“Nobody wants to work anymore.” I encounter the phrase every day. From retiree’s impatient for the waitress to take their order. From people complaining insufferable wait times to be connected to a customer service rep. In media reports of worker shortages in every sector, agriculture to manufacturing.
Perhaps I need to stop hanging around folks who still use the term, “waitress,” and avoid the over-sixty crowd who reflexively chant, “I put in my time.” Still, the phrase, “nobody wants to work,” transcends ideological bounds. Conservatives blame pandemic largesse of extended unemployment, eviction moratoriums, and relief payments. Liberals complain that the shortage of ready workers further erodes our global economic position.
When I hear, “Nobody wants to work anymore,” I keep my mouth shut. Because I totally disagree. People want work. Work that’s engaging, creative, meaningful. Work that lifts their talents and abilities. Which is rarely the work advertised.
Throughout history, pandemics have triggered major changes in how humans organize labor. I’m hoping the current pandemic will do the same. After fifty years of wage stagnation and unravelling safety net, Americans are no longer interested in working for the conditions that companies offer. I envision two distinct yet connected threads of how work will evolve in a post-pandemic world.
The first, obvious, change recalibrates the balance between owners and laborers. Wages will rise, benefits grow, working conditions improve. Management won’t like it and inflation could result, though we might actually make a dent in our nation’s obscene income discrepancies.
The second, less likely but more valuable change, will be that fewer people work. We will (finally) acknowledge that the number of workers required to sustain a basic standard of living is diminishing, while the excesses of our ever-increasing consumer spiral is rending our planet unfit for human habitation. The number of jobs will decrease until, ideally, work becomes optional.
Consider a case study that illustrates three models: current state vs. higher wage and benefits vs. fewer workers. Consider an industry we all use, all need, and all hate to think about. Consider trash removal.
“A putrid problem is piling up in Webster, Massachusetts.” Thus begins NBC-10’s local news story that Republic Services has failed to pick up the trash in the city in over two weeks. Irate neighbors, potential rodents, rising temperatures, even a hint of lawsuit portray the $23-Billion corporation in an unfavorable light. Republic’s requisite company statement tacked onto the end of the expose doesn’t much help. “Many industries are facing staffing challenges at this time, and the recycling and waste disposal industry is no different …” In other words, nobody wants to work anymore.
I investigated Republic Services offerings to new drivers. The Auburn office, which services Webster, advertises a 5K bonus. Average driver salaries are just north of $21 per hour. There’s a nice list of benefits, though several online comments decry that most of the benefit costs must be borne by the employee.
Judging from the trash piling up in Webster, offering someone $45,000 a year to pick up trash isn’t enough incentive to put up with the flies and the smell and the mess.
Where can a trash hauler do better? Consider Cambridge, my hometown, where a trash truck with a crew of three collects whatever I put at my curb every Tuesday like clockwork. Ditto the compost truck, the yard waste truck, and the recycling truck. Cambridge’s sanitation workers, members of the Teamsters union, earn over $24 per hour, with premium benefits. A noticeable notch above what Republic offers. The city places no limits on the number of bins I can put out, removes any furniture, even takes used appliances with a pre-arranged tag. Cambridge provides a high-touch sanitation service that one of America’s most affluent cities can afford, and I’m happy to pay for service so good.
What does sanitation look like with fewer workers rather than premium price? Nearby Watertown deals with its trash more efficiently, though it requires more resident effort. Watertown’s trash and recycling are also contracted to Republic Services, though I doubt NBC-10 will report from there, as I’ve witnessed that Watertown’s system works. The city provides specific containers for trash and recycling. Their website outlines strict instructions for how to place containers along the street. A lone driver navigates the side-loading truck, a lever-arm mechanically lifts each container and empties it into the hopper. A solo driver/collector is less flexible than Cambridge’s three-person crew. But it’s an appealing approach to collecting trash with fewer people, more machinery.
Trash collection offers but one example of post-pandemic work trade-offs. The current state, Webster, is broken because people simply won’t work for the wage/benefit packages of the past. Some individuals or communities, such as Cambridge, will pony up more money to retain a high level of service. Others, like Watertown, will incorporate mechanics/robotics to minimize human labor.
The problem is not human resources. We have enough people to pick up our trash—provided we boost their pay. We also have technology if we prefer to collect garbage with fewer workers. More likely, the problem is human expectation: we want a Cambridge level of service at a Webster price point. Or what to do with sanitation workers who are displaced by mechanical arms. How will we value fellow human beings when they’re no longer needed to drive the economy, even if only to pick up our garbage?
Creating a better world of work requires that we shift from the mantra of full employment to one of worthwhile employment. To decouple human stature from mere capacity for labor. To provide a basic standard of living for everyone regardless of whether they ‘work.’
This will have profound ramifications. We will have to shift our unsustainable narrative of economic growth to one of economic balance. Some, wishing to remain untethered from employment, will choose to live in community, share our cars, tend our gardens, cook our own meals. Live lives that don’t increase the GDP. When we automate the work ‘nobody’ wants to do, we can focus on more satisfying pursuits and celebrate what we create through that liberation.
“Nobody wants to work anymore,” is thin-veiled code for “Nobody will do menial tasks for the pittance I’m willing to pay.” We have the capability to get rid of menial tasks and redefine work as the pursuit of human potential. I am pretty sure everybody will want to do that.