due in part to the financial cushion that many Americans have: the US government sent millions of Americans a series of stimulus checks as part of the American Rescue Plan. A report from JPMorgan Chase Institute illustrates the effect of this plan and how Americans in all four income quartiles have more cash on hand now than they had before the pandemic. Yet, aside from the unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, one must wonder if  offering $30 an hour and still having difficulty finding workers actually proves that there has been a shift away from manual labor and the service industry.  

While the current labor shortage is certainly a consequence of the checks from Uncle Sam, it may also be a result of the shift towards digitization. The pandemic forced widespread unemployment, but it also revealed how millennials and Generation X prefer work that requires technological and digital media skills over physical and manual ones. A discussion paper from McKinsey states that by 2030, “the need for some skills, such as technological as well as social and emotional skills, will rise, even as the demand for others, including physical and manual skills, will fall. These changes will require workers everywhere to deepen their existing skill sets or acquire new ones.” As a result, companies may find it more beneficial to restructure and rethink their corporate structure and approach to work and hiring, then to simply increase their wages.  

With that being said, if you’re contemplating a career change or even a job change, now is the perfect time to start the process. The job market today favors the employee where those seeking employment have room for negotiation when it comes to wages, benefits, and paid time off. In his book, Eric Chester, author of Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce, 7 components of work ethic that employers are seeking today takes the mystery out of the job search process. He states: “employers are searching for positive, enthusiastic people who show up for work on time, who are dressed and prepared properly, who go out of their way to add value and do more than what’s required of them, who are honest, who will play by the rules, and who give cheerful, friendly service regardless of the situation”. As employers are struggling to find employees, these simple steps will get you quite far as you attempt to navigate the workforce.