How to Revive a Wilting Workforce
This week, Comment published my essay “Where Are All the Workers? How to Revive a Wilting Workforce.”
In the essay, I address something we’re all feeling, whether at the airport or the local restaurant: the labor shortage. We are facing a historic pinch: the global workforce is aging, birthrates are declining, labor participation rates are decreasing, and many people are not willing to take middle skill jobs – or really any job. In my paper I argue, however, the pandemic has changed our mood around work. From China to the US, we’re now living in an age of anti-ambition, characterized by what the medieval church called acedia, or sloth – which is not just laziness, but a sorrow at having to do good, challenging work.
I make three key points in the paper. First, work as an expression of one’s gifts, interests, and talents, rather than simply extracting maximal wages for minimal effort, is the critical element of a dynamic, growing economy. Second, historic ideas of Christian vocation can be translated into a secular economy to revive a weary workforce. And third, work, and the plight of the world’s workers, is the great social issue of our age.
Here’s how I begin the essay:
It was a Sunday afternoon and I was setting up for a game of musical chairs on my back deck. As the sun shone, I carefully counted black lawn chairs and placed them facing out, in a circle, with one chair less than the number of RSVPs for my daughter’s seventh birthday party. It felt a little cruel to set up a rigged game like this, but I reasoned it was a classic of childhood competition. What could be more American?
Before the pandemic, the labour market felt like a game of musical chairs. Employers created jobs, expected more applications than positions, and when the music stopped, they chose the best employees for the role. Of course, some were left out, but they could be trained to run faster next time and grab a chair, right?
But in the last two years, for both employees and employers, it feels like somebody tipped over the chairs, threw some into the yard, and shut off the music. And half of the kids left early from the birthday party, deciding they didn’t really want to play musical chairs anyway.
Not only has the pandemic has created a labour shortage, it has changed the world of work for all us. We now desperately need to find new ways to infuse life into a weary workforce.