The Post-Work-Ethic Recession


I am coining a new phrase; the post-work-ethic recession, to describe the hard times we have seen in the economy from 2007 to 2011 (and perhaps beyond if you are reading this later than that while unemployed). Why do I designate this as a new kind of recession? Because of a couple experiences I have had that seem to indicate real changes in attitude among American workers.

Let's start with the recession of 1990-1991. In January of 1991 I was living in Traverse City, Michigan, and I was looking for a job. I called or applied at over 100 places before getting hired to deliver pizzas. In the course of that project, I noticed that we had a real recession going on (fortunately a short one). I went to a car dealership to apply for a $6-per-hour job answering the phone in the customer service department, and there were perhaps 150 people there hoping to get that position. Some were obviously from executive and management backgrounds where they had made four or five times as much money. Another time I was with 200 people at a conference room of a Holiday Inn, all applying for four sales positions.

Fast forward to 2010, when the unemployment rate is even higher nationally, still hanging in there at 9.6% officially, and double that if we count part-time workers who want full-time work and those who have given up looking. Yet we can hardly get help to rake the yard or clean the house at $10 per hour. Job openings are posted here and there, but they stay up a while, and there are no lines of applicants. This is clearly a different kind of recession: a post-work-ethic recession.

It seems that people are less willing to work than in the past. I don't have a definitive explanation, but I do have some speculations. To start with, after a good run in the economy, when getting a job was easy, workers are less worried about immediately finding work. They are used to the fact that there will always be a job somewhere when they are ready.

Then there is the general change in work habits. Starting thirty years ago parents began requiring less and less work of their children. Having household chores is less common, and that first generation after the change is now in the work force, without the habits of working hard. This isn't something terrible, since there is no inherent value in work for its own sake, but it does affect attitudes and abilities.

Finally, there is more free money than ever for those who don't want to work. This isn't an argument about whether there should or shouldn't be social safety nets, but we have to be honest about the effects. Some people outright deny that anyone would stop looking for work just because they have an unemployment check coming in. That's just silly and dishonest (who really believes that free money does nothing to affect job hunting motivation?). I have personally talked to a number of people who plan to use up their benefits before looking for work. We also have a friend who is perfectly capable of working (he's a good worker too), yet has been living on disability checks for many years (based on his social anxiety).

Perhaps it would be better to have unemployment and other assistance steadily lowered week-by-week, in order to motivate people to get out there and find work. Just a thought.

In any case, it is fascinating that in what may be the worst recession of my life (1980-1981 is stiff competition, of course), it is tough to find people willing to work for $10-per-hour cash when the minimum wage is $7.25 and taxed. Let me add that when we do find help, the worker usually is picky about the work ("no windows, I only need three hours"). Add to that the many young people we know who are broke and yet still hesitate to look for work or to think beyond the next bill that needs to be paid, and it seems clear that things are different.

At some point congress will stop extending unemployment benefits, and the economy may get so bad that desperation motivates more of a work ethic. Of course many people are willing to work right now, and there is a real shortage of jobs in many areas. I don't want to imply that everybody has a bad attitude. I don't even believe in work for its own sake. I have almost never worked full-time in my life--but only because I didn't need to (I stayed out of debt, planned well and lived cheap). But if the days of $45,000 jobs are over for some workers (economies do change), and $18,000 per year is what they will have to settle for, why wouldn't they delay that as long as possible, perhaps collecting $20,000 annually from unemployment? It seems the rational thing to do. So of course when we extend that benefit we discourage or postpone the eventual job hunt.

Welcome to the post-work-ethic recession.

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