Friday, December 31, 2021

The Great Resignation: Who’s Doing It, Why Is It Happening, What Options Do People Have, How Long Will It Last?

We’ve heard a lot about people not only refusing work but leaving their positions.  How can we understand it better?

Per Paul Davidson, updated December 9th in USA Today, “Job openings hover near all-time highs as Great Resignation shows little sign of easing.”  As of most-recent-data-month October, there were 11 million advertised opportunities, which “have topped 10 million for five straight months.”  As reasons, Davidson cited people taking advantage of higher starting pay elsewhere, wanting to work from home, discontented with pandemic-time employer treatment, wanting “new career paths,” feeling lacking in “work-life balance,” and, once again, going into business for themselves. 

As for those soon to depart, Andrea Derler, in Fast Company on November 2nd, told us “These are the people still most likely to quit during the next wave of the Great Resignation.”  The author called “quitting your job” “the hottest trend in 2021,” and per this publication’s research said that “resignations were occurring at alarming rates for tenured, long-term employees,” that figure increasing over 50% for those with 5 to 15 years of service since 2020, for reasons including “burnout following the impact of the pandemic on their organizations” as well as those Davidson named.

Many have wondered “How millions of jobless Americans can afford to ditch work” (Allison Morrow and Anneken Tappe,, updated December 29th), of which the authors found, of a 3.6 million two-year increase in people claiming no interest in work, 90% to be 55 and older, who often have “accelerated their retirement” helped by higher stock and house prices.  An economics professor blamed some departures on “a job quality shortage,” rightfully more meaningful than the alleged one of workers. 

Another root cause was the subject of “Ken Coleman on workforce flight:  COVID-19 pandemic changed what workers value in a job” (Kristen Altus, Fox Business, October 27th).  Here we learned about a Ramsey Solutions report showing that “6 in 10 workers said the COVID-19 pandemic changed what they value in a job or career and 52% preferred to work fully remote if possible.”  Also, per the title’s author and radio host, “55% of workers are considering a job change for a career that better aligns with their values,” and he considered “impact” maybe more critical than pay rates. 

Gray areas between full employment and full retirement have become increasingly populated, leading to Jim Probasco’s December 21-updated “The Rise of the Semi-Retired Life” with subhead “Leaving work completely is not the only choice as retirement age nears.”  Probasco defined semi-retirement as working fewer hours or changing to a “less stressful” full-time position.  Per a Pew Charitable Trust study, “31% of retired women and 50% of men said they worked part-time because they wanted to do so.”  Other options the author put in the same category included self-employment efforts, beginning “a new career based on an interest, passion or hobby,” and consulting. 

How long will this movement continue?  Per Justin Wolfers in The New York Times on December 3rd, “The Great Resignation Won’t Last Forever.”  His main point seemed to be that job shortages, when they start, can precipitate fear among those with employment, causing them to keep that they have.  Yet we aren’t there yet.

Overall, what can we say about the rate of people leaving their positions?  Although it will of course shift sometime, it doesn’t need to be soon.  However, we should not confuse greater affluence, including a 15% rise in total household net worth between the third quarters of 2020 and 2021 per the Federal Reserve, with a permanent situation.  While most people recently choosing retirement, or a mild semi-retirement, will never return to their previous states, younger Americans will need money too much to stay on the sidelines for long.  Once again, the market will speak.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Consumer Spending, and the Rest of the Economy: What Seems to be Happening, What People Think is Happening, and What’s Really Happening

It’s strange, or maybe it isn’t, that on a topic with so many high-quality facts regularly issued, viewpoints and conclusions should differ so much.  Maybe that’s a result of many members of one party, and the great majority of the other, chucking well-documented ideas they think are bogus or otherwise conflict with their worldviews.

With that, what has been written this quarter about the title matters?

In MarketWatch on October 11th, Barbara Kollmeyer made the mildest claim here: “’Not missing it’:  Some consumers will never go back to their pre-pandemic spending habits, research predicts.”  She cited a European Central Bank working paper, with data collected in middle and late summer, that “many households that cut spending on products and services because of lockdown experiences had “permanently altered their preferences,”” mostly people finding that lower consumption rates seemed fine to them.  The areas of continued reduction Kollmeyer named were travel, public transportation, restaurants and bars, and brick-and-mortar stores in general. 

On the other hand, on this side of the Atlantic only one week later, Emma Cosgrove wrote in Business Insider that “America isn’t running out of everything just because of a supply-chain crisis.  America is running out of everything because Americans are buying so much stuff.”  One cause of our elevated inflation rate has been the basic economic situation of demand outstripping supply, with both reasons in this article’s title pertinent.  Cosgrove cited the National Retail Federation as claiming that our citizens “are buying everything they can get their hands on,” and that the inventory to sales ratio is the lowest since 2011, “which indicates that we’re low on stuff,” in turn “because sales have gone completely nuts.”  Over the past two years, retail volume has risen 8% and 14.5%.  At press time, “supply-chain professionals” were “chipping away at the backlog container by container,” which has improved since, but, per Cosgrove, as a clogged bathtub won’t drain quickly if water pours in, the backup won’t ease all that quickly.

On November 6th, Neil Irwin announced in The New York Times that “Americans Are Flush With Cash and Jobs.  They Also Think the Economy is Awful.”  Although “Americans are sitting on piles of cash; they have $2.3 trillion more in savings in the last 19 months than would have been expected in the prepandemic path,” and jobs of some sort are plentiful, they are worrying more about inflation.  An October Gallup poll showed 68% considering the economy to be worsening.  Surprisingly, it is no more a partisan issue than it was about ten years ago. 

Americans may be spending a lot in general, but “Many consumers are holding off on making big purchases.  That’s a good sign” (Peter Coy, The New York Times, November 12th).  A graph here showed the share of survey respondents “saying now is a good time to buy” diving for “large household goods,” houses, and cars right when inflation jumped in late spring, and largely continuing to drop ever since.  This effect will hurt employment in related areas, and may not level off when the inflation rate does.

Next, Paul Krugman’s “How Is the U.S. Economy Doing?,” on December 9th in the same newspaper, was a response to negative views of the last Employment Situation Summary, in which net new nonfarm payroll positions came in at less than half of projections but other items, from the household survey component, were favorable.  I published here an almost identical view on the report’s December 3rd release date, and Krugman added that “the employment rate among prime-age adults, a key measure of labor market health, is beginning to approach prepandemic levels” and “in many ways this looks like the best economic recovery in many decades.”  He concluded that “this is actually a very good economy, albeit with some problems.” 

As before, though, not everyone agrees, as pointed up by Jim Tankersley in the December 10th “How’s the Economy?  Biden Sees a Boom.  Many Americans Don’t,” also in the New York Times.  White House communications director Kate Bedingfield took it further with “every economic indicator shows an economy which is growing,” but acknowledged that “when people experience a higher price at the grocery store or at the gas pump that has an impact on their budget.”  Inflation in particular, “underestimated” by the administration, has dominated numerous views, and Biden’s opinion that “I think it’s the peak of the crisis” is not everyone’s.  It seems clear that, per a University of Massachusetts at Amherst economist, “the lowest-paid 70 percent of American workers have seen wage increases over the last two years even after accounting for inflation,” but that probably does not apply to as many in higher brackets.

 So how is the American economy really doing?  Krugman has it.  Although plenty are not as prosperous as six months ago, we are overall in good shape and continuing to improve.  Inflation should top off soon, and the number of jobs, with generally high consumer demand and supply-chain improvement, should continue to comfortably outstrip the monthly 60,000 or so we need for population growth.  The true nature of the Omicron Covid-19 variant is still unknown, but data creeping in suggests higher contagion with lower infection severity.  Vaccination rates keep increasing, headed by, per the New York Times, 88% of those 65 and older now fully dosed, and with the total number of American cases now over 50 million we can forecast lower numbers there.  There is a real chance of a relapse before the 2022 midterm elections, and we can and will argue more then, but, for the moment, we should give our financial system a bipartisan thumbs up.

