3/21/2012 5:23 PM ET|
Are American workers getting lazy?
Signals from the labor market suggest the US workforce is becoming less productive, even as fewer unemployed Americans look for work. Are we going soft, or is something else going on?
American workers have hit a wall.
For years, productivity has been the U.S. economy's saving grace. I'm sure you're heard this line: Sure, American workers cost more, but they're the most productive in the world.
That's changing. For the first time since the recession ended, businesses are increasingly unable to squeeze more and more work out of existing workers. Workweeks have been maxed out. Manufacturers are increasingly turning to expensive overtime to fill orders.
Yes, with corporate profits at record highs and millions still out of work, it's hard to feel bad for those in corner offices poring over résumés. But their job has gotten tougher. Rather than hiring from an eager, skilled and educated reserve army of workers, recent data suggest they're facing an emerging skills shortage.
Labor productivity, a measure of how much work is done per hour, has plunged over the past four months while labor costs have spiked toward pre-recession highs. The unemployment rate has dropped dramatically. And yet wage growth has stalled.
Translation: Companies appear to be hiring more less-skilled and less-motivated workers at low pay levels to get the same amount of work done. That's crimping profit margins and pushing inflation higher. At the same time, many qualified workers seem to be turning up their noses at jobs they see as demeaning, or that don't pay what they need, and they are deciding instead to leave the workforce, trying to strike out on their own or retire.
You could read these data to suggest Americans are getting lazier, losing their skills or letting them fall out of date, and choosing not to take jobs they view as beneath them. Or you could fault employers for not offering enough rewards to interest even the long-term unemployed.
Both are true, to some extent. And to me, a deep dive into the jobs picture suggests that what we're seeing is an across-the-board erosion of Americans' can-do spirit. It's a change that will have wide-ranging consequences on everything from corporate profits and Federal Reserve policy to the overall shape of the nation's economy for years to come.
Let's take a look at two key age groups that illustrate the problem. Then we'll zero in on how it impacts the economy and investing.
The young and the feckless
This laziness dynamic, to the extent it is present, seems to affect the young rather than the old, men more than women, and the uneducated more than the educated. The overall drop in the men's labor participation rate -- the number of American men who have jobs or are actively looking for one -- is shown in the chart below. It's fallen to near 70%.
Part of this is no doubt due to the overall economic picture; job creation hasn't been high enough to keep pace with population growth for years. America is also aging, but this isn't just older people stepping out. The numbers are particularly painful in the 16- to 24-year-old male demographic, with workforce participation falling from nearly 80% in the late 1970s to around 58% now.
Is something else at work here?
Charles Murray, a frequent and controversial commentator on racial issues, has gotten a lot of attention lately for his recent book, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010." He paints the problem as a cultural one. Society seems to believe it's better to be a young idealist who's above lawn-and-garden work or a part-time college student who's more focused on music and Ultimate Fighting Championship fights than to be a 9-to-5 go-getter.
He also theorizes that, with female-dominated sectors such as education and health care being relatively healthy parts of the economy, men are needed less and feel less pressure to work. In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Murray writes:
"Whether because of support from the state or earned income, women became much better able to support a child without a husband over the period of 1960 to 2010. As women needed men less, the social status that working-class men enjoyed if they supported families began to disappear. The sexual revolution exacerbated the situation, making it easy for men to get sex without bothering to get married. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that male fecklessness bloomed, especially in the working class."
Murray suggests these feckless young adults should be the subject of public scorn. After all, Americans used to share a moral imperative to be productive contributors to society, not couch-surfers wielding armories of Apple products. Similarly, David Brooks of The New York Times, also concerned about the rise of young, listless males, suggests one fix could be subsidies from the government to encourage men to, at the very least, get married and be responsible parents to their children. (I wonder how that would fare in Congress.)
Truth is, this explanation sounds a little too easy; these aren't the first old guys to complain about "kids these days." Getting a job that will pay the bills is tough; it can seem that work doesn't pay. And fecklessness isn't the exclusive property of the young, unemployed and poor, as any number of nauseating "Real Housewives" spinoffs prove regularly on reality TV.
