Some decades back I read a pretty good book that advocated for a “guaranteed job” for anyone who wanted one as a better solution to poverty than a “citizen wage” (or any sort of welfare assistance). I don’t remember all the details in the book, but the advantages primarily had to do with preserving the existing social structures around employment.
One question I always struggled with had to do with the strength of the guarantee. Suppose a few percent of the people with such jobs have (as I do) seasonal depression such that they cannot be productive during the winter months. Would the job guarantee permit them to simply show up and get paid, even though they can’t get any work done until spring?
This particular for-instance matters to me, as one who suffers from SAD, but it’s a broader problem—lots of people have some sort of condition, medical or otherwise, that makes them unproductive for long stretches of time. Do they get to keep their guaranteed job? How can you tell them from malingerers? Does it matter? How do you deal with workplace tensions when many perceive their coworkers as not doing their fair share of the work?
These sorts of issues are why I’ve always come down on the side of a universal basic income as a better way to reduce both poverty and the abuses that come along with having a few rich people and a vast class of precarious workers. But I’m willing to give alternatives serious consideration, as long as they work for people like me.
News reports and social media have been full of posts alleging that enhanced unemployment benefits make it more remunerative to remain unemployed than to seek a job, and that because of this employers are having trouble filling positions. I want to make some suggestions as to how those positions could be made sufficiently attractive to employees. I will omit the obvious suggestion that employers could raise wages, because that’s the least interesting tactic.
I want to begin my analysis by suggesting that there are actually very few people who will choose to live on meager government benefits, even if slightly less meager than usual. (There are some, of course. I wrote about that in Find Work Worth Doing, back in my Wise Bread days.) Most people prefer the live at the highest standard of living they can manage. In fact, most people build an inflexible household cost structure that provides that standard of living, despite the obvious risk of financial catastrophe in the event of any glitch in income. But that too leads one to the obvious, and still not very interesting, suggestion that employers could attract employees by raising wages.
So, what are some other possibilities? How could employers make hard-to-fill positions more attractive?
Well, every job I ever worked offered a pension. That’s something that almost no private-sector jobs offer any more, so it could be a clear value-add. Related, every job I ever worked offered a retirement savings plan with a generous employer match. That’s something that’s only come back slowly since the end of the financial crisis, but it’s another possible value-add for employers seeking employees.
When talking about things like this in the past (usually about the difficulty of getting Americans to work the sorts of jobs filled by migrant labor), I always asked if the positions being offered to Americans offered health insurance (which of course they never did), and suggested doing so could be a way to make the jobs more attractive to Americans. Now that we have Obamacare that’s much less of an issue, but offering health insurance would still be a value-add.
There are many other ways a job and workplace can be made more attractive:
The physical space can be made clean, safe, and pleasant.
Managers can be courteous, kind, and respectful.
The position can offer paths toward better jobs (promotions, training, mentorship, money for education).
Allowances can be made for employee needs, such as time off to care for children or elders.
I actually wrote this post though, to talk about one specific way in which unemployment assistance and other government benefits are better than a job: They depend on the law, rather than on the whim of an employer.
The current state of employment law in the U.S. is such that having a job this morning is no assurance of having a job this afternoon. Your employer can change nearly anything about the job for nearly any reason—cut your pay rate, cut your hours, change your duties, require you to work in a hazardous environment, etc. (Of course you have the option to quit at any time, but see above about inflexible household cost structures.)
Only a small fraction of households can afford to live on unemployment insurance, even with the pandemic enhancements—but any household could rejigger their household cost structure to do so, if they cared to. But—and this is the point I’m trying to make here—an employer could easily adjust the conditions of employment that they offer so as to provide exactly the sort of certainty to an employee that government benefits do: They could offer an employee a contract.
In the U.S. almost no (non-union) employees have a contract. Instead they have a job, the terms and conditions of which are usually determined by an employer-written “employee handbook,” which has rules about procedures the employer promises to follow before firing or otherwise disciplining an employee. But they could sign contracts with their employees, committing to such things as minimum hours and term of employment.
They won’t, because they prefer to have maximum flexibility in adjusting their labor costs as circumstances change. But refusing to offer employees any sort of legally enforceable promise about the conditions of employment, makes saying “Nobody wants to work any more” mere spin.
Many people do want to work, and enormous numbers of people want to earn enough money to have a high standard of living. Employers are just playing to the crowd, hoping to maximize their flexibility, minimize their costs, and convince customers to blame “lazy workers” when the company fails at various aspects of providing good service.