Friday, December 17, 2021

The So-Called Labor Shortage – Some Views, and the Best Courses of Action

The issue of businesses not being able to fill positions has been getting press since at least May.  How accurate and complete, though, is what has been published about it?

Before the big bill, we saw “Skilled Workers Are Scarce, Posing a Challenge for Biden’s Infrastructure Plan,” by Madeleine Ngo in the September 9th New York Times.  It started with concerns from a construction firm expecting, or hoping for, a large contract “repairing aging bridges and roadways in the nation’s capital,” but wondering if they could find enough suitable employees.  The piece quoted a masonry-company owner saying that “the biggest struggle is finding guys that want to work,” but others cited here focused on the lack of experienced, skilled employees ready to join them.

In the same newspaper’s edition 18 days later, the author above combined with Jeanna Smialek on “Top Fed officials say the labor market needs more time to heal.”  The Federal Reserve then said that Covid effects were still too strong to justify raising interest rates.  The president of the New York branch also reminded us, also accurately, that “job postings are not jobs,” and likewise that “it may take quite a bit longer” than October “for the labor supply to come fully back.” 

Moving along to the Guardian on October 10th, Gene Marks told us that “US wages are going up, and those who don’t adapt to the new reality will fail.”  This story, or at least its headline, should have been posted on human resources bulletin boards across the country.  The rocket science of economics need not be invoked to understand that when “job openings are at a historic high and small businesses across the country are begging for workers,” it means “the demand for a critical commodity is high and the supply of that commodity is in short supply,” making “prices go up.”  Some things are simple. 

So how about existing employees, who have often watched new hires get more than they do?  Per Charisse Jones in the December 10th USA Today, “Workers can expect a nice raise next year as companies struggle to fill jobs, report says.”  We saw that “budgets for wage hikes are projected to jump 3.9% next year,” progressive but doesn’t approach the 6.8% latest inflation figure, and must include some anticipating offering less or nothing.

Finally, Rick Newman’s December 14th Yahoo Finance “Maybe bad bosses are causing the worker shortage“ was misheadlined – it was also about several other factors.  According to Prudential research, a stunning 46% of employees “said they’re looking for a new job, or considering looking,” and, after those wanting to be paid more (45%), “lack of growth opportunities” was, at 26%, the second most common reason.  While raising compensation is “probably the easiest” solution, despite a dearth of workers for “a year or more,” “there was no notable pickup in average pay until recently.”  Ideas for getting and keeping people in positions Newman mentioned, along with the usual vague self-fulfillment things which are often more basic issues in disguise, included ending “rigid eligibility requirements” such as college degrees. 

Per the American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, 16.7 million of our citizens – over half again the recently reported 11 million job openings, would take employment if the terms were right.  So what should companies do?  First, they need to raise pay – not just a few percent, but 10%, 20%, or more – and for in-place workers as well as new hires, announce that future average levels will at least equal the inflation rate.  Second, rediscover corporate training, or, if it seems better, pay community college tuition, books, and fees.  Third, be aware of true market rates for well-defined jobs, such as machinists and warehouse workers, and at least match them for skilled and experienced employees and candidates.  Fourth, search for and destroy barriers, such as the education ones above along with many certifications, which were often put into place when the massive baby boom generation produced too many applicants.  Fifth, when appropriate, allow people to work remotely, but do not pawn off costs on them by being stingy about allowed equipment such as ergonometric chairs.  Sixth, don’t forget promotions.  Seventh, when all else fails, pay even more – and repeat that as often as necessary.  Companies that follow these recommendations will have the employees they need.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Around the Horn with Robots

This is a highly jobs-related area which has had less press than I might have thought, probably due to emphasis on the pay demands, quitting, workspace-setting, and vaccination tendencies of human workers.  Here’s about all I have encountered in the past nine months.

“Do Not Be Alarmed by Wild Predictions of Robots Taking Everyone’s Jobs” – Kevin Carey, Slate, March 31st.  But be aware they will take a LOT of them, later if not sooner.  True, the 2013 Oxford study projecting that 47% of American positions were “”at risk” of computerization” did not mean anything imminent, but the possibility remains, which could massively materialize if our national will to achieve true innovations returns.  That we’re now in a forest of Help Wanted signs does not mean we won’t see skyrocketing automation by 2050, 2040, or even 2030.

“The Robot Surgeon Will See You Now” – Cade Metz, The New York Times, April 30th.  Well, not quite yet, but they have been assisting doctors there for years.  Implementation of autonomous robots in this field is unusually unpromising, since consumer resistance, especially when even small numbers of things go wrong, will be massive.  If many consider one fatal autonomous-vehicle accident worse than 30,000 annual driver-error deaths, they won’t tolerate risking delicate, high-skill processes on automata.

“Instacart enlisting robots to cut labor costs” – Jeanette Settembre, Fox Business, June 1st).  Picking grocery orders is much less emotional than cutting into heart muscles, and is effective, especially when the company’s warehouses can be designed for them.  A natural way of using technology when it not only keeps improving but, as labor costs climb, is even more valuable.  Many positions are strictly humans’ work, but this one is robots’ work.

“Elon Musk introduces humanoid robot prototype at Tesla AI Day” – Ken Martin, Fox Business, August 19th.  Unclear how these devices, except for looking more like humans (“standing” 5’8” “tall”), would be anything meaningfully new.  Robots already “eliminate dangerous, repetitive, boring tasks” and “carry out the work people don’t like to do” (or, more properly, carry out the work people’s companies don’t want them to do).  Sorry, Elon, but this one, unless Martin missed something huge, was a yawner.

“Workplace automation bots gain clout amid COVID-19 pandemic” – Angus Loten, Fox Business, September 24th.  The pandemic should have started many efforts to provide them, which may take a while to produce market-ready product.  This piece is about “robotic process automation,” covering the likes of “processing payroll data or expense reports and fielding call-center queries.”  Interesting to see how the latter would go over, even at the lowest, Tier 1, level of complexity. 

“Alec Ross:  COVID unleashes robots – and the hit on America’s workforce will be enormous” – Alec Ross, Fox News, October 10th.  The author looked in on a pharmaceutical-packaging plant “without human beings on the factory floor,” although workers did control the robots remotely.  More and more of this is on the way, as before pushed by higher pay levels.

“Desperate for Workers, Restaurants Turn to Robots” – Janet Morrissey, The New York Times, October 19th.  And in the next two years, it will mushroom.  Ones perhaps already at eateries near you include the Servi, which “uses cameras and laser sensors to carry plates of food from the kitchen to tables in the dining room” but not directly to customers; the Flippy, which as you might think can “fry fast food, like French fries and chicken wings“; Peanut, which covers every restaurant employee’s favorite detail by cleaning bathrooms; Whiz, “which vacuums floors,”; and silicon bartenders.  These mechanical employees have had their share of spectacular mishaps, leading some to be “fired” – just like their predecessors.

“Robots navigate the streets to deliver food” – Fox Business, November 2nd.  More on automated edibles distribution, by “hundreds of little robots – knee-high and able to hold around four large pizzas” are at work around American and British colleges and elsewhere.  One company, Starship Technologies, has reached two million deliveries, despite the devices being “slow,” “inflexible,” and needing to “recharge regularly.”  They’re not for every area, as some cities “aren’t welcoming them,” but are piling up a history now.

