Last week I wrote about an elephant in the room of careers and employment that we aren't really acknowledging or discussing--the fact that there are 3.3 job seekers for every available job opening.
Today I want to acknowledge another elephant in the room that is the reality for both those who are unemployed and those who are currently working. It is this (and pardon my bluntness here):
From a job seeker perspective, many, many jobs suck.
On just about every measure you can imagine, job quality from a job seeker perspective is trending downward. Real wages for many jobs are declining. Adjusted for inflation, the average U.S household has lower income than it did in 1997.
To the extent that there is any job growth, most of it has been in low-wage industries. And healthcare benefits and retirement fund costs are being shifted onto workers, contributing to the erosion of their wages. Assuming, of course, that they have healthcare or retirement benefits available to them at all.
For many workers, full-time employment is a dream, especially in those industries where employers are using just-in-time scheduling to bring workers in for the busiest few hours, rather than for an entire shift. And in an effort to avoid the requirements of the Affordable Care Act, many companies are cutting hours even further, preferring to hire a number of part-time workers rather than fewer full-time employees. This forces workers to try to juggle multiple jobs with each employer demanding that their job be the first priority.
For salaried workers, hours are longer and increasingly we are on call 24/7, afraid to not respond to an email or answer a client call because we could be seen as not being dedicated enough. No one wants to be the target in a layoff, so we do whatever we can to appear to be the most productive and "value-add," even if that means giving up the necessary down-time that actually helps people function.
Many, if not most workplaces are short-staffed and those workers "lucky" enough to have a job, find that they are expected to pick up the slack for those who have been laid off or not hired in the first place. Workplaces are engineered to wring every ounce of productivity from their workers and managers spend much of their time trying to make sure this happens. Unfortunately, workers aren't even the beneficiaries of these productivity gains.
We are also dealing with a great deal of uncertainty at work. Many jobs are now explicitly temporary or contingent work, so those workers know they are always on borrowed time. But even "permanent" workers know there is no guarantee and that lay-offs can come at any moment.
On top of all of this, job duties change quickly, and requirements for doing those jobs change even more rapidly, often in ways we didn't anticipate. With a glut of workers in the market, it's easier for employers to demand more skills, education and specific work experiences largely because they can. But how do you keep yourself prepared for what is essentially a moving target? And how do you keep upgrading your skills when you're spending so much of your time just trying to keep your head above water at work?
The reality is, that in addition to the sheer lack of available jobs, we are also dealing with a severe decline in the quality of those jobs that are available. All of the talk about "poorly prepared" workers obscures these facts and keeps us focused on job seeker deficiences, rather than on the deficiencies of the modern workplace.
This is not to say that we don't need to find ways to continue to learn and grow as workers. We do. But at the same time, we need to push back on the notion that if we only fixed workers, then everything else would fall into place. This simply isn't true.
We need to broaden the conversations we are having about work and the economy beyond the simplistic "pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you'll be OK" discussions that currently dominate our national landscape. There is something much bigger going on that we need to address. But we have to start by acknowledging the realities of our situation. There aren't enough jobs for everyone who wants to work and the jobs we do have are of increasingly poor quality.