Many corporate stakeholders in the retail and service industries are bemoaning a shortage of new job applicants that has left them short-staffed. This phenomenon should have been obvious to companies years ago, and they really only have themselves to blame for a shortage of workers. When one starts assembling a list of all the factors contributing to this trend, the reality of a decline in the working class labor force should have been obvious to all.
The birth rate in the United States has been declining for years, and immigration to the US has diminished substantially as a result of right-wing rhetoric. From 1988 to 2018, the US had a negative growth rate for births by US Citizens. If it hadn’t been for immigration, and and increase in life expectancy for those with a bachelor’s degree or more, the country would have seen a decline in overall population. The decline in immigration to the US was partly the result of policies by the administration of the former guy. There is also a growing body of evidence that the racist and belligerent tone of American conservatives has led many immigrants from other parts of the world to believe that America is not a safe place to live, or even to visit – especially for dark-skinned African or Asian families.
Life expectancy is decreasing for working class whites, largely as a result of a massive increase in so called “deaths of despair“, which includes drug overdoses, suicide and deaths related to alcoholic liver disease. There’s also a divide between those who are willing to invest in education, and those who have a more fearful and fatalistic view of life. Individuals who respond to incentives and want a better life for themselves are more likely to get tired of working in retail and service sector jobs, and to seek out educational programs that will prepare them for higher paying employment. The person who says “It ain’t gonna do me no good to go back to school, I can’t do nothing else,” so they stick with a low paying service or retail job, also happens to be the person who is likely to either commit suicide, or be rendered unable to work by drug use or alcoholism.
In many parts of the country, there isn’t sufficient housing for working class people. People who only make $10 to $15 per hour in a job where their employer keeps them at below 32 hours per week to avoid having to pay for health-insurance cannot afford to live in cities where a 1 bedroom apartment typically starts at around $1800 per month and where landlords regularly enforce strict occupancy limits to prevent people from turning apartments into “bunk houses” where everyone has a bed and a locking trunk and they all share the bathroom.
Another group that kept many businesses afloat may be called “wealth pretenders”, who can be described as the low achieving children of affluent parents. We call this group “pretenders” because they were able to live in expensive neighborhoods, enjoy their parents luxury home and often have help affording payments on an expensive car in spite of working as waiters or baristas, where they never would have been able to earn enough to afford the lifestyles their parents helped to provide. These are the young Americans who get a four year degree, but don’t initially find a job in their chosen field of study, so they move back into their parents house, where their parents basically agree to subsidize their lifestyle so long as they maintain employment of some kind. Eventually, many young people in this category reach a point where they decide it’s time to go back to school for a Master’s Degree, and take another shot at starting a real career. It appears that a growing number of Millennials are aging out of the wealth pretender category, getting advanced Degrees and moving on with their lives.
When we look at all the factors that have contributed to the current labor shortage, it should have been obvious to business leaders for some time that this was coming. Companies that failed to prepare for the changes listed above have no one to blame but themselves. Corporate America has had a steady supply of cheap employees for far too long, and we are now embarking on an entirely different era.