“Can We Make Our Robots Less Biased Than We Are?” – David Berreby, The New York Times, November 22nd.  That gets us to the, to say the least, uncomfortable issue of what we should do when artificial intelligence and related systems conclude that people of all groups are not identically likely to have certain proclivities or characteristics.  Sometimes such machine knowledge comes from poor programming, but we are rapidly reaching a time, if we aren’t there already, when systems we know are logically flawless have discovered, without any input from humans biased or otherwise, differences that offend people with certain political sensitivities.  Soon, surely by the end of this decade, we will need to at least debate whether to accept such algorithm components or to somehow remove them from artificially intelligent entities.  Not deciding on a course of action will cost us increasingly dearly.  I suspect that this matter will give us some seriously unpleasant times. 

Overall, where are we with robots?  We will find out within a few more years, when their quality, scope, and number available have all multiplied.  That is what they will do – and they will be even harder for companies to resist.  Then we will not be alarmed, but rather quickly accepting, of robots taking over many more jobs.  We cannot avoid that forever.

Friday, December 3, 2021

November Jobs Report: Another Fine Month, But Without the New Positions This Time

That outcome may not seem possible, but it’s what happened with this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary. 

The number of net new nonfarm positions grew a meager but still valuable 210,000, far below the three projections, all between 500,000 and 600,000, I saw.  That was the extent of the bad news.  Seasonally adjusted and unadjusted joblessness each shed 0.4%, to reach 4.2% and 3.9%.  There were half a million fewer unemployed people than the month before, reaching 6.9 million.  The count of those on temporary layoff fell 300,000 to 800,000, and those out 27 weeks or longer lost 100,000 and is now 2.2 million.  Those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping such positions while looking thus far unsuccessfully for full-time ones, numbered 4.3 million or 100,000 less.  The two measures best showing how common it is for Americans to be working or officially jobless, the labor force participation rate and the employment/population ratio, improved substantially and are now at 61.8% and 59.2%, up 0.2% and 0.4% respectively.  The weakest measure here may have been average private nonfarm payroll wages, increasing 7 cents an hour, below inflation, to reach $31.03.

The American Job Shortage Number, the statistic showing how many new positions could be filled quickly if all knew they would be easy and routine to get, had another fine month, dropping 568,000 to get to the following:

Eight of eleven components contributed less this time, with about 90% of the drop from lower formal unemployment.  The rest was broad-based.  This time, only 34% of the AJSN came from that same piece, meaning that nearly two-thirds of people without employment who would take easily available new jobs would have other statuses.  Compared with a year before, the AJSN has shed almost 4.3 million, with all but 700,000 from reduced official joblessness. 

On the Covid-19 front, per the New York Times, the seven-day weighted average of new cases rose 2% from October 16th to November 16th, to reach 85,154.  Deaths measured the same way, though, lost 30% to 1,063, and hospitalizations dropped 23% to 47,852.  The number of vaccinations, including booster shots, jumped 70% to get to 1,368,939.  With the trends so generally positive, there is no reason to think that more people are excessively endangering themselves by working in pandemic-unsafe conditions. 

So how could this report be so good with the count of new jobs, treated by many as the most important number it contains, disappointing?  The marginal attachment statuses above are improving little, and the count of those claiming no interest in working, which soon may contribute more to the AJSN than the unemployed, has been irregularly but clearly increasing.  Otherwise, there are gaps between the number of jobs and the number of people with them, specifically that a rising share of the employed have more than one position, and the non-civilian et al. category above, including people off the grid or not wanting to be found, has settled at about a million and half higher than it was pre-pandemic.  Still, the report was strong indeed, and the unemployment rates are running, not walking, toward pre-coronavirus levels.  In light of that, the turtle took another big step in the right direction.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Remote Work Since My Eleven Brutal Truths: Part III and Conclusions

To start with the same publication and date we finished with last week, in the September 28th Harvard Business Review Tsedal Neeley offered “12 Questions About Hybrid Work, Answered.”  If there was any doubt, “extensive data across surveys indicate that most people want hybrid work arrangements – that is, a mix of in-person and remote work,” and “leaders need to design plans that combine the preferences of their workforce and the core work that their organization need to do well – and they need to be prepared to adjust as they go.”  Neeley, who wrote a book on this subject, urged starting with standard procedures, as “each organization should identify the approach that best serves its stakeholders,” and that was only a small part of his response to the first question.  Other key issues, for Neeley, included letting as many employees as possible participate, facilitating transitions to it, how to bring in new workers, ways to neutralize the aforementioned “proximity bias,” facilitating more trust, removing “tech exhaustion,” indicated changes to office spaces, and data security.  All well worthy of consideration, and clearer and more in-depth than any of the other articles in this series.

The growing tendency of workers to quit their jobs has not avoided those based at home, and, for that and other reasons, it is no surprise that “U.S. employees look to prioritize well-being of remote workers – survey” (Manojna Maddipatla, Yahoo News, October 6th).  I am not sure what “subsidized furniture” means – if providing such employees with the same expensive ergonomic equipment as is in good offices, that’s a good idea – but “home delivery of meals… to meet the rigors of working from home” (!) is something else.  Providing food in offices is a blatant, if welcome, way of increasing workers’ time there, so why do that elsewhere?  The same goes for “at-home alternatives for offerings such as subsidized healthy food choices in cafeterias or onsite gyms.”  Perhaps all of this is designed to convince employees that management’s motives are pure, but I don’t expect any of it to catch on.  In contrast, we had Terry Collins reporting in the November 11th USA Today “Work remote after COVID?  Nearly 50% of US workers would take a pay cut for it, survey says.”  He also found “74% say working from home would make them happier post-pandemic as a quarter of those surveyed said they will quit their jobs if they can’t work remotely.”  So, for most (but hardly all), we can hold off on those home-delivered yoga mats. 

More on management’s views came in with “What Bosses Really Think About the Future of Work” (David Gelles, The New York Times, November 14th).  Chief executives, “struggling to balance rapidly shifting expectations with their own impulse” and “eager to appear responsive to employees who are relishing their newfound autonomy” are making a variety of choices, as shown by great intercompany remote-work differences.  Otherwise, except for IBM’s CEO Arvind Krishna saying “he no longer cared whether office workers showed up at 5 a.m. or 11 a.m., or whether their workday ended at 3 p.m. or 9 p.m., so long as they were productive” – which even if he were sincere about, people between him and those choosing 4-hour shifts would be unlikely to agree – there was little new here.

The last piece presented a possibility that has doubtless caused nightmares, “The Worst of Both Worlds:  Zooming From the Office,” by Emma Goldberg in the November 16th New York Times.  There were several good insights in this foray into the “mushy middle ground” of modern work.  We have not recently seen, as some expected, “the Great Office Reopening,” but, for one example, “as employees at the financial technology start-up CommonBond got Covid vaccines, and grew stir-crazy in their apartments, they started trickling back into the office.”  While clear-cut for most one way or the other, workers have not all been able to choose between “teammates” and “pajamas,” and their management often hasn’t either.  Although those at home “might be undercut” by being “muted in a heated discussion” and “shut out of lunchtime bonding,” “at many workplaces the in-person employees felt just as neglected.”  One way Zillow has mitigated some of that is to require that if at least one participant must attend remotely, everyone else must also, hence the title.  How we work this out, with the likes of Zoom hardly well liked, will not be easy.

What conclusions can we draw from the past three weeks’ worth of articles?  I offer four.  First, there are good and bad sides of telecommuting, and managers and line workers need to consider both.  Second, the ground rules for remote and hybrid work, such as office equipment and the number of hours people must put in, whether or not aligned with my Brutal Truths, are totally unset between companies, let alone between industries.  Third, we know nothing about what those wanting to integrate childcare with home work should be entitled to expect, and if that should vary from the needs and desires of others.  Fourth, between the pendulum which has swung between office-is-best and remote-is-best for 30 years, the discoveries we have made since March 2020, and management’s choppy and shifting policies, how we will handle remote work going forward is still totally unsettled.  Place your bets, take your chances, and make decisions, but don’t expect they will be correct.  Only the future will tell. 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Remote Work Since My Eleven Brutal Truths: Part II

We start this week’s installment with one piece having a headline with an unexpected meaning.  John Zavitsanos’s July 26th New York Times “We’re Kidding Ourselves That Workers Perform Well from Home” did not address telecommuting employees failing to buckle down, rather that, in his law firm, it could “drain morale and diminish collegiality,” and that “some people were distracted and anxious to leave meetings, but in person, they were engaged and animated – there was just no comparison.”  Perhaps as a result of the company reopening its offices after only five 2020 weeks of closure, its revenue rose without furloughing or laying off anyone.  Zavitsanos did mention productivity being higher in person, and those who wanted remote work were allowed that, but concluded that “ambitious lawyers at firms like ours simply couldn’t thrive in a virtual setting.”

