Take this job and …

From the December 2021 print edition

It is not often that a Country and Western song becomes a crossover hit. The first time I can remember that happening was Glen Campbell’s Galveston, the story of a young soldier serving in Vietnam, separated from the love of his life. But of all the C&W crossovers in my lifetime, none has achieved the mainstream popularity of Johnny Paycheck’s Take This Job and Shove It. My guess is that readers have heard the song.

I’m also guessing that you’re not overly familiar with the lyrics, which is why I’m giving you the second verse: “I’ve been working in this factory/For now on 15 years/All this time I watched my woman/Drownin’ in a pool of tears/And I’ve seen a lot of good folk die/That had a lot of bills to pay.”

I’d heard the song scores of times without paying much attention to the underlying message.

If I had to summarize it, it would go something like this: “I don’t want to keep doing a job I hate because life is too short.”

I came across a very telling statistic last week. In August, 4.3 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs, which was a record, albeit a short-lived one, because in September, 4.4 million workers just up and quit.

I would imagine that at least some of this was -vaccine related. There are a number of employers (mine included) who have told their people to get vaccinated.

Or else. Given that there is currently a great deal of slack in the labour markets, it’s logical to look for different work when opportunity is ample. But I wonder if something else isn’t going on?

It’s possible to quantify the economic impact of COVID-19, the first global pandemic of the Internet age. It’s more difficult to measure the collective psychological impact. COVID-19 forced all of us to look our own mortality directly in the face. “Life is short.”

A lot of good folks have died recently. Come to think of it, I’ve been working at this job for a long time. I don’t like it. And I still have lots of bills to pay. Maybe it’s time to rethink how I live my life, and this starts with finding better work? Work that pays better.

Work that is more satisfying. Or maybe I just don’t want to work. I can always let the government take care of me.”

Labour market rumblings
Many commentators have noticed that there are strange goings-on in the US labour market. For several months in a row, job openings have exceeded unemployment. There are almost five million fewer Americans who either aren’t working or looking for work than there were before the pandemic. There has been a surge in retirements with 3.6 million people packing it in, twice as many as would normally occur.

Those are American numbers, not Canadian ones. However, our unemployment rate is 6.7 per cent but it understates the truer picture. To be unemployed, an individual must be both out of work and actively seeking work. If you include the unemployed who have simply given up, unemployment is closer to nine per cent.

Several weeks ago, US President Joe Biden suggested that there was an easy way to remedy the slack
in the labour market and that was to raise wages. Something tells me that he’s partly right, partly wrong. Everything else being equal, it’s hard to imagine that more money for identical work wouldn’t entice at least some of the unemployed to re-enter the job market. Pre-pandemic, the US was operating at full employment and it’s intellectually defensible to suggest that it could go back to that if workers felt that their lot in life was improving. But that’s becoming more and more difficult given how inflation has been rearing its ugly head, particularly when it comes to necessities like gasoline and food.

So, here’s my guess of what the foreseeable economic future will look like. There will be greater demand for workers than there will be workers willing to supply that demand. This is the precondition for stagflation, a phenomenon last seen in the decade of, you guessed it, the 1970s.

This time around it won’t be nearly as bad. During the Jimmy Carter presidency (1977-1980) combined inflation and unemployment, known as The Misery Index, averaged 16.3 per cent. The last four years under Donald Trump, it was 6.9 per cent. I’m not predicting that we’ll see a return to the Misery Index levels of the 70s, but as long as there is a significant cohort of the North American population that isn’t ready – for any reason – to return to work, stagnation will be the new reality. It really is déjà vu all over again.

Toronto-based Michael Hlinka provides business commentary to CBC Radio One and a column syndicated across the CBC network.