While we don’t know yet how it will play out, what we do know for certain is that workers have far more options than they’ve had in a long time, which is giving them the freedom to act in a way they might not have been able to in the past.
There’s reason to be a little skeptical when we hear that people, particularly younger people, are going to reimagine something as fundamental as employment in the wake of an economic shock. There were similar ideas following the 2008 recession that didn’t hold up in reality.
Remember “funemployment”? That was a term that some young people used to describe the newfound freedom and opportunities they had to reevaluate their lives after being thrown out of work by the recession. Google Trends suggests the trend peaked in 2010.
Declines in automobile and new home sales, combined with the rise of services like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb, led to a belief that in the future people would be less attached to buying things, with Millennials in particular embracing the sharing economy. In retrospect, much of that era was the product of society making lemons out of lemonade as people worked through a tough post-recessionary period, rather than the start of a real shift in preferences.
So there’s something familiar about the calls today for living differently, particularly while many offices remain closed and while some kinds of in-person activities remain in a pandemic-altered state. The new part is the number of job openings that are giving workers many more options than they’ve had in the past. As a percentage of the number of employed people, the level of job openings is 50% higher than it was pre-pandemic, and twice as high as it was before the 2008 recession.
And even that arguably understates the opportunities workers have, given where and how jobs can be done now. In 2005, certain kinds of finance workers would have had to work in a Manhattan office, and certain kinds of technology workers would have needed to be in San Francisco or Palo Alto. But those jobs are increasingly being distributed throughout the country, with many of them now able to be done remotely or by coming into the office only on a semi-regular basis.
A young person who lost their job in the late 2000’s might have enjoyed a brief spell of funemployment that prompted them to reevaluate their relationship with work. Eventually, though, they needed money, which meant getting a job, which, in many cases, meant moving close enough to commute to the central business district of a large metro area. What’s changed in 2021 is that if workers are feeling similar impulses to shake things up, there are enough options available to allow them to make a different choice than they might have a decade ago.
This window of opportunity seems likely to persist for awhile. The labor market should continue to strengthen, further increasing the number of options and leverage that workers have. As the Delta variant pushes office reopenings and in-person gatherings into January, who’s to say there won’t be an additional delay to March — a full half-year from now — if concerns about a winter wave of infection grow?
We’ve been long overdue for a societal reevaluation of work as technology has blurred the lines between the office and the home, and as shifting cultural norms mean that in most households with dependents there aren’t defined roles about who works for money and who cares for children or other relatives. What held back change was workplace inertia and a labor market where workers lacked the bargaining power to act. That’s no longer the case, and it’s up to companies to figure out how to adapt to what workers now feel compelled to do.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and the founder of Peachtree Creek Investments. He’s been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider and resides in Atlanta.
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