Although incomplete statistics detracted from “These careers added the most remote jobs in 2021:  report,” by Audrey Conklin on August 4th in Fox Business, it still provided new information, including that “remote work” increased tenfold earlier this year, with surprising growth in some categories, such as from-home health care positions almost tripling and “sales and business development” more than that.  Although the status of and prospects for telecommuting are uncertain, opportunities involving it have, indeed, skyrocketed.

On the same day, The Atlantic Daily provided a quick view on “The Remote-Work Experiment.”  A “remote company” CEO, Ed Zitron, maintained that “for the tens of millions of us who spend most of our days sitting at a computer, the pandemic proved that remote work is just work” (italics his), and that managers leery of it now have “the tangible proof of their still-standing business.”  I don’t find that a compelling argument, and the unbilled article author didn’t seem to either, as his “few things to consider,” from Zitron and two other sources, included “the work-from-home revolution will have winners and losers,” even if the latter are landlords, and “younger and less-established workers could have a tougher time.”  Sobriety, which as we will see was not an attribute of every contribution here.    

A choice employee have been making, and how much they should pay for it in other ways, was the subject of Sarah Kessler’s “Will Remote Workers Get Left Behind in the Hybrid Office,” in the August 5th New York Times.  She had only a general assertion that people not in offices could be underrated and not a part of certain interactions, and showed better that remote work is often an option taken mostly by women.  Not everyone takes the maximal career path – for example, when I was in AT&T management I understood that my best opportunities would call for me to move from Central Florida to New Jersey, which many did, but I declined that – and it is wrong to claim unjust discrimination when career path outcomes turn out, on average, to vary.  There is nothing pejorative about saying that women – as a group, not individually – tend to choose greater work-life balance.  More of the same came from Martha White, in Yahoo News on August 18th, in “Remote workers could face cuts to pay, visibility.”  White cited a study showing that “72 percent of supervisors… said they prefer to have their underlings in the office,” meaning they may not assess them objectively.  Lower recognition could turn out to be an accepted optional-telecommuting disadvantage.                    

So who are “The Winners of Remote Work” (Dror Poleg, August 31st, The New York Times)?  Not as many as we might think.  While it gives something desirable to many existing employees, it massively expands their competition for jobs, high performance reviews, and promotions, as it makes the pool of available candidates national or even worldwide.  Some annual salaries Poleg cited included the most skilled online elementary school teachers over $100,000 and fitness instructors earning five times as much.  The number of clients each can have is of course vastly larger than if they were working in person, leading to a concentration in which others cannot find opportunities at all.  The same thing, per the author, has been happening with “lawyers, doctors, consultants, bankers and managers.”  This situation is similar to people taking on more than one full-time position, differing only in the number of separate employers, and may indicate a de facto decrease in the numbers of some jobs.        

Evolving and oscillating philosophies on where workers should be have caused some to call allowed telecommuting an employee benefit.  Not so fast, said Gretchen Gavett in the Harvard Business Review on September 28th.  Her piece, titled “”Remote Work Isn’t a Perk to Toss into the Mix,”” was an interview of authors of a “forthcoming book, Out of Office:  The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home,” which seemed to unambiguously advocate telecommuting.  The best the book’s authors could do toward being even-handed was to acknowledge that management, not the workers, should be “vigilant about” how technology could “create more work, more stress, more wasted time.”  That wasn’t enough to be fair on this cyclical, divisive, and thoroughly unsettled issue.

The last part, along with conclusions, will appear next week.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Remote Work Since My Eleven Brutal Truths: Part I

One of the steadiest press topics this year has been what used to be called telecommuting, or employees doing their duties from where they live.  That was an old interest of mine, from times at AT&T around thirty years ago, and through my education, for which I wrote about it. 

In March I posted something called “Eleven Brutal Truths on Office Design and Working from Home,” giving my views on this new-old-new-old-new-old phenomenon, about which companies seemed to learn little from what previous generations had discovered.  I was generally skeptical about telecommuting’s advantages, saying that in practice it served more to facilitate workers’ slacking off, to accentuate wealth and home-situation differences, to wreck most of the social side of office jobs, and to illegitimately transfer costs to employees.  In a June update I still stood on these principles, and found occasional agreement in recent articles.  Now, in a three-part series, I will assess how much, if at all, companies and other observers are coming around to my beliefs. 

I start with three pieces from before my last pertinent writing.  The first, “The Pandemic of Work-From-Home Injuries,” by Jeff Wilser in the September 4th, 2020 (updated September 11th) New York Times, is old but addressed an issue still undercovered.  The piece started with the following anecdotal, which perfectly described the problem.  “Elizabeth Cuthrell, a Manhattan-based film producer, used to work in an ergonomic office space:  comfortable desk chair, monitor at eye level, external keyboard.  Then came Covid-19.  During stay-at-home she worked on a laptop from a wicker chair, or sometimes on a couch with “cushions like marshmallows.”  A month later she felt pain in her neck, write and shoulders that sent her to a chiropractor.”  In my MBA program in the late 1990s, ergonomics was important enough for an entire course – now, with companies as always notoriously unwilling to pay for premium home equipment, such as chairs that can easily cost $1,000, we are in danger of throwing away all of the progress there we have made.

Next, a reminder that not everyone is clamoring to stay at home: “The flip side of ‘flexibility’:  Working moms make the powerful case for going back to the office” (Erin Schulte, Fast Company, March 11th).  It’s not so they can get more work done, but rather to avoid “constant juggling,” “crazy hours,” and such from children as “no matter what, someone will come flying in with no pants on and ask me for Cinnamon Toast Crunch.”  Employers, per Schulte, “assume a lot about their employees,” described in a colorful paragraph including that they have a fully-professionally-outfitted office “that would score 8 or above on Room Rater,” and that “you don’t mind your boss knowing what your bedroom or your spouse looks like, or what your kids sound like when they’re squabbling in the room next door.”  

We got a look from the other side in “What Bosses Really Think of Remote Workers” (Olga Khazan, The Atlantic, May).  When the pendulum I mentioned swung in the direction of favoring people being in offices, we had, per Khazan, “a pushback against remote work” with those of you making that choice remarkably likely to “irritate your boss and hurt your career,” and tending to get smaller raises.  That may be a holdover from the pre-pandemic days where only some people worked from home, but for now the evidence in this piece is insufficient to say that any kind of discrimination continues today.

Starting the newer articles, we can’t really disagree that “Remote work is here to stay, survey of Canadian businesses shows” (Alicja Siekierska, Yahoo Finance, June 15th), but we still know nothing about the extent, or when if ever the pendulum will stop swinging.  Here we learned that “most Canadian business owners say they will continue to allow employees to work from home after the pandemic,” but that means some say they will not, and it’s hardly a lock that they will keep those views, especially after the main reason for workers doing that has faded back.  And as above, not everyone would choose it.

