But whether a shift has occurred in workers’ attitudes toward work is one question; whether employers will accommodate that shift is quite another.
They might if, as Leonhardt suggests as a possibility, we have truly entered a new era of tight labor markets. With more Americans unable or choosing not to work, companies would have little choice but to improve their pay and benefits. “In this scenario, the pandemic would represent a turning point,” he writes. “Almost a half-century of a low-wage economy would end, and incomes would grow more rapidly, as they did from the 1940s until the early ’70s.”
Better pay and perks alone, though, might not be enough. A McKinsey article from last month cautioned that employers will also have to make an effort to better understand how their employees’ relationship with work has changed and recalibrate accordingly: “If you’re a C.E.O. or a member of a top team, your best move now is to hit ‘pause’ and take the time to think through your next moves. A heavy-handed back-to-the-office policy or other mandates delivered from on high — no matter how well intentioned — are likely to backfire.”
But another possibility is that workers will soon lose their leverage. Most of the pandemic relief measures have ended, as Leonhardt notes, and the financial cushion most households have is still small: The median cash savings of the bottom quarter of households is about $1,000.
“Eventually those savings, especially for lower-income people, they’re going to run out,” Pablo Villanueva, an economist at UBS, told Casselman. “A lot of people are going to be increasingly unable to stay out of work even if they have some fear of Covid.”
And when they do return to work, Leonhardt says many will find a job market where employers hold the upper hand because of the decimation of labor unions and an increase in corporate concentration.
For now, Casselman says, there’s a standoff: “Workers are holding out until their savings disappear. Businesses are holding out until their customers disappear. Maybe one or the other will give, or maybe there will be a meeting in the middle. (Or, realistically, some of all three.)”