As we begin to emerge from the worst recession in the pandemic, American workers and companies are rethinking how we work, how much we work, and what we expect from our jobs.
Dr. Daniel Cox is a Senior Fellow in Public Opinion at the American Enterprise Institute. His research suggests surprising insights into what drives employment patterns and the future of work (why does the age we have children these days matter?) He explained these points and more on the Great Ideas podcast with Matt Robison.
Hear the full conversation here:
This conversation has been compressed and edited.
What made you decide to deal with the changed attitude of Americans towards work?
One of my main motivations was to find out why people are currently unemployed. Why are they reluctant to return to the labor market? What are the roadblocks? Is it childcare or something else? Is the issue of unemployment benefits and is it too generous or not generous enough?
One of the things the poll found was that there is a much bigger story. There's a way we used to do things where we turned our lives around our jobs. People feel different now. We used to talk about work-life balance. Now people see it the other way around. They say let's talk about life-work balance.
You were interested in two groups: the long-term unemployed and the people who have recently been unemployed due to the pandemic.
To the right. What really sets them apart is that the chronically unemployed have much greater health problems. That's the main reason they don't work. The interesting thing is that the chronically unemployed are actually more optimistic about the job market than the pandemic unemployed. The reason may be that the unemployed have recently felt greater uncertainty about the stability of work and are therefore more pessimistic about the current labor market. One thing that connects these two groups, however, is the notion of workplace flexibility. This is important for everyone. A new CNBC poll shows flexibility is now the number one issue for all workers.
So I think we're seeing a shift. If you look at older generations, they are much more likely to say that their work gives them a sense of identity. Of course, work is about getting a paycheck. But our work offers us so much more these days. It can give us a sense of identity, personal trust, personal connection, and even community. Our surveys have shown that you are most likely to find a close friend in the workplace these days. Not in your church, not in your neighborhood, not through mutual friends.
What did you find about the possible reasons why people may or may not want to return to work?
We found in our survey that childcare is a major obstacle. It's not surprising, given that American workers do more gig work or outside jobs just to get through a month. And parents now also spend more time looking after children.
Part of this is because the family has less support. We live further away from our closest families than before. But another reason is that we later start families. Grandparents, who used to be an incredibly important social support system, are older and not there, or less able to intervene and help out.
What about the unemployment benefit debate?
We found that more than four in ten say the federal government has been too aggressive in helping unemployed people now, while only 21% say they have not been aggressive enough. Interestingly, Republicans and households in receipt of unemployment benefit are much less likely to say that benefits were too generous.
Are adjustments and changing employer expectations creating an opportunity for Americans who were unemployed before the pandemic? For example, offer more flexibility and remote work?
I think that is absolutely correct. And especially for people who have really big family obligations. For many mothers in particular, a part-time situation with flexible working hours and flexible working hours is actually what they want.
Our entire concept of regular “employment” needs to be adapted. The increase in gig work and sideline jobs means that even when you're not officially employed, you are still offering goods or services to make money for your household. In our survey, we found that nearly four in ten Americans who are labeled as “unemployed” still make money on the side.
Why do younger people feel so downbeat?
There could be several reasons. One is that they may have a lot of debt. They need to find a job that actually pays enough to pay the rent, buy groceries, and cover interest payments on their student loans. But I also think our culture teaches young people that they should only take jobs that they enjoy and that make personal sense. And that's admirable, but unrealistic for most of us, even for those of us who really like our job. So they had to adjust expectations.
But employers also have to adapt. Ultimately, people will no longer be excited about working in a place that offers an onslaught of stress. Younger people may need to keep pushing the old guard to rethink.
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Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on demographics, psychology, politics, and economics trends that shape American politics. He spent a decade on Capitol Hill as the legislative director and chief of staff to three members of Congress and also served as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or advisor on several New Hampshire congressional elections. In 2012, he ran a race from behind that national political analysts named the biggest surprise win of the election. He then served as Policy Director in the New Hampshire State Senate and successfully helped coordinate legislative efforts to pass the Medicaid extension. He has also done extensive work in the private sector on energy regulation policy. Matt holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a master's degree in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts with his wife and three children.