At least Austan Goolsbee, in the July 20th New York Times, had the foresight to see the issue in less rosy and dogmatic terms, in “The Battles to Come Over the Benefits of Working From Home.”  Although the author confused “gasoline” for much-higher car expenses, he named lack of commuting as “the biggest prize of all” for those working remotely, and reminded us that management could ask for compensation for that, by formally “asking employees to work longer from home” and noted the real problem of “blurring the lines between work and the rest of life,” which “does not have to benefit workers in the end.”  As I documented, the pendulum was swinging in the other direction before the pandemic, as employers were providing onsite gyms and free snacks to encourage workers not only to appear in the office but to stay there longer, and in some well-publicized cases barred them from remote work altogether.  So there we will see.

I end this week’s installment with another from the Times, “We Are Not Going Back to Business as Usual,” by Taylor Trudon on July 25th.  This piece delved into the murky area of doing personal errands and tasks on company time, hardly rare and often not considered wrong by many managers, during days either in or out of the office.  Trudon also seemed to imply, through examples, that the “hustle culture,” with such things as work-harder messages on watermelon slices, may have been peaking.  We have certainly seen some of that in the three-plus months since, as candidates have been more likely to hold out for positions with the remote-work rules they like, which still vary greatly by company.  And as before, we don’t know how it will be in 2022, let alone 2023. 

Next week:  more on this topic.

Friday, November 5, 2021

This Morning’s Jobs Data: A Calm, Normal Recovery Month, For Once – AJSN Shows Latent Demand Down 400,000 to 17.3 Million

With the peculiar Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary results we have been getting, capped by the previous one, it was reassuring to see a report showing that we improved in an orderly and once-expected fashion.

The number of net new nonfarm payroll positions moderately exceeded the published 450,000 projection with 531,000.  Seasonally adjusted and unadjusted unemployment improved 0.2% and 0.3%, coming in at 4.6% and 4.3%, the latter not from normal variation.  The number of jobless fell 300,000 to 7.4 million, with the count of those on temporary layoff holding at 1.1 million.  The long-term unemployed fell a large 400,000 to 2.3 million, and those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping short-hours positions while looking thus far unsuccessfully for full-time ones, shed 100,000 to 4.5 million.  The two measures showing best how common it is for Americans to be working or one step away, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, were narrowly mixed, with the former up 0.1% to 58.8% and the latter still 61.6%.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll wages increased 11 cents, roughly matching the inflation rate, and are now $30.96. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the statistic showing how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were available and easy to get, improved just over 400,000 and broke down as follows:

The unemployed population accounted for a bit more than the entire reduction, with all of the other categories combined offsetting it by less than 25,000 – none individually changed the metric by more than 52,000.  The share of the AJSN from official unemployment came in at 36.0%, down from 37.5%.

Compared with a year ago, the AJSN is almost 3.8 million lower, with almost exactly all of that from lower unemployment and a reduced count of those wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more.  Our improvements now are, understandably, much less than they were at that pre-vaccination stage of the pandemic.

On the coronavirus front, showing that our good employment month was not at the expense of more Covid-19 activity, per the New York Times from September 16th to October 16th the 7-day average daily number of new cases dropped 44% to 83,703, deaths figured the same way fell 22% to 1,529, hospitalizations were off 37% to 61,281, and the number of new daily vaccinations, despite our creep toward saturation, still managed a 4% increase to 803.960. 

Feels good, doesn’t it?  Compared with just before the pandemic started, we still are several million jobs short and over two million heavy in the AJSN, but we made clear progress.  Given that we know there will be no sudden jump into maximum employment, we can’t ask for more except consistency at this level.  Accordingly, I saw the turtle take a big step forward.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Everybody’s Rethinking Jobs: New Attitudes on Both Sides

Changes in outlooks from both employers and employees have, outside the direct effect of the Covid-19 virus, been the largest feature of working in in America this year.  What do I mean?

First, we have what’s been called the Great Resignation – people quitting their jobs.  Before it was identified as such, when it was a general problem known as “employee turnover,” Marcel Schwantes wrote “Why Do People Leave Their Jobs, Exactly?  The Entire Reason Can Be Summed Up in a Few Sentences” (Inc., February 28th).  He said that when you hire a bad manager, “nothing fixes that bad decision.  Not compensation, not benefits – nothing.“  Such employees need empathy, shared responsibility, and vulnerability.  That is worth revisiting now, as some companies are having turnover problems that cannot completely be blamed on a nationwide trend.

Into current times, “Another 4 million workers quit in the 5th month in a row of record exits, and it shows how the pandemic is still making people rethink that they want out of work and life” (Juliana Kaplan, Andy Kiersz, and Madison Hoff, Business Insider, October 12th).  The exiters are most likely to have “low-paid, mostly in-person roles,” but three-quarters of overall Joblist-survey responders “were thinking about leaving their jobs during July, August, or September,” with “no one answer for why workers are turning their backs on jobs.”  This pattern cannot continue forever, but it seems deeper-rooted than some might think.

The failure of existing requirements to gather enough workers has helped one group, as “Once shunned, people convicted of felonies find more employers open to hiring them” (Don Lee, Los Angeles Times, October 5th).  Before 2021 it was common to refuse any such applicants, but it need not be a problem for all positions.  As the first example here shows, there is hardly any reason for ex-felons not to make high-demand home gym mats at U.S. Rubber Recycling, and even to supervise others doing that work.  That firm did not, for example, hire someone convicted of fraud to handle money, but did, in this case, offer her “a job working with employment applicants.”  In this case, as in others, we see a healthy, elemental requirement for potential employees – Show up every day on time and do your job, and you can keep it.

Despite so many unfilled positions, some applicants aren’t getting there.  One way is the old-fashioned, “’Throwing resumes into the void’:  Job seekers describe the frustration of sending hundreds of applications and having nothing to show for it” (Dominick Reuter, Business Insider, September 30th).  This piece relies on anecdotal reports, but, apparently, such hapless people still exist, some no doubt hampered by unmentioned negative factors.  The more modern reason centers “In the Middle of the Great Resignation, Employers Are Rejecting Millions of Qualified Workers, New Harvard Research Finds,” by Jessica Stillman in Inc. on September 9th.  The bug here is “automated hiring software that unnecessarily screens out many qualified candidates.”  That can be caused by employers which “throw every “nice to have” item they can think of into their job ads,” which the software takes as required, along with such gaffes as “hospitals scanning resumes of registered nurses for ‘computer programming,’ when what they need is someone who can enter patient data into a computer” and “power companies” which “scan for a customer-service background when hiring people to repair electric transmission lines.”  Employers using such software clearly need to know more about what it is doing.

A few Great Resignation explanations turn up in “Will Covid Really Change the Way We Work?,” by Spencer Bokat-Lindell in the October 21st New York Times.  From survey data, they are stagnating wages, lack of vacation time, “a shortage of affordable child care,” and positions being “unstable and precarious,” making employees “subject to unpredictable fluctuations in working hours that can upend their family lives,” fueled by often high personal savings.  Perhaps, per Bokat-Lindell, this situation will endure, but maybe “workers will soon lose their leverage.”  He doesn’t know, and the rest of us don’t either.

We end with something from my humor department, “The Strange New Trend That’s Enraging Hiring Managers” (Alison Green, Slate, October 25th).  It’s not new, but reversed – it’s employers, who have so long and often ghosted applicants at whatever points in the hiring process they choose that job-seekers take rudeness and insincerity as routine, being cut dead themselves, with one manager saying “No response.  I don’t get it,” and “I’m at a loss and feeling really discouraged.”  Doesn’t feel so good when the other side is doing the kicking, does it?  Maybe employers can go back to candor and rejection letters.  Until then, they should take this turnaround as pure karma.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Four Months of Highly Understandable Inflation, and Our Best Attitude About It

In June, per “Prices Pop Again, and Fed and White House Seek to Ease Inflation Fears” (Jeanna Smialek and Jim Tankersley, The New York Times, July 13th), “a key measure of inflation spiked,” reaching 5.4 percent, which in the 1960s and early 1970s was a perfectly ordinary rate (in the late 1970s it was much higher), and about what basic savings accounts paid.  Much of this bulge was from used cars, and the rest from supply-chain problems and slower-than-expected employment gains.  I wrote then that it was nothing to worry about – is that still true?

