By Greg Markley
When my Uncle Frank’s son was one month away from graduating high school, he sat Junior down for “The Talk.” This was not about girls, but about the boy’s life after graduation. My uncle, a retired policeman, told his only child, “You have three choices: Go into the military, go to college or get a job. Anything less and you cannot stay at home.” Wow! Not very subtle.
That resembles the approach of tough-love psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw on TV. But would it work today? Journalist Jonathan Alter, a biographer of FDR, said President Biden should emulate Roosevelt and “restore faith that the long distrusted federal government can deliver rapid, tangible achievements.” But in a somewhat unforeseen consequence, Biden’s COVID economic recovery plans have led to more jobs, but fewer people willing to do them.
“Even in the ‘golden age’ of the 1950s and 1960s, when jobs were supposedly much better than they are today, a narrative of dissatisfaction loomed large,” contended The Economist on April 10. “In the 1950s many social scientists asserted that America’s unionized car workers were unhappy because their work was boring and they lacked any autonomy. By the end of the 1960s, the concept of ‘blue-collar blues’ had entered public imagination.”
Although higher-educated workers may be disinclined to accept a job in a field different than their own, jobs in today’s market are full of uninviting service jobs. Thus, jobs are left dangling with the less-educated as others wait for more prestigious opportunities. I agree with The Economist’s editorial of May 22 that “being in work offers a measure of economic security and dignity, that being out of work never can.”
A recent Mike Lester cartoon in Politico showed a father saying, “Our family can’t find workers because the government is using my tax dollars to pay working-age adults more to stay home than to go to work…” Hearing this, his adult son says, “I’m sitting right here, dad.” The mother looks discouraged.
We must not forget that people in my generation, Baby Boomers, were dismissed as “ne’re do wells” until we reached age 35. Not only would unemployed individuals be pleased by contributing to their own welfare, they would be hastening the transition for businesses to more profit. We older people will be proud of them eventually. We will recognize the spirit of their generation, as our parents did ours; as the zeitgeist of today’s young adults.
In the 1980s, some fast-food restaurants, mainly McDonald’s, offered new employees’ $9-12 an hour to work there. That was almost three times the U.S. Minimum Wage in 1985. Yet many young adults northwest of metro-Atlanta were from wealthy families and did not find work to be a necessity.
Meanwhile, unemployed people from “inside the perimeter” of Atlanta could not get to Cobb County because neither MARTA buses nor trains went there until years later. Within counties there were local buses; little comfort to those wanting to get to and from a workplace miles away. Maybe it was “worker suppression.”
Now in mid-2021, some economists predict raging inflation and many companies going into the red. But The Economist (May 22) notes that “worker shortages are also an enormous waste of talent. Including those on furlough schemes, we estimate that 30 million fewer people in the rich world are working than even before the pandemic. For so many people to be idle comes at a huge cost, not only in lost wages but also in terms of their health and dignity.”
The British newspaper suggests that governments consider three P’s: payments, passports and patience. In payments, the increase by $300 a week to unemployment insurance (UI) may or may not encourage laziness in pursuing work. With passports, part of immigration, something must be done so that potential workers from abroad can get here easier. Hospitality jobs are much-in-demand as lockdowns end; immigrants accept most of those positions.
Finally, patience is needed when a lot of Americans avoid work out of fear of COVID-19. Vaccinations are being done carefully but with speed. I hope enough employees are hired before companies shut their doors. Yes, people may seek work out of economic need, but also boredom and loneliness.
Remember my Uncle Frank, who forced his son to take one of three options or else leave home? Twenty-five or so years elapsed since “The Talk” to Junior about his choices. One day, Frank went into a Las Vegas casino which had a well-guarded display of $1 million in crisp bills.
Frank got in without waiting in the security line. Why? His son was a top FBI agent–he merely showed his ID and Frank entered. His son had served in the Air Force, had several college degrees and had a helluva dangerous but very respectable job. He accomplished all that his father wanted and more. You can do it, too.
Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 10 years.