But their "feckless young" are my peers, and I can tell you they have a point. Clearly, there is work to be done, both literally and figuratively.
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We're tired. You see, 3 years ago, when you began laying off your staff in an attempt to cut costs and maximize profit you left those of us you retained doing 2-3 times the work we were hired to do. Yet we were grateful to have employment and so we rose to the occasion, hopeful that we would be rewarded when the recession ended. We worked through lunches without pay, we came in early and left late. We hardly grumbled when you told us you could no longer match our 401k or pay out year end bonuses. When our annual review came around and you told us how great we were, and how sorry you were that you couldn't give us a pay increase, we smiled and assured you we understood, that we were a team.
Then the recession ended, business picked up again. WE got the company though it and we survived! Except the promise of reward was never kept. The jobs you dismissed as part of the RIF during the lean times never came back. We were told that this was to be the new normal, that we had to continue to do more, work lean, apologize to our families and be team players for the company. Work harder, earn less, be grateful.
But we're exhausted. And we don't care anymore about you. You see, the secret to why the American worker was so efficient is because we had an understanding that you valued us, that we WERE the company, that you cared about our personal success as much as we cared about your professional success. When you stopped caring about us, we stopped caring about you. You thought you were too big to fail, but now it turns out you're too big to succeed. If you want the prosperity of America, you need to connect with your employees, treat us like family and support us as the foundation that your empire is built on. Stop taking us for granted, get down on your hands and knees and beg us to take you back like the unfaithful husband you are. It's not too late, but you have to do it quickly.
The American Worker
It's not right to accuse people of getting lazier... although I think it's fair that the workforce is lacking some discipline. But those who have worked hard , produced, have made a livable wage, invested and saved, are also the same people who have gotten hammered by greedy corporations, individuals, and investment houses. I don't blame anybody who decides to leave the workforce or tries to make it on their own because there isn't anybody who will hire them for other than a low wage... despite their experience and knowledge.
"Workweeks have been maxed out. Manufacturers are increasingly turning to expensive overtime to fill orders."
Wow. Whose fault is that? Whose fault was it for laying off all the "experienced" workers in the first place? I mean, who had to cut costs again, and in so doing shot themselves in the proverbial economic foot?
Whose fault is it for deciding that they aren't going to TRAIN new workers? Wow. I mean, you go to a job, you get a job, and then your expected to know everything about the job without any training ON the job?
Who the HELL is the ****, that wrote this story, and came up with those egotistical numbers, that didn't take into account ON THE JOB TRAINGIN!? Who the HELL ARE YOU CALLING LAZY!?!
Seems to me, the only LAZY people around here, are the owners of the business, who decided that ON THE JOB TRAINING IS NOT COST EFFECTIVE!
Lazy!? LAZY!? I'm working my **** off with 6 day work weeks, because my corporate masters want to keep pulling in as much money, because they don't want to pay the additional health insurance for extra workers. Hell, every time we did hire somebody, I was trying to give them ON THE JOB TRAINING, and the Person In Charge, would BITCH ME OUT! For showing the new guy HOW TO DO THE DAMN JOB!
Screw the a-hole that wrote up this story.
I made $25 an hour in 1997 when gas was $1.30 a gallon. Today I make $21 an hour and gas is close to $4 a gallon.
My boss used to have 2 1/2 people doing the job I now do alone. I have no benefits other than vacation time. (Fortunately my husband's company provides health benefits.)
No matter how hard I work or what value I produce, I can't get a sufficient raise to come near where I was 15 years ago. When our wages decrease and the cost of goods increase, we fall farther and farther behind.
No, we're not lazy. We're just discouraged and tired and know that we will never have a retirement.
Here's a lesson. You get what you pay for.
If you treat employees like they are worthless; if you have an attitude that good workers are a dime a dozen; if you manage from a stand point of "if you don't like it, you're always welcome to quit;".....you will never realize the true potential of your workforce.