For a fee… you can take your Zoom calls from a real pristine white sandy beach, instead of merely selecting it as a virtual background.
In actual fact, I’m not well-suited to remote work. I lurch toward polar-opposite failure modes (getting no work done at all, and turning my home into a digital sweatshop). But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to live and work (remotely) on a Caribbean island.
Always nice to see the workers leveraging circumstances to their advantage, as I expect them to do over the next year or two.
emperor Justinian railed against scarce workers who “demand double and triple wages and salaries, in violation of ancient customs” and forbade them “to yield to the detestable passion of avarice” — to charge market wages for their labor…
I am a little too prone to use black humor to distance myself from the depressing effects of the long, cold darkness of winter, which sometimes leaves people worrying about me unnecessarily. So I thought I’d mention that despite a bit of anxiety over the inevitable turn of the seasons, my mood is currently pretty great.
Beyond just feeling good right now, I’m hopeful. Over the past decade I’ve been handling winters better and better.
The biggest factor, I think, is that I no longer have a job to lose, so I no longer get into the spiral where seasonal depression makes me less productive, making me anxious about losing my job, making me more depressed, making me even less productivity. Sadly, advising others to take advantage of this strategy is not very useful (although I do and will continue to support and advocate for either a citizen wage or a guaranteed job).
Putting early retirement aside as impractical for most people, I thought I’d briefly summarize my other current practices—mostly ordinary coping strategies—both as a reference for myself any time I start to feel my brain chemicals coming on, and perhaps as a resource for other people. Here’s what’s working for me:
Spending time in nature. I do that all summer, and it may be part of the reason that my mood is generally great in the summer. But I can do it in the winter too. (I don’t seem to have a post on this topic. I’ll be sure to write one this winter. In the meantime you can find various mentions by clicking on the vitamin N tag over on the sidebar.)
Light therapy. I’ve used my HappyLight™ for years, and it does seem to help. Getting outdoors anytime in the first couple of hours after dawn is probably even better—another thing I find easy to do in the summer that would probably help just as much in the winter.
Taking Vitamin D through the winter. The evidence for any benefit is scant, but even if it only helps through the placebo effect, it is at least a safe, cheap placebo. (There’s good evidence that people with high levels of vitamin D are healthier, but very little evidence that supplementing vitamin D makes people healthier. It could easily be purely associational—maybe more time spent outdoors both boosts vitamin D levels and makes people healthier and happier.)
Anything that boosts neurogenesis. That’s most of the things listed above, but lots of other things too, such as engaging in creative work. Also on the list are calorie restriction and adequate consumption of omega-3 fatty acids.
I have a few new possibilities up my sleeve:
There’s recent evidence that sauna bathing is dramatically effective at treating depression, probably through many mechanisms including the activation of heat-shock proteins. (One thing on my to-do list is finding a local fitness center or spa with a sauna and investigating the cost of a three or four month membership.)
Related to heat exposure is cold exposure, which activates many of the same protective proteins that heat exposure does. Cold exposure, of course, is trivially easy to achieve in the winter—just wear a coat or jacket one notch less warm than would be most comfortable.
Obviously sleep is very important, and with my Oura ring I’m tracking my own sleep carefully. This has already been helpful, and I’m hoping to be able to do more to improve my sleep (and thereby my mood) in the winter as well.
That’s what I’ve got at the moment, but I’m always on the lookout for things to alleviate seasonal depression.
Despite the unnecessary casting of aspersions on millennials in the setup to this piece, it’s both pretty good and pretty satisfying.
There are many things about looking for a job that suck, and the way potential employers treat you—beginning with running your resume through an opaque filter that decides whether you get an interview or not, and ending with simply never telling you that you didn’t get the job—is near the top of the list.
Given that, I have considerable sympathy with employees who find a better job taking the easy way out for quitting: just not showing up. (Frankly, I’m sure employers would totally do the same thing if there wasn’t a Department of Labor telling them that they had to pay you for any hours that you work after they secretly let you go.)
It would be very easy for employers to avoid this fate almost entirely. First, by treating their employees with respect, like people who matter as individuals. Second, by making sure that their employee’s interest align with the interests of the enterprise, though things like an equity interest and bonuses that depend on the success of the enterprise (rather than on stupid metrics that supposedly measure the employee’s performance).
“Employees leave jobs that suck,” they said in an email. “Jobs where they’re abused. Jobs where they don’t care about the work. And the less engaged they are, the less need they feel to give their bosses any warning.”