What do a McDonald’s drive-through, your uncle on Thanksgiving and Kim Kardashian all have in common?
They have all uttered some version of the phrase, “Nobody wants to work anymore!”
The phrase has come back into vogue recently as a result of the so-called “Great Resignation” theory that arose as millions of people left the U.S. workforce during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Government data show nearly 57 million Americans left their jobs in the 14-month period from January 2021 to February 2022, even as the country lifted COVID-era restrictions, which was a 25% spike over the same period before the pandemic.
It should be noted that many of them have come back.
In a survey last year from Limeade
subsidiary Tinypulse, an employee engagement and culture feedback platform, more than one in five business leaders or human resources employees agreed with the statement that “no one wants to work.”
Turns out, “nobody wants to work” is a gripe as old as time, as a recent viral Twitter
thread from University of Calgary professor and researcher Paul Fairie points out. His thread references newspapers and other publications that have claimed “nobody wants to work anymore” at least once a decade, every decade, for the past century — going as far back as 1894.
For people who want to fact-check the research, the attribution for each reference in the Twitter thread can be found here.
But economists say the data doesn’t back this up. At the same time nearly 57 million Americans left their jobs between January 2021 to February 2022, about 89 million people were hired, showing that many of the “quitters” had new jobs lined up, or found work shortly after leaving their previous job.
It was less a “Great Resignation” and more a “Great Negotiation,” as millions of employees quit their old jobs for better ones that improved their quality of life by offering better pay and benefits like paid leave, or more work-life balance, like the flexibility to work remotely.
“People aren’t resigning to sit on the sidelines,” corporate economist Robert Frick at Navy Federal Credit Union in northern Virginia, told MarketWatch. “They are resigning to take a different job.”
““Perhaps, a more precise idea is, ‘Nobody wants to work in low-quality jobs.’””
Enrique Lopezlira, director of the Low-Wage Work program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, noted that after controlling for population growth and the aging of the workforce, about 2 million workers were “missing” in the June 2022 jobs report compared with February 2022. But it’s not because people stopped wanting to work.
“Two-thirds of these missing workers are 65 years and older, which makes sense given that we are still in a pandemic where older people face the greatest health risk,” he told MarketWatch. “But the workforce has largely returned to its pre-pandemic level, so this does not support the idea that ‘nobody wants to work anymore.’”
What’s more, in the months and years since the pandemic began, many employees have actually increased the hours per week they spend on work, which also runs contrary to the idea that “nobody wants to work.”
“Some reports show that due to working from home, workers are working more hours than before the pandemic,” Lopezlira continued. “This trend of working more hours per week is not unique to the U.S. So in terms of how much to work per week (what labor economists call the intensive margin) the data also does not support the idea that ‘nobody wants to work anymore.’”
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Lopezlira went on to say that workers are quitting their jobs “not to exit the workforce, but to find employment elsewhere (presumably with higher pay and/or of better quality). So [it’s] not a Great Resignation, but a Great Reshuffling. So perhaps, a more precise idea is, ‘nobody wants to work in low-quality jobs.’”
The U.S. has also had periods of labor shortages before, including the 1960s and the mid-1980s, according to a research paper published by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit organization that conducts research with the goal to come up with “new ideas for solving problems facing society at the local, national and global level.” But those labor shortages were short-lived; Americans returned to the workforce because people have to make a living.
So why does the complaint that “nobody wants to work anymore” come back around generation after generation?
It may be rooted in the dissatisfaction that older generations tend to have with younger generations, suggests the 2018 research paper “Generationalism: Problems and Implications,” which was published in the journal “Organizational Dynamics.” The paper argues that older generations are consistently “suggesting young people are lazy, they’re entitled, and they act in self serving ways,” Cort Rudolph, the paper’s author and a psychologist at Saint Louis University, told Vox at the height of the 2019 “OK, boomer” phase.
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And the reason older groups feel this way could be rooted in psychological bias. A 2019 study by John Protzko, a University of California Santa Barbara psychologist, deduced that adults tend to make evaluations of “kids today” based on their current selves. Members of an older generation believe they excel in an area, and their bias causes them to only see the limitations of the present, younger generation.
So for example, authoritarian adults are more likely to say kids today have less respect for their elders. Or, more well-read individuals are more likely to think the younger generation reads less. And adults who tend to be more intelligent also believe children are becoming less intelligent, despite growing evidence that kids have higher intelligence test scores today than children did in the past.
So for all the Gen Z readers out there, know that in 2050 you might be complaining about the work habits of “kids” who are the same age that you are now.