The day after that, Smialek reported, again in the New York Times, that “Fed Chair Powell Sees Months of High Inflation, but Then Moderation.”  Powell has been a sober, consistent voice, exactly what best serves the Federal Reserve, which left interest rates unchanged and very low, and he continued that here.

In August, another 5.4% inflation month, as per Smialek, once more in the Times, “Consumer Prices Keep Climbing as Fed and White House Await a Cool-Down” (August 11th).  Wages went up “as employers scrambled to hire and rehire,” and Chipotle price increases, to name one restaurant chain, precipitated, per its CEO, “very little resistance.”  That was all natural and appropriate, as well summarized by Paul Krugman the next day in the same publication, in “Don’t Let Inflation Anxiety Undermine Our Future.”  Krugman backed the then $3.5 trillion infrastructure plan, including its nonphysical components, but acknowledged that such “would take a long time to materialize,” before he ended with “build we can, and build we must.” 

We got word on the next month’s data in “Inflation rose again in July, the Fed’s preferred measure of prices shows” (Coral Murphy Marcos, The New York Times, August 27th).  The rate actually fell then, to 4.2 percent, with a comment from a chief economist that “the economy is still recalibrating.” 

Panicking resumed with the August information, as “Inflation Warning Signs Flash Red, Posing Challenge for Washington,” published October 1st, again by Smialek in the Times.  The annual rate here of 4.3% hardly seemed to require urgent action, especially given the probable crest of the container-ship logjam and low-end pay reaching and exceeding $15 per hour in most places.  (Note that the free market has almost overwritten any need for that to be the national minimum wage.)  I don’t see why that was either unexpected or disturbing, especially when coupled with “Fed’s Bullard:  U.S. businesses having no problems raising prices” (Reuters, October 4th).  As before that is healthy and normal, as people both eager to spend and knowledgeable about higher costs will take the push.  Still the fear continued, as the “Risk of high inflation dogs central bankers as consumer expectations climb” on October 12th once more by Smialek in the New York Times, but, thankfully, per Federal Reserve vice chair Richard H. Clarida, most in that department “generally view that, so long as the recovery remains on track, a gradual tapering of our asset purchases that concludes around the middle of next year may soon be warranted,” but no more, while per Smialek “interest rates are expected to remain near zero for months or even years.” 

Although it isn’t reasonable to blame any one person or group for our rising prices, Peter Coy, in The New York Times on October 15th, reminded those not sure in “Don’t Blame Workers for Inflation.”  That is easy to do, but, per Coy’s research, wages since 2018 have gone up less than consumer prices, and “economists disagree on how much worker incomes will eventually spill over into the general price level.”  However, Jeanna Smialek, twice more in the same publication, determined that “Rising Rents are Fueling Inflation, Posing Trouble for the Fed” (October 15th) and “A regional Fed analysis suggests Biden’s stimulus is temporarily stoking inflation” (October 18th).  Economic stimuli should do just that, as ideally they should largely be spent instead of saved, and the first, “exacerbated by work stoppages, supply shortages and labor constraints” handcuffing real estate developers, makes sense as well. 

Overall, our current level of inflation should not make us lose sleep.  It has clear origins, all from the Covid-19 root cause.  There remain vast trillions of capital dollars ready to fund business opportunities when they present themselves.  We are almost certainly within a year of far better alignment of work and workers, which we will resolve at a level of high prosperity.  Then we may again see 2% inflation, but if we don’t we will still flourish.  Social Security checks, as widely reported, will grow 5.9% next year.  So for now, depending on your outlook, you can worry about climate change, gray goo, creeping socialism, or another Trump election, but don’t be concerned about prices going up.

Friday, October 15, 2021

The Container Ship Jam-up – What Is Happening, and Two Sets of Solutions

On my copy of the first article on this topic I saw, Cindy Wang and Enda Curran’s “The World Economy’s Supply Chain Problem Keeps Getting Worse” (, August 25th), which quoted a Hong Kong CEO as saying “we can’t get containers” and “costs have been driven up tremendously,” I wrote that the root causes were not enough infrastructure, reluctance by businesses to raise prices, and foot-dragging on paying workers more.  That was a start, but much has happened since.  This piece, though, hit the main problems, such as the Chinese government closing “part of the world’s third-busiest container port at Ningbo for two weeks after a single dockworker was found to have the delta variant,” “the cost of sending a container from Asia to Europe is about 10 times higher than in May 2020, while the cost from Shanghai to Los Angeles has grown more than sixfold,” and a prediction from a Taiwan company president that the capacity shortage could last into the middle of next year. 

From there, Costas Paris saw “shipping options dry up as businesses try to rebuild from pandemic” (Fox Business, September 12th).  Here we learned that as “the shipping industry consolidated between 2016 and 2018,” “a handful of big shipping players control the majority of containers via giant vessels, leaving the world with fewer routes, fewer smaller ships and fewer ports.”  A variety of infrastructure shortages, including not “enough manpower, trains, trucks and warehouses” along with too few unloading places, resulting in “forty or more loaded ships… waiting at anchor off the coast of Los Angeles on any given day in recent weeks.”  Among others, Walmart and Home Depot, later joined by Costco and Target, have themselves chartered smaller ships able to dock elsewhere.  Fourteen days later, The Wall Street Journal reported in “Cargo Piles Up as California Ports Jostle Over How to Resolve Delays” (Costas Paris and Jennifer Smith) that the average 40 waiting ships was now “more than 60,” worsened by the “port complex” closing “for hours on most days” and throughout Sunday in contrast with Asian and European 24/7 operations, and, due to insufficient warehouse capacity, becoming cluttered with empty containers. 

On October 10th, Peter S. Goodman documented “’It’s Not Sustainable’:  What America’s Port Crisis Looks Like Up Close” in the New York Times.  He discussed the Savannah port, where the 80,000 containers “stacked in various configurations” there are half again the usual amount, and 700 of them “have been left… by their owners for a month or more.”  There, though, they are improving, with “a $600 million expansion” involving “swapping out one berth for a bigger one to accommodate the largest container ships,” “extending the storage yard across another 80 acres, adding room for 6,000 more containers,” and expanding the “rail yard to 18 tracks from five to allow more trains to pull in, building out an alternative to trucking”

Some relief was announced on Wednesday, as “Biden Announces Measures at Major Ports to Battle Supply Chain Woes” (Ana Swanson et al., The New York Times), as “the Port of Los Angeles will operate around the clock.”  That day saw only 25 container ships there waiting to unload, an improvement, though that still meant they were sitting for an average of “more than 11 days.” 

How, beyond what Savannah and Biden are doing, can we free up the container port snarls?  In “Liz Peek:  Biden’s economy is stalled.  Here’s what he must do now to unfreeze our supply chain” (Fox News, October 12th), the author recommends the president “bring together union bosses, transportation industry CEOs, medical authorities, and other interested parties,” and, maybe most importantly, consumers will need to accept more outages and higher prices.  I endorse those, and add the need for longer port hours all over, higher pay for truck drivers and others in positions without enough employees, ample premium-rate overtime for union longshoremen and others already willing to take it on, a faster track to warehouse building, assessment and possible removal or shrinking of business regulations contributing to the jam, easing up on Covid-19-related outages, and quickly passing an infrastructure bill containing only the most urgently needed assistance.  As companies see the demand and can manufacture what is needed, including ships suitable for smaller ports, the problem will go away with time, but for now, many of our jobs and a good chunk of our prosperity depend on getting past the worst of the current situation.  We can do it – why don’t we?

