August 5, 2021

American workers don’t want to go back to normal, and that makes sense

Johnny Paycheck sang “Take this job and shove it” in 1977. Today, it may well be the mantra for the post-Covid workforce.

Getting “back to normal” in the American jobs market won’t cut it for everyone. Especially in retail and hospitality, where “normal” was an army of low-wage workers juggling two or more part-time jobs to pay the bills. The past 15 months has been a reckoning for everyone. The pandemic forced families to re-order their health, family and work obligations. Schools closed. Child care and elder care was disrupted. Congress came to the rescue, opening its purse strings to prevent a coronavirus recession from becoming a depression. The year of extra jobless benefits and stimulus checks Congress authorized gave millions of workers breathing space for the first time. Today, as the engine of the American economy revs back to life, it’s not as simple as plugging workers right back into the jobs they left. Here’s the evidence.

Layoffs are slowing and the economy is adding jobs, but the Labor Department reported a record 9.3 million job openings in April, an unheard-of figure. “You think about all these companies trying to turn on the lights at full capacity at the same time,” says Nela Richardson, ADP chief economist. “There are some dislocations in the jobs market because everybody’s hiring at the same time.”

More people are quitting their jobs than any time in the past 20 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Four million people quit their jobs in April. It’s a sign of confidence in finding a new job as millions look for better opportunities in new industries. It’s also a sign that millions of Americans are not rushing to go “back to normal,” when “normal” was a patchwork of low-wage retail, restaurant or hospitality jobs.