The Recorder – The World Keeps Turning by Allen Woods: New Generations Shed a Powerful Myth
(It’s almost disrespectful to post anything beyond the horrors of Ukraine, but more than my words won’t stop a single bullet or serve as sand in the gears of a Russian tank. So …)
I have always felt a strong connection to the Great Depression. My parents lived it, and in the search for textbooks I absorbed the heartbreaking photos of Margaret Bourke White and Walker Evans, and connected vicariously with stories and songs by James Agee, Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck. As a Midwesterner raised in farming country, the grandson of a proud man who lost a farm during the Depression, the images and stories of Dust Bowl touched especially close to home.
I believe that the economic disasters of this era shaped the American psyche for generations. We’ve all seen comically frugal behavior (saving string, tinfoil, money under mattresses), but its greatest effects involve how we perceive and experience work in our society.
Work has been central to our lives and identities, a big part of “who we are”. A job description is the expected answer to the familiarization question, “What do you do?” » Vacations are defined by the absence of work; obituaries describe work history before family or other activities.
Retirement is a double-edged sword: it cuts the mooring rope of a job to allow us to sail freely, but it also cuts one of the roots of our identity. For decades, the self-image of many middle- and upper-class Americans could be summed up as, “we are what we do at work.” (I believe low-income workers have struggled to resist defining a minimum wage or low job expectations.)
But it seems the short leash of long-term, unsatisfying work is being shunned by younger generations (“millennials” and “Gen Z”) and some awakened by COVID. Employment statistics are inconsistent, but the rate of “quitting” followed by a new job or career is at near record highs. Some who watch meta-trends (there’s a Gen Z word!) call it the big quit, big shutdown, or big restart (another computer-age word), but whatever it’s called , they agree that it is real.
Every employable person is currently experiencing the opposite of the Great Depression. After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Americans suffered for more than a decade from job shortages with a labor surplus. Government programs (WPA, CCC, etc.) finally saved some of the long queues at soup kitchens and daily work sites, giving hope to those near starvation in the hobo jungles and the “Hoovervilles” across the country. For most, a job – almost any job, even at the lowest wage – was salvation, a way out of the global economic wilderness that lasted until World War II.
But today it is American businesses that are starving — of workers. Hardest hit are the service industries, known for their low wages and long hours, which make up 74% of the US economy. In December 2021, there were only 0.6 unemployed for every job offer. Many employers offer signing bonuses, flexible hours and pay raises. Some unionized workers in the Midwest and West recently signed contracts after strikes, earning higher wages and better benefits.
But beyond pay and benefits, it seems that those currently considering a job change (more than 50% in school) have finally escaped a powerful corporate myth: companies care about their workers and deserve their loyalty.
Katie Hitchcock-Smith described herself as a “jaded millennial and serial job jumper” in the Boston Globe. She quit two of three company jobs in three years and says she’d ‘do it again’ because she’s finally acting on what she’s known for years: ‘Company loyalty doesn’t pay off, financially or otherwise. She notes that companies have consistently chosen to underpay workers during the pandemic, as corporate profits have soared.
This generational shift goes beyond business, affecting nonprofits, social services, and education. An ex-teacher from California said, ‘You don’t want to leave the students’, but found her treatment during COVID was not based on ‘my health, the health of the children, or the mental well-being of anybody. It’s a business and it’s about money. The pandemic has ripped that veil from my eyes.
Will there be lasting effects on jobs in America? Or will employers go back to paying the lowest wages with the fewest benefits as soon as the cycle hands the leverage back to them? I fear that our uncontrolled capitalist system will once again show that employee loyalty does not pay. There are rare exceptions, but too many companies seek the bottom line at the expense of their workers, our communities and our nation.
Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary era mystery novel “The Sword and the Scabbard”, and resident of Greenfield. His column appears regularly on Saturdays. Comments are welcome here or at firstname.lastname@example.org.