“What’s the cause of unemployment and hard times? [Businesses] say it is because nobody wants to work anymore unless they can be paid enough wages to work half of the time and loaf half of the time.”
That quote is a familiar sentiment. The world of work has endured great upheaval, with the pandemic normalising working from home (or working remotely) and leading to a widespread re-evaluation of employee priorities. In many industries, the tether between employment opportunity and proximity to the workplace has been cut. If an employee isn’t happy with their working arrangements, they are no longer restricted to alternatives within an acceptable commuting distance. For some employees, the world is very much their oyster.
This has caused no shortage of resentment on the part of some employers, who have had their hand notably weakened by this development. For some, the problem isn’t the jobs, or the pay, but simply that nobody wants to work anymore.
The problem is that the quote at the top of this piece isn’t from 2022. It’s from 1922 – Kansas local paper The Mulberry News, to be precise. This year’s equivalent is below (honestly).
“According to a new survey released by TinyPulse, 1 in 5 executive leaders agree with this statement: “No one wants to work.”
That article is in Forbes and can be found here.
The challenges for employers in a high inflation, post pandemic labour market are for another article. Our focus here is the persuasive decline narrative. The statement ‘nobody wants to work’ is present in our discourse today, just as it was a hundred years ago. Paul Farie, a researcher at the University of Calgary in Canada recently compiled a long list of examples of exactly this sentiment, with the earliest dated to 1894. People believe in this particular aspect of decline now, they believed it in the 1980s and 1960s and they believed it 130 years ago.
The problem is that it isn’t true.
Employment has increased steadily for as long as we have reliable data – the 1940s in the US and 1970s in the UK. In the US, employment as a percentage of the core working age population has increased from 62% in 1948 to 79% in 2021. In the UK the equivalent statistic has gone from 72% in 1971 to 80% in 2021. Even as a percentage of all adults, the proportion of people in work has increased slightly over the years – even as societies age and the relative size of the working population falls.
So why is the decline narrative so persistent? In many cases it might be as simple as people mistaking change for decline. Several of the clippings Paul Farie unearths reference agricultural or industrial jobs, others specifically mention young people not wanting to work. These big shifts, in the composition of the labour market and nature of work take place over the course of generations. Its possible a similar change is happening now: post pandemic, workers priorities and the opportunities open to them have changed and some mistake that change for a loss of work ethic.
The key implication is that popular, parochial decline narratives are usually wrong. When they are, they are a myth of decline – the idea that society is somehow getting worse when actually there is no evidence of it (or the evidence proves otherwise). Myths of decline are powerful because they shape our attitudes to the future and the power of optimism.
They should always be questioned.