Friday, October 8, 2021

September’s Employment Data: A Pitiful Number of New Jobs Conflicts with Strong Apparent and Real Progress Elsewhere, as Latent Demand, Per the AJSN, Dives 1,200,000 to 17.7 Million

Another Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, another fall in unemployment, another disappointing count of net new nonfarm payroll positions.  That came in at 194,000, this time just over one third of a published prediction, which was 500,000.  Doesn’t look that bad, but…

Wait a minute!

Well before the survey weeks, the federal $300 unemployment add-on ended.  We have been seeing, especially from conservatives but also moderates, how vast numbers of Americans would rush back to the workforce when they lost that extra money. 


I went so far as to predict a banner jobs-adding month, strong also from higher wages, more vaccinations, and more consistent safety for the prudent.  I was so high on those factors that I considered any gain below 1.5 million to indicate little effect from the add-on’s sunset, and predicted about a million. 

Not close.  We now have no reason whatever to think that this supplement kept people away from workplaces.

So what numbers turned up?  Seasonally adjusted unemployment fell a healthy 0.4% to 4.8%, with the unadjusted version, helped by many people as usual returning to work with the new school year, down 0.7% to 4.6%.  The total number of jobless decreased 700,000 to 7.7 million, with those out 27 weeks or longer dropping 500,000 to 2.7 million and those on temporary layoff 200,000 lower to 1.1 million.  The count of people working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to one or more of those opportunities while unsuccessfully seeking a full-time one, though, held at 4.5 million.  The two indicators of how common it is for Americans to be working or one step away, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, were mixed, with the former off 0.1% to 61.6% and the latter up 0.2% to 58.7%.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll earnings, reflecting larger labor demand and higher pay, were up 12 cents, actually less than inflation, before any adjustment, and now sit at $30.85.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric showing how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew getting one would be as easy as getting a pizza, showed latent demand fell 1.2 million, as follows:


Almost 1.1 million of the AJSN’s drop was from lower official unemployment.  The count of those not looking for work for the past year contributed more than the remainder, and almost everything else got higher.  Most noteworthy was the 650,000 gain in those claiming no interest in working, and that, along with others, show that the unemployment drop came not only from those with that status but from those leaving the labor force.  With the AJSN taking big steps toward its prepandemic levels, it is now 5.3 million less than a year ago, with the marginal statuses much lower.  The share of the AJSN from those officially jobless was 37.5%, down 3.3% and meaning that of those not now working who would actually take new, fillable jobs, five-eighths would not be what we consider unemployed.

On the Covid-19 side, the bad effects, yet becoming less common since, were still getting higher at survey time.  Per the New York Times, from August 16th to September 16th the seven-day average of new cases rose 6% to 150,376, that of deaths soared 180% to 1,969, and that of hospitalizations increased 18% to 97,413.  The same number of vaccinations administered was almost unchanged, reflecting fewer people without them and willing to have them offset by those changing their mind on higher infection numbers, gaining 1% to 773,763.  With the low number of new jobs, though, it is clear that few people were unduly endangering themselves for paychecks.

What can we make of this mess?  Clearly, most of those wanting to work took their time getting it.  Those who toyed with finding employment and weren’t successful continued to return to the shelf – and the number of those saying they wouldn’t welcome jobs, which we know is partially contingent on opportunities, again pushing all-time highs is no sign of rising prosperity. 

Overall, September was neither as bad as the puny 194,000 nor as good as the unemployment-rate drops.  We are slowly improving, with the possibility of further, much larger gains over the next few months fully alive.  This time, however, the turtle managed only a baby step forward.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Reduced Work Hours: Four Sets of Insights, But One Big Question

In these times of unfilled jobs and higher pay, we’re getting a flurry of articles suggesting we cut back from five days a week, 40 hours a week, or both. 

The oldest I saw was a reissue of “The Research Is Clear:  Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies,” first published August 19, 2015 in the Harvard Business Review.  Six years on, except for the lack of pandemic references it looks current as ever, with the likes of “managers want employees to put in long days, respond to their emails at all hours, and willingly donate their off-hours – nights, weekends, vacation – without complaining” and “we log too many hours because of a mix of inner drivers, like ambition, machismo, greed, anxiety, guilt, enjoyment, pride, the pull of short-term rewards, a desire to prove we’re important, or an overdeveloped sense of duty.”  The piece cited studies allegedly showing that “overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease,” with the usual correlation and causation problems, the difference between “a week or two of 60 hours to resolve a true crisis” and “chronic overwork,” and the doubtful or even negative value of more than 40 or 50.  Apparently, neither workers nor managers in many companies agree or even know about much of this, but it does set a starting point.

The first of the newer commentaries came out July 20th online and July 25th in print, by Bryce Covert in the New York Times, titled in the latter “Less Work, More Life.”  It recapped the studies above, but added mention of people, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts it, working part-time for economic reasons (“About one-tenth of American workers were working part time but trying to get more hours”), a statement that people in this country spend “7 to 19 percent more time on the job than our European peers,” that “employers steal… overtime hours spent in front of a computer,” and that longer time constitutes “a class divide in overwork” as “the demand to spend 60 hours at an office is one that depletes the lives of professional, higher-paid workers,” the last one refreshing as almost all printed complaints about job requirements have focused on the lowest-paying positions.  I add the effects of Parkinson’s Law, furthered by employees’ perceptions that they can always work into the evening or weekend if need be, and a related problem of people feeling more need to keep in touch because that is easy. 

Next, in Robin Madell’s September 21st Yahoo News “How Does a 4-Day Workweek Work,” we learned about a trend, probably driven by prospective employees demanding more personal time, which is varies between companies putting it into practice.  As well as differences in whether the third day off is fixed or at workers’ discretion, four-day pioneers Kickstarter, Monograph, and Nectafy split on the largest question, whether such a schedule means 32 hours or still 40.

Finally, we had “the Future of Work Should Mean Working Less,” by Jonathan Malesic on September 23rd in the New York Times.  I don’t share the author’s view that “work sits at the heart of Americans’ vision of human flourishing,” that “it’s how we earn dignity,” “how we prove our moral character,” or, much more, that “it’s where we seek meaning and purpose, which many of us interpret in spiritual terms” – those norms peaked in the 1950s, and modern-day employees are increasingly likely to get their emotional needs met from other ventures and relationships which they use their jobs to support, and have never stopped covering their spiritual life with religion.  As well and unfortunately, the “should” in the title exemplifies what else Malesic had to say, that we “ought to expect a bit less of people whose jobs grind them down” (and which are those?), that considering jobs away from the center of self-worth “justifies a living wage” (just exactly what is that?), and, worst, that “this new vision” (new?) “should inspire us to implement universal basic income and a higher minimum wage, shorter shifts for many workers and a shorter workweek for all at full pay,” something that could have been written by a fourth-grader in that paper’s For Kids section. 

More problematic than naivete, though, is the query looming over all of these stories:  If people are expected to work more, what does it mean to reduce stated hours from 40 to 32?  Before we decrease official time on the job, we need to address that.  It is silly to take pride in a cut to 32 hours if that only shrinks people’s labor from, say, 60 hours to 50.  The 40-hour standard workweek, fictional or not, has been described as the norm since the 1930s – bringing actual time below that is in fact two steps away.  Let us take them one at a time. 

Friday, September 24, 2021

Problems of the Pandemic, Beyond the Statistics

It’s bad enough that the United States has had, per the New York Times, 42.6 million coronavirus cases and 680,000 deaths.  How we have handled Covid-19 has precipitated real concerns, which have contributed to those totals and, if unresolved, will also damage how we do in the future.