If you take the time to get to know the lower level employees, find out what they struggle with, not only in their job but in their personal life; pay a decent wage, provide opportunities for advancement, and reward initiative.......you will find most people will go above and beyond for you.
Is it cheaper to overwork and underreward your workforce? Of course. Does it realy help your bottom line? Maybe in the short term, for a year or two. Eventually you end up burning out your workforce. That's what's happened here. In a bid to drive profits and appease shareholders, most major corporations have lost sight of the fact that their lower level employees are the ones to drive their buisness. Rather than face the truth of their actions, CEOs have surrounded themselves with "Yes Men" and created a culture in which speaking up is frowned upon. We are expected to put up and shut up and kiss their behinds because they have blessed us with employment. What they forget is that our employment has blessed them with a successful company.
You cannot be successful in business if you treat your employees like crap. Look at the most successful companies today, Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc.... what do they have in common? THye treat their lowest level employees as well as their CEOs. They have perks, lots of perks. People WANT to work for them. They fight for those positions and they do whatever is needed of them to make sure they KEEP those positions. They feel valued. Their opinions are taken seriously.
Stop trying to copy Toyota with your silly 5s campaigns. Stop expecting Americans to work like Chinese. If you want to be a succesful American company, try to emulate the companies in America that are currently successful. Do that, and we'll be back on top in no time.
Our generation and ones coming up now have watched simultanious wars, terrorist attacks, a massive recession and watched as wall street raided the pension plans, lost the savings of hard working citizens, lost 8-10 million jobs because of the greed taking place all across the country. We watched as our government has gone in debt almost to the point of collapse to support the promises of the past and the responsibility of the present and can tell with an absolute certainty that our generation will suffer a seriously decreased standard of living despite Both parents working and their kids working at 14 now in many states. We are either without health insurance or are struggling to hold onto it, while paying into social security which wont be available to us when the time comes and see one wall street firm after another swindle all the money out before crashing and declaring we have no idea where the money went. We have watched energy prices skyrocket, and stay there not just a 12month blip but year after year higher and higher, watched a loaf of bread go from $1.49 to $3.79 in a mere 5 years, inflation in 5 years the used to take 20years. All while people lose their homes their cars, and banks increase fees not to cover increased costs, but to increase already bloated profits and even more bloated bailouts. We drive on crumbling roads and collapsing bridges, yes they have actually collapsed and if your honest with yourself you know the roads are bad. You can expect to hit potholes in between the bumps and pay the repair bill for both. And meanwhile our strongest competitor in manufacturing pays their workers $1 an hour, which is right about what we will have to work for if we are to even begin to compete. This is our future and what a bright one it is.
So is it any wonder why current and future generations dont want to work harder or longer for less and less. It is because the game is up; we have seen behind the curtain and know the game is rigged and getting worse, we have concluded that the game is no longer worth participating in or believing in. In Animal farm the old horse worked until he could no longer walk and was sold out exactly when it was his time to retire and enjoy the small amount left of his life. But the animals that watched this injustice knew better than to fall for the trick again, and so a revolution was created to forge a different future. Where will you be when history calls on you?
I think it's the companies that are being lazy, not the employees.
Add to the fact that I am tacking care of my disabled mother, raising a family, and trying to pay off loans I feel financially stretched. I do not get to destress as I am either working, eating, making phone calls to correct the mistakes of almost every company I have had to do business with, and sleeping (usually about 6 hours a night).
Am I lazy? nah. Am I burned out, disillusioned, and depressed? Sure. I am starting to realize its not worth working to make someone else a ton of money, while at the same time trying to survive, take care of others, and ultimately in the end put money into government programs that will never benefit me( especially social security), and trying to save for my own retirement.
The fact is: not only do I have to work hard now, but I will have to work until I literally dig my own grave and lay in it.
There is nothing wrong with the American worker. Workers are putting in longer hours and are working harder than ever before. Companies are piling more work to each existing worker rather than hiring a new worker. It is sort of like slavery in the early American history. Many workers fear loosing their job so much the don't dare quit to find a better job for fear that they will find themselves unemployed. Therefore many just put up with what is handed to them and work harder.
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