This week I read two very interesting articles from two different news sources. Both of the articles were talking around the same phenomenon. But each of them framed their ideas in very different ways. I found it fascinating to read them, especially since I feel like both of them are correct and offer different solutions for the same problem.
The first article is from The Wall Street Journal, a news organization which slants towards the small-c conservative end of the political spectrum. As the name implies, WSJ is very pro-business and business friendly. The article trumpets the fact that for the first time since 2005, more than half of Americans say that they are happy with their work. But the article also notes that one of the reasons this might be the case is because Americans have lowered their expectations when it comes to employers. Scarred from the Great Recession, years of stagnant wages, being forced to accept more risk in retirement and health care by shouldering greater portions of the burden for both, and job security vanishing day by day, Americans have simply started to settle. Take for example this data from the survey and notice that views of colleagues and work tasks rank high, while views of the employer are not so highly ranked:
Workers gave top ranking to their colleagues, commutes and job tasks, but were frustrated with companies’ promotion policies, bonus plans, training opportunities and performance-review processes.
-Lauren Weber, WSJ As Workers Expect Less, Job Satisfaction Rises
The second article was from National Public Radio (NPR), a non-profit news organization that runs towards the intellectual and, some will argue, is slanted slightly towards the liberal end of the political spectrum. The article discussed the struggle that employers are having filling open positions within their ranks, and noted that the infamous Skills Gap many employers love to whine about is more myth than reality. The real problem employers are facing, says the article, is that they have failed to adjust their expectations to the new post-Recession reality. The article quotes Peter Cappelli, a Professor from the Wharton School of Business (who coincidentally is also quoted in the WSJ article) identifying one of the key factors in this predicament.
“…employers haven’t adjusted to new conditions. For years they’ve had their choice of workers desperate for a job. Now, the labor market has tightened, but many employers haven’t responded, he [Cappelli] says.
“Wages have not gone up despite all the talk about a tight labor market. And I think most important for the economy, we still don’t see lots of employers being willing to take people in right out of school and train them for jobs,” Cappelli says.
– John Ydstie, NPR US Employers Struggle to Match Workers with Open Jobs
I feel like these two articles read together get at a fundamental truth those of us in the working world face in the modern US economy: Risk is shifting to the workers, and as a result we have all had to become Risk Managers on top of our day jobs. As wages stagnate, the Gig economy was born. As employers refuse to invest in training or development programs, we have been forced to pay for these things out of our own pockets to stay relevant. As health care deductibles have risen, we solicit donations via social media to pay for medical and/or funeral expenses.
Case in point: My Facebook Feed has become a veritable Bazaar as family, friends and most of my work colleagues hawk the wares of all of their side gigs. From my feed alone I could buy any one of dozens of hair and skin care products, candles, kitchenware, diet supplements, jewelry, nail wraps or boutique store merchandise. My husband and I are also discussing creating a side gig for ourselves in the not-so-distant future, and just like all of my friends selling their stuff we aren’t doing it because we want to or because we are bored; we are doing it because it is one of the only options left for us to address the increasing costs of living vs. flat wages.
Facebook posts that aren’t trying to sell me things are trying to solicit donations for a friend-of-a-friend or a distant family member of a friend who met with some horrible medical diagnosis or other personal tragedy that leaves them with bills they cannot pay. GoFundMe is now a place you go to if you have money to spare and want to donate to pay someone else’s medical bills, funeral costs, donate to help someone rebuild their home after a fire or pay for someone else’s kid to go to college.
On the one hand I believe it his healthy for us to lower our expectations when it comes to employers and employment. In college I traveled abroad on a number of occasions and I have many friends who are from other countries. When I visited them or even chat with them today it’s not hard to see that Americans define ourselves by our jobs…it’s one of the first questions we ask when we meet someone. My European friends have a very different perspective, a perspective that I believe is healthier.
The narrative Americans have of defining themselves based on their jobs, and expecting employers to look out for their well being, is no longer a reflection of reality. For the sake of our mental health, and our own personal economic outlook, we should adjust our expectations downwards a bit so that we can adequately prepare ourselves for the real world. Americans as a general rule need to learn what I still struggle with on occasion: You are more than just your work, and your work alone will not bring you happiness, contentment or even everything you need in life. You should look outside of your work to things like family, friends, volunteer opportunities and hobbies to help you become a more well-rounded and developed person.
But this downward shift should in no way let employers off the hook. We should hold our employers to a higher standard when it comes to areas they can control. For example, in the Central Kansas area most employers in my experience will tell you that they will not negotiate with you once they have given you a job offer, by implication stating that things like the salary offer is final, and you will be starting over as far as PTO or Vacation time should you accept the offer and start a new job. As an employee, this should not be acceptable. You should negotiate as much as you can to improve the offer in any way you like, especially if you are currently employed and are in the position to walk away from an unacceptable offer. Employers need to realize that things like employee loyalty and engagement, two of their favorite talking points and areas of heartburn, are both two-way streets. To attract and retain loyal and engaged employees, employers need to stop viewing and treating employees like they are expendable,
There is a happy medium somewhere in the middle, and both sides need to be willing to move in order to find it.