A help-wanted sign is displayed at a gas station in Mount Prospect, Ill., on July 27. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

These were supposed to be the happy days of easy normality. Instead, in many ways, things keep getting weirder. Offices keep delaying return dates, and even in those that are open, many workers go in only to Zoom from their desks. Downtowns are ghostly even as exurbs throb with activity, and ports choke with goods that can’t be moved. The supply chain shortages seem worse than at any time except those earliest days of the pandemic, when Americans exulted to find a roll of toilet paper or a bag of flour in the wild.

Blame delta, of course. And the surprising number of people who refuse to get vaccinated. But also blame the labor shortage, which may be the strangest phenomenon of all.

The employment-to-population ratio has dropped 2.4 percentage points since the beginning of the pandemic. Friday’s jobs report showed the economy added just 194,000 jobs in September, well below the 488,000 economists expected, even though employers are desperate to hire — and appear willing to raise wages to do so.

There’s no one reason those jobs are going unfilled. Some of it may just be residual friction from the displacement of the pandemic: workers who moved and have to arrange to move back; parents who are having trouble arranging reliable child care. Some can be chalked up to ongoing difficulties with covid-19, as the immunocompromised or other at-risk groups resist working in person while the virus still circulates. And some of it undoubtedly represents people who are burned out in jobs that suddenly became much more demanding during the pandemic — as well as those who were ready to leave their jobs even before last year but decided not to take the plunge mid-plague.

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But much of it seems to reflect the phenomenon that Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of management at Texas A&M, dubs the “pandemic epiphanies”: people who decided that the old normal simply wasn’t good enough for them.

This trend seems most pronounced in the hospitality industry, where restaurant and hotel jobs are going begging. But you can see it all over, from workers who say they’re ready to quit rather than get vaccinated or return to the office, to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), one of Hollywood’s most powerful unions, which just overwhelmingly voted to authorize what would be the first strike in the union’s history. Much of the unrest seems to be driven by the pandemic: “If COVID has taught us something, it’s that we need to pause and rethink how we’re doing a lot of things,” Katie Sponseller, a production coordinator, told Variety.

The shortages may be annoying, but given how bad the old normal was in many corners of the American labor market, it’s great news that workers finally feel their bargaining position is strong enough to demand something better than the same old grind. At least, it’s good news if they’re actually right.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting your job to offer higher pay, or more flexibility, or better pay and benefits, or less grueling working conditions, or more meaning. In fact, there’s a great deal right about it. But that doesn’t mean those jobs exist, or profitably can, in the same numbers as the old jobs.

It doesn’t mean they can’t, either. In some cases, they obviously can: If IATSE wins concessions on work hours and conditions, some movies and television shows may not be made, or may not be made in the United States. But many will be, and the IATSE workers who get those jobs will be better off.

On the other hand, those who would have worked on the projects that don’t get made here may have to find another line of work entirely. And employers may not have a ton of jobs available that are better than their old ones. Same goes for the hotel and restaurant workers, or other groups who are holding out for better than they had.

Worse still, even if they decide to go back, they may find that employers have learned to get along without them. Consider that real gross domestic product has recovered all the ground that it lost during the pandemic, even though the economy has lost nearly 5 million workers. Of course, it’s possible that this represents an economy running on fumes, spending down its inventories and driving its remaining workforce at an unsustainable pace. But it might also reflect enduring adaptations: hotels that clean their rooms less often, restaurants converting to ordering kiosks or QR codes, offices going remote and ditching the support staff.

The disruption of the pandemic seems to have opened up two possible futures for the American labor market — one very good, and the other very bad. And, unfortunately, the only way to know which one belongs to us is to buckle in for a bumpy ride and wait to see where we end up.