Today, gig workers seem a little bit like the steelworkers in the old days, looking for a job for the day. They have freedom, but not the predictability and protection that comes from being employed. Rexnord was a place that helped its workers access treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction. It paid for you to go back to school if you wanted a degree. If you got into an accident or had a kid in the hospital, co-workers would pass a hat and collect money for you. For Shannon, a female steelworker I followed for the book, the factory was an anchor in an otherwise chaotic life. She knew exactly what time she had to be at work each day and exactly what to do once she got there. After the factory closed, she had a hard time figuring out what to do with her time. She called up an old mentor from the plant and asked him, “Will you be my boss?” Some people are just not cut out for “gig” work, which strikes me as much more solitary and devoid of the structure, guidance, training and long-term commitments that many people need to thrive.
Due to the pandemic, the work force has changed dramatically again with labor in the leverage seat and companies struggling to staff up. Some people call it the Great Resignation and others the Great Reassessment. How do you see it?
I think there are several things going on all at once. Some people worked harder than ever during Covid, at great personal risk. Nurses, cashiers, bus drivers, care givers for the elderly. I expect those people are burned out and ready to quit just so they can have a rest. Other people in the “knowledge economy” continued their jobs from home. Many of them kept getting their paychecks but reduced their expenses to such an extent that they have money in the bank and time to think about what it is they really want to do with their life and whether they really wanted to spend two hours a day going to and from work.
The habit of going to work has been broken. A lot of blue-collar Americans, like Shannon, worked jobs that couldn’t be done from home. Many got laid off when the economy slowed down. Shannon made more money from unemployment checks during Covid than she had earned working. Many people who had been living hand-to-mouth now have money in the bank that they didn’t have before. According to JPMorgan Chase Institute, the median household’s checking account balance was 50 percent higher in July of 2021 than in 2019. That means that people actually didn’t have too much financial pressure on them to return to work, even in states that cut off the Covid support. I expect that those people will spend down their savings and eventually return to work.
What are some key trends going on in the workplace that we need to pay attention to that may impact the future work force?
We are entering an era of continuous learning. It’s not enough to have a college degree from a decade ago. People are going to have to continuously master new skills to remain viable in the workplace. I expect to see more people rely on short technical certification classes than on formal college degrees. A younger friend who grew up in public housing chose to focus on obtaining Microsoft certifications rather than attending college, and she’s done well for herself as an office manager and now an entrepreneur. And she has zero regrets about not having a four-year degree. Elite colleges are still going to be a thing, since they are a built-in social network. But many workers and companies are going to continue to find alternatives to traditional college.
What will recent infrastructure commitments and other regulations do to the work economy?
I expect the infrastructure bill recently passed by Congress to produce a lot of good-paying blue-collar jobs, not just in the construction of roads and bridges but also in laying broadband. Bringing broadband to certain parts of the country could be as big a deal as when the New Deal brought electricity to rural America in the 1930s. If people in the “knowledge economy” can do their jobs from places like Morgantown, W.Va.— which is full of mountain-biking trails and beautiful rivers — they might move there instead of paying a gazillion dollars for a house in Oakland, Calif., with no backyard. If well-off employees in the digital economy spread more evenly across the country, then the benefits of that part of the economy could be reaped by blue-collar workers — construction crews, restaurant staff, auto mechanics, maids and babysitters — in the Rust Belt and beyond. That could help cure our political polarization, with is tied to our economic and geographic separation.