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You could read these data to suggest Americans are getting lazier, losing their skills or letting them fall out of date, and choosing not to take jobs they view as beneath them.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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Let's face it the real problem is businesses outsourcing to other countries, let's bring those jobs back. And, the hiring of undocumented workers. Americans, don't let these folks take jobs that are rightfully yours. I have heard people say I can't work flipping burgers. Would you rather be out of work no money coming in at all. Be off the unemployment and welfare radars, or would you keep your eyes and ears open, listening to other talking about potential jobs your might get.
Grow up, take what you can. REmember if you are young and healthy you can work anyjob. be grateful for your health.
I think it is more complex than just laziness. I think the younger workforce sees where their parents are after 30+ years at a job, and expects to automatically do better, right now!, because now we have more access to college education and advanced degrees. I think alot of my younger peers are misinformed about the value of college degrees and have unrealistic expectations for their careers. Then they get out in the real world, and no one is bending over backwords to give the brand new English BA a book deal, they get disenfranchised with the whole system.
So, it's partially my generation being lazy and extremely entitled, but it's also partially the system of education that tells us we'll graduate with a degree and the world is our oyster. No one tells us we still have years of putting in the hard work and the menial labor and the crappy jobs to earn our way into the nice jobs, like the generation above us and above them did. We think the extensive degrees we often have replace that phase of our careers. And so no one my age wants to do that hard part, because we've been lead to believe we shouldn't have to.
Self-esteem comes from doing one's best (which will be different for every person), not from silly incentive programs. No wonder the entitlement mentality continues to take over our country.
Reminder - I am only talking about the laziness issue. There are real issues about being able to support a family on the low wages and lack of benefits offered by many companies.
We are lying in the bed that the older generation made, and we are suppose to listen to their opionions on the next generations work ethic. Ah...if only we were all as selfish and greedy as they are.
American businesses are concerned about squeezing more production out of it's lazy employees? Anyone aware that "American Workers" are no longer 9-5? We are now connected 24-7!! My day does not end at 5:00pm when I head home, it cuts into my family time and leisure time!
I cannot attend one of my kids school functions, go to a ballgame or even cook dinner without a stream of work related issue coming my way. Lazy????
By multi-tasking...do you mean sitting at work posting on MSN instead of working?
Why work hard? You shouldnt....our current Commander in Chief will insure those that do work hard, have to give you what you wont work hard for.
By the way...job security is a fantasy. There are only subtle levels of belief in job security.
And I'm tired of hearing that the answer to unemployment is job training. Here's the thing, that might work for young adults just now entering their training years. But for the hundreds of thousands of 30, 40, 50 and 60 year old workers who have been laid off from manufacturering, construction and other blue collar jobs, this is NOT a viable solution. How likely is it that a 45 year old construction worker with a wife and 3 kids is going to go back to school for 2-4 years to get a degree? And given the cost of education, how are they supposed to support their family and pay back their student loans when the entry level starting salary is $30K per year if they're lucky? That's assuming of course that the companies he applies to don't automatically dismiss him because he's 45 years old with no experience in his new field and a job history of blue collar work that they look down upon.
If you want America to "come back" you NEED to have jobs for ALL sectors of America. It can all be high tech, medical, or service jobs. You have to bring manufacturing jobs back to our shores. Not everyone is cut out for "smart people" jobs. It doesn't matter how much education you give someone, not everyone is capable of becoming a doctor or a computer programer or an accountant. Some people are builders. They build structures and make goods. They are valuable. They are not to be thrown away.
Despite your many qualifications and degrees, it is clear from your post that your grammar and writing skills are awful.
Someone with a GED who knows how to use an apostrophe is not going to hire you. Not only that, but they might think less of those degrees as well.
Heck, even coders can be required to write the occasional memo.
ETA: Darn, somebody beat me to to it...
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