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‘Take This Job and Shove It’: Economist Explains Why Americans Are Hesitant to Return to Work

Economist Betsy Stevenson made the case to Ezra Klein of The New York Times on Friday that the “take this job and shove it phase of the pandemic” – an unexpected byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic – has marked a turning point in how work and private life ought to be balanced in the United States.

Photo: Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Klein pressed Stevenson to analyze what is going on inside the hearts and minds of displaced workers who are reluctant to jump back into low-paying, menial employment that is seldom accompanied by the prospect of upward mobility.

“I actually want to jump ahead and talk about something that you brought up in an op-ed you published recently in The Times. Which is that there’s this Pew survey from January, which found two-thirds of the unemployed were considering changing their occupation or field of work, which is unusual. Could you tell me about that?” Klein asked on The Ezra Klein Show.

Stevenson extrapolated that the pandemic has forced Americans to reevaluate their work-life relationships and contemplate what they want their purpose in life to be:

Yeah, I mean, if we think back to the beginning of the pandemic, we thought more than any other recession people were just going to go back to doing what they did before. We’re just going to take a pause, and then we’re just going to go back to our old employers, our old jobs, our old way of doing things. But the thing was, the pandemic lasted longer. It shook us up more than we expected. And a lot of people are questioning what they should do. They’re questioning it maybe because their jobs aren’t coming back. That industry doesn’t have the same opportunities they thought. They’re questioning things because they’ve been forced to look at their jobs, their lives, the choices they’ve made. And I think a lot of people are doing a re-evaluation to figure out what’s the right path for me to be on in a 21st-century labor market. And how do I balance what I want out of life—work, family, my personal goals. And so we see this very high number of the unemployed saying they’re considering changing occupations or industries. We also see similar numbers when we look at the employed about people who are considering making a change. We all will have various times in our life where we’ll stop and say, whoa, am I going in the right direction? Is this the right occupation for me? Should I do something differently? But I can’t think of any other time when it’s been a correlated shock across the entire country where we’ve all been forced to ask questions.

Stevenson explained that “normally what happens in a recession is everybody so terrified that they’re not going to be able to find a job that you don’t quit. But I think because we had so many people at once both lose their job and then get financial support through unemployment insurance, because it’s a mass of people, it’s giving people more power. I think that it’s a really good time for us to ask, what does this mean? Are we OK with this?” she posited.

“Somebody called it the ‘take this job and shove it’ part of the pandemic. I’ve been trying to think about what it would feel like if you worked in retail, or at a restaurant, or some kind of essential worker, where you had people screaming at you over mask policies. You don’t make the policies. You actually know that the mask is going to keep you safe. You’ve got to be around people all day long,” Stevenson said, noting that part of the problem facing workers is “some jerk is telling you that your life is so unimportant, and their freedom is so important, their freedom to be able to infect you is so important that they are going to potentially threaten your life just because you tell them that you have to wear a mask to enter. I think it’d be really hard for me to go back to that kind of job. And I think we haven’t started to think about the trauma that essential workers went through, and they’re not at the end of that.”

Stevenson also pointed out that there is a disparity between individuals who make a lot of money and have managed to make it through the coronavirus crisis with their finances intact and those who have not fared nearly as well.

“People who have white collar jobs with good incomes feel like they’ve had a hard year. And you can look in the press and see all sorts of stories about how people should help themselves heal or find ways to take care of themselves. Well, if you’re barely putting food on the table, your job became enormously more miserable, and then you turn on the news and you see people yelling at you because you’re not getting back to work fast enough,” she said. “That’s just a lack of appreciation of the humanity of lower-wage workers.”

The transcript of full Klein’s full interview with Stevenson is available here.



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