As we begin to emerge from the worst of the pandemic recession, American workers and businesses are rethinking how we work, how much we work, and what we want out of our jobs.
Dr. Daniel Cox is a Senior Fellow in public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute. His research suggests some surprising findings about what is driving employment patterns and the future of work (why does the age we are having kids these days matter?) He explained these points and more on the Great Ideas podcast with Matt Robison.
Listen to the full conversation here:
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
What prompted you to want to look at changing American attitudes on work?
One of my prime motivations was to try to get at why people are currently unemployed. Why are they hesitant to return to the job market? What are some of the roadblocks? Is it childcare or other responsibilities? Is the issue unemployment benefits and whether they’re too generous, or not generous enough?
One of the things that the survey revealed was that there is a much bigger story. There’s a way that we used to do things, where we kind of bent our lives around our jobs. People feel differently now. We used to talk about work-life balance. Now people are viewing it the other way around. They’re saying let’s talk about life-work balance.
You were interested in two groups: the longer-term unemployed and the people who are more recently unemployed due to the pandemic.
Right. What really sets them apart is that the chronic unemployed face much greater health issues. That’s the major reason they are not working. 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 more recently unemployed are feeling greater uncertainty about the stability of work, and thus more pessimistic about the current job market. But one thing that links these two groups together is the notion of workplace flexibility. This is important for everyone. A new CNBC poll finds that flexibility is now the most important issue for all workers.
So I do think we are seeing a shift. If you look at older generations, they’re 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 provides us so much more these days. It can provide us a sense of identity, personal confidence, personal connection, and even community. Our surveys have shown that actually the workplace is the place you’re most likely to make a close friend these days. Not at your church, not in your neighborhood, not through mutual friends.
What did you find about the set of potential reasons that people are unable to return to work or are not wanting to return to work?
We did find in our survey that childcare is a major impediment. It’s not surprising because American workers are doing more gig work or side hustles just to make it through a month. And parents are now spending more time on childcare as well.
This is partly a result of having less family support. We live farther away from our immediate families than we used to. But another reason is that we’re starting families later. So grandparents who used to be an incredibly important social support system are older and are not around, or are less able to step in and lend a hand.
What about the debate about unemployment benefits?
We found that more than four in ten say the federal government has now been too aggressive in helping the unemployed while only 21% say they have not been aggressive enough. Interestingly, Republicans and households that received unemployment benefits are far less likely to say that the benefits have been too generous.
Are adaptations and changing expectations from employers creating an opportunity for Americans who were unemployed before the pandemic? Offering more flexibility and remote work, for example?
I think that’s entirely right. And particularly for people who have really significant family obligations. For many mothers especially, a part-time situation where they’ll have flexible hours and flexible schedules is actually what they want.
Our entire concept of regular “employment” needs an adjustment. The rise of gig work and side hustles means that even if you are not formally employed, you’re still providing goods or services to earn money for your household. In our survey, we found that nearly four in ten Americans who are identified as “unemployed” are nonetheless still earning money on the side.
Why do younger people feel so much more downbeat?
It could be for a couple of reasons. One is they might be carrying a lot of debt. They need to find a job that actually pays enough so they can pay the rent, buy food, and cover interest payments on their student loans. But I also think our culture teaches young people that they should only take jobs they enjoy that are personally meaningful. And that’s admirable, but unrealistic for most of us, even those of us who really like our jobs. So they made need to adjust expectations.
But employers need to adjust too. Ultimately people aren’t going to be excited to work in a place that’s offering an onslaught of stress anymore. Younger folks 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 trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.