In “The Extremely Weird Politics of Covid, in the September 21st New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat documented how, just before the pandemic caused restrictions, The London Review of Books, a “highbrow left-of-center publication,” said good things about civil disobedience during the 1600s Florence plague, agreeing with people defying “quarantines, lockdowns, and what we now call social distancing,” whereas such resistance is now almost exclusively advocated by conservatives.  Also, last year, “the right briefly favored restrictions when they seemed likely to fall mainly on foreigners and the left briefly suspended its zeal for restrictions when the transgressors were left-wing protestors.”  All of this shows that neither side has been consistently principled, meaning that neither has always made American health their top priority.

On the issue of strangely missing information, two related articles also appeared in the Times.  The first, Zeynep Tufekci’s August 29th “Show Me the Data!” posed the following: “Who should get vaccine booster shots and when?  Can vaccinated people with a breakthrough infection transmit the virus as easily as unvaccinated people?  How many people with breakthrough infections die or get seriously ill, broken down by age and underlying health conditions?,” along with “the Food and Drug Administration has asked that vaccine trials for children aged 5 to 11 be expanded, but why weren’t they bigger to begin with?”.  F.D.A. and Center for Disease Control, where are you?  Why is there no information, still, on the last three of these issues?

The second piece, “The Hard Covid-19 Questions We’re Not Asking” on August 30th by Joseph G. Allen and Helen Jenkins, had more, specifically “Does everyone need to wear a mask?  Are unvaccinated children safe in schools?... What happens if vaccines for children younger than 12 are approved at the end of the year but only 35 percent of this age group get vaccinated” as is now the case for 12 to 15-year-olds, “who have had access to vaccines for months”?  If we reach March with similar children’s inoculation rates, “does that mean masks should come off then anyway?”  These authors also asked a higher-level question, phrased as “What is the purpose of Covid-19 precautions now?”  That is important, now that goals, for example, of “Kids need to be in school, period,” “getting to zero infections and staying at that level before dropping restrictions,” and to “make this virus like a seasonal flu,” now conflict with each other.

On the explanatory side, another article, again in the New York Times, clarified “Why Covid Vaccines for Kids Are Taking So Long” (Daniel Carpenter, September 20th).  The author, who also wrote a book about this agency, blamed the F.D.A., which is now asking for “up to six months of child vaccine trial safety days, rather than two, and larger sample sizes.”  He saw a difference, not acted on well enough by the F.D.A., between the coronavirus and diseases for which “there are generally adequate existing treatments or more time than Covid-19 allows,” justifying a slower approval pace and more conservatism.  He did relate that Pfizer, for children aged 5 to 11, “will apply for emergency authorization by the end of the month.” 

Taking all this, we have “Six Rules That Will Define Our Second Pandemic Winter,” by Katherine J. Wu, Ed Yong, and Sarah Zhang, an updated version released in The Atlantic on September 21st.  These precepts are “the role of vaccines has changed (again)” from preventing all infections to stopping only the most severe ones, “the proportion of vaccinated people matters, but who they are and how they cluster also matters” as Americans without the shots are more likely to do the latter than those in other countries and older victims tend to require more ICU beds, “the people at greatest risk from the virus will keep changing” with the faster-spreading Delta variant putting more children in danger, “as vaccination increases, a higher proportion of cases will appear in vaccinated people – and that’s what should happen” which makes sense since as absolute numbers of a population decrease their percentages will also, “rare events are common at scale” reminding us that for example 40,000 breakthrough infections among 40 million inoculated people is still only one per thousand, and “there is no single “worst” version of the coronavirus” as different variants may prove to be most effective against the unvaccinated and vaccinated.

Even after all of the insights above, the best single thing we can do has not changed.  Get the shots. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

In These Tumultuous Times, What Are Employees and Employers Trying?

Especially if you have been reading this blog, you know what on this subject is happening.  Positions, ever more plentiful, are staying open, and numerous companies continue resisting raising pay to get the personnel they need.  Possible workers, between child-care problems, holding out for more money, benefitting from high unemployment payments, and having changes of heart about what they want to do, are staying jobless.  Covid-19 has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated, with so many of them getting sick that infection, hospitalization, and death rates threaten the highest points America reached in total, before shots were widely available.  Our president is trying to get the vaccine into more people, and working to increase overall safety, by requiring it for many jobs. 

Some responses, such as complaining and giving in, are expected.  Yet a handful are more noteworthy.  Which countermeasures have reached the press lately?

First, employers are paying or just plain requiring employees to take their off-work days.  Per “The limits of vacation” (Jenny Gross, The New York Times, August 14th), firms as prominent as LinkedIn and Intuit “have introduced weeklong companywide shutdowns so employees can fully disconnect,” and another, PwC, “is offering workers $250 each time they take 40 consecutive hours off.”  None of this time is additional to what people have already been guaranteed, but, at PwC at least, they are then being asked to lay off their office email accounts.  That is more important than forcing employees to step away for lengths of time that may not be convenient for them.  As Gross pointed out, it is better still to ask workers what would help them, which could result in less along the lines of “installing a volleyball court on the rooftop of an office” (to get people to spend more after-hours time there) or “providing free food during the day” (to facilitate more lunchtime work), when what people really wanted “was receiving fewer emails from bosses during evenings and weekends.”

Second, businesses now have a real and unusual opportunity to experiment with different ways of togetherness.  That was the thesis of Priya Parker’s August 20th New York Times “How Should We Meet?  And Who Decides?”; ideas she mentioned, without much judgment, included assessing a group’s needs before every meeting, implementing new knowledge of what is best done remotely, and shortening the workweek with a commensurate reduction in tasks.  More than anything else, Parker conveyed the value of management trying different things. 

Third, “New surveys show how pandemic workplace policies are shifting” (Sarah Kessler, The New York Times, September 1st).  Such changes include, with percentages of organizations including those now practicing them, requiring vaccinations (52%), tracking worker inoculation status (78%), considering passing along some health-insurance financial impacts to workers (17%), and cutting travel costs even after the pandemic is minimized or ended (84%).  Planned or not, these changes may not be implemented, let alone lasting. 

Fourth, some companies are saying “We’ll Give You a Week Off.  Please Don’t Quit” (Tiffany Hsu and Lauren Hirsch, The New York Times, September 6th).  What’s missing here is whether or not these breaks, often companywide, are bonus holiday time, in place of individually scheduled vacations, or unpaid furloughs.  These efforts, in various significant but not household-word firms, are designed to cut burnout, but sadly often help only temporarily, as employees often return to piles of emails and the same cultural situation.  Worthy experimentation, but no panacea.

Fifth, more are saying goodbye even from good jobs, as noted and investigated in “Why Are So Many Knowledge Workers Quitting?,” by Cal Newport in the August 16th New Yorker.  One cause may be money saved through fewer pandemic spending opportunities.  Another related reason, Newport mentioned, was that “this particular class of workers were thrown into their own Zoom-equipped versions of Walden Pond” as “diversion and entertainment were stripped down to basic forms,” cutting their need for money.  I won’t hold my breath waiting for dumping well-paying positions in favor of financial leanness to become widespread, but it’s hardly out of the question.

Finally, sixth, the fun one, especially to this long-time remote-work hawk: “Some white-collar workers are secretly balancing 2 full-time jobs and earning up to $600,000, a report says.  They drop in and out of multiple meetings to avoid getting caught” (Grace Dean, Business Insider, August 17th).  Isn’t that a fitting response to poorly controlled telecommuting?  This, by the way, is legal, only something that “could breach employment contracts and get people fired.”  Dean’s perhaps unintentionally humorous accounts of tactics include a teacher-technician who dealt with one boss’s request for a video call while running a class for the other by asking his students to take a break and then firing up his second computer, attending simultaneous meetings online and by voice, and traveling, not for training as represented, but to work part-time jobs.  As long as all employees are treated as fervently productive and scrupulously proper, we will get this sort of ingenuity, and it may prove to be remarkably difficult to identify.  Ha ha – who says news about workplace trends can’t be hilarious?