How Covid Inspired a Work Revolution


Indraneel Pai, Contributor

Small businesses are struggling to find workers. Conglomerates including Amazon and Walmart are raising wages in an effort to combat declining worker retention. A McDonald’s in Florida is offering $50 just to show up to an interview. Even as the number of job openings in the country reach record highs, businesses across the nation are all posting the same message: no one wants to work anymore. Over a year after COVID induced the worst labor market shock in the past century, Americans’ relationship with their work has been fundamentally — and perhaps irrevocably — altered. 

In the wake of the overwhelming success of vaccine rollout in the United States over the past several months, many expected an economic rebound to be imminent. However, while economic indicators from April have been somewhat favorable, the number of added jobs was barely a quarter of what was forecasted. The belief that the US is currently caught within an abnormal labor shortage is rapidly becoming conventional wisdom.

But the so-called “labor shortage” we currently face may not be an aberration; instead, this may reflect that a large-scale restructuring of our relationship to work in America is on the horizon. In order to appreciate why, it’s crucial to understand the role of employment in Americans’ lives and how a year of pandemic shutdowns have redefined this relationship.

Work-life balance in the US was exceedingly fraught even prior to COVID. In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that advances in technology and productivity would allow the work week to shorten to 15 hours per week during the lifetimes of his grandchildren. Over 80 years later, the average number of hours worked per week remains alarmingly stagnant. Since the ensuing years have also fully ingrained women into the workforce, the average household is contributing even more hours to the workforce despite massive increases in productivity. Americans work significantly longer hours than their European counterparts. The US is famously the only country in the Americas or Europe to not offer paid maternity leave. By most objective measures, the quality of work Americans endure is not befitting of the most powerful nation in the 21st century; yet so many noiselessly toil away without complaint.

What Keynes failed to realize was that in America, employment serves far more than a means of simply putting food on the table; it is the centerpiece of our culture. The mythos of the American dream — the sanguine but largely misguided belief that grit is rewarded by upward social mobility — has indoctrinated us into a cult of competition and materialism while simultaneously contributing to a loss of self-fulfillment and worsening health outcomes. As the line between work life and home life blurs, work has become the totality of American identity.

But there are signs that a year of pandemic shutdowns in conjunction with the implementation of several federal stimulus packages has seeded a rethinking in our relationship with employment. Amidst lowering workplace productivity and increasing burnout, the labor force has shrunk and hiring has dropped to a snail’s pace. 

Republicans attribute the shortage in labor to the economic stimulus; there may be a kernel of truth in that argument, but given the steady decline of working class wages for years in America, Biden’s solution, and indeed the natural market solution, appears to be to increase wages in these sectors. Workers themselves have cited low wages, in addition to toxic work environments, as their primary reasoning for refusing to return to work. 

As a result, in many sectors, average wages are increasing, or are suffering the consequences of refusing to acquiesce to the demands of their laborers. Grocers and nursing home caregivers — lauded as “essential workers” throughout the pandemic for their role in the continuance of basic services — have been consistently shedding jobs, as workers set their sights on fields that pay better and won’t put them in the front lines of the next global downturn. Other sectors suffering in recent months include gig economy jobs, whose already unstable business model has, during the pandemic, made work more trouble to employees than it’s worth, and manufacturing, for which the steady creep of automation continues to decimate labor prospects. A year of online schooling and inadequate childcare support has also made women particular targets of this pandemic, with many of them being forced to drop out of the labor force to manage life at home. 

Sliding up the income scale, the changes to how white collar workers engage with their jobs have been different than their lower-income counterparts, but no less drastic. The wave of remote work fostered by the pandemic stripped the work of many in the professional-managerial class down to its core essentials: while the mundane, administrative Zoom calls and work emails persisted, coffee breaks and office gossip were supplanted by quality time with family or for leisure. In other words, work, for perhaps the first time in decades, was no longer the primary way in which so many sought to derive meaning from their lives.

Amidst this rethinking of priorities, it’s no surprise that a startling 66% of workers have seriously considered completely shifting their field of work — even more than during the economic downturn in 2008. Some have already taken action. Affluent Americans are more adamantly set on retiring early; with surging retirement portfolios and a newfound appreciation of life beyond their work desk, millions of Americans have eschewed their sedentary lives and relocated to sunnier climates where housing is more affordable and work-life balance can be more consistently preserved. Millions more that are not yet retirement age are also planning on following this trend. Flush with savings and sick of being anxiously cooped up in their homes, many are primed to upend their carefully manicured professional lives for a more avant-garde approach to their work. Even for those that aren’t moving or changing sectors, a modicum of remote work is expected to become the norm for a majority of office-based industries, with fiery debate over the ideal amount to stay at home. 

The brunt of COVID’s direct impact on the US is largely behind us. COVID’s long term remolding of the American economy and of American values, however, may be irreversible. In a country where the deification of work and consumerist indulgence have for so long been defining qualities of our economic tradition, are these new trends just a temporary anomaly destined to fall quickly to the wayside?

Or have Americans finally had enough?

Image by Hobi industri via Unsplash: