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You could read these data to suggest Americans are getting lazier, losing their skills or letting them fall out of date, and choosing not to take jobs they view as beneath them.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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"Vote Democrat, it sure beats working!"
From what I have seen the professionals I know are working harder than ever, still concerned with layoffs, downsizing and the being replaced with a younger worker. My spouse a Biomedical Engineer is at work usually by 7:30 after a 45-50 minute commute and at least 1-2 times per week will work until 7-8 at night. On those special nights where he needs to speak viia teleconferencing he can be at work until 10.
This is typical of his field and company, though the company is very good about providing meals during "working lunches" or dinner for the real late nights. I think what is happening is called burnout, it used to be more often affiliated with jobs such as nursing, teaching, therapists, police but now I think it is in many fields. If a person quits a position and the company chooses not to replace that person or in my husband's field there is a shortage of experienced Biomedical Engineers the people remaining are left to fill in the gap. People will burnout it is inevitable.....One can only work hard day after day for so long and then they get sick, or slow down its called job fatigue and its' real.
Before I retired I always enjoyed working with Asian people. They have great work ethics and were very pleasant to work with. My boss was from Hong Kong and several other people in our department were from Viet Nam. I was proud to call them my friends not only were they very intelligent none of them were lazy.
People working 2 or 3 low paying service sector jobs; with flat wages, declining hours, and declining prospects; and they'd call the worker in these conditions lazy. Bah, whatever. Perhaps the something else is that some businesses don't want to actually hier enough people to get a job done, dish out sufficient hours, or the like. But no, they wouldn't want to look at that, because it wouldn't fit in with the paradigm of downsizing, and outsourcing jobs to countries where they can pay people $2 a day, such as in Syria or China....
Back when my father worked, it wasn't uncommon to work at the same company for 40+ years, and have some actual job security. That went out, a long time ago, as greed was on the rise... But then some other individuals of prior generations I had known (went to college in the 50s) also had a few word to say about bean counters and the way things were going. One had been a computer engineer for 40+ years, worked at NASA, then in Silicon Valley prior to helping the other (a life long friend of his) with a business she acquired. She also had something to say about the time coming where one will be left with a choice between telling people the truth, vs what they want to hear. And the war with these bean counters can be never ending; but to remain true to one's self whatever happens. She had a good deal more to say/advise, but I was in college at the time, and she pretty much flat out said "you'll run into this on the job, and it does add stress to one's life...." And yeah, she was a business owner herself. It was one of the last things she said, because she came down with pnemonia not long after, and didn't survive.... She did one other thing though, she gave me access to some of the dealer channels (such as the one she had with Microsoft at the time); and said "if anyone asks, you're an employee for my company, doing a development project, I'll confirm". She wanted me to be able to see what was going on "behind the scenes" with a bit of this....
She also had plenty to say about declining quality and the like also, as had the other individual, who didn't just suggest it; but was very good at getting down into the phsycis of this or that, and explaining both what AND WHY there was something wrong with this, or that; and how it could work better. But then again, he was also a computer engineer who worked at NASA and helped in designing space probes, on the design team that came up with the ATM networking standard, among other things.... What she was telling me, was most assuredly NOT what the op-ed? writer of this article is saying....
"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.
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.
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