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The Other Elephant in the Room: Most Jobs Suck



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. 


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Great post. I agree a conversation needs to occur around the quality of jobs and the nature of work itself. I believe that the current lament among CEOs over the "skills shortage" is a smokescreen for the type of work and compensation they offer.

At the beginning of the Great Recession, I saw clients that were afraid...afraid of losing their jobs as they saw their colleagues let go. Many put off retirement, hoping to add more to their nest egg. More recently, I'm seeing angry clients. People fed up with having to constantly do more with less and seeing their nest egg diminish in value.

Data show that 65% of people working are looking to leave their current employer for better work. Their managers think that only 30% are dissatisfied and looking to leave. It's not surprising that there is such a huge disconnect between employees and their managers.

Scott, this is what I'm seeing too. A few months ago I was at a conference where an economist from Drexel spoke and he said that in the market there is risk (which can be calculated) and uncertainty (which cannot). So much of the fear that regular folks are facing in their careers comes from having to deal with uncertainty on such a regular basis. It used to be that you knew that if you followed certain "rules" you had a reasonable certainty of remaining employed in a decent job. That's just not true anymore and it's a much larger problem than any individual person can effectively do something about.

I totally agree with everything said above and am very glad that I am not the only person feeling this way. We are headed for a very slippery slope and I can't help but see really bad things happening unless people start opening their eyes and demanding more from their governments and leaders. I feel like the real elephant in the room is that all three branches of government are in the pockets of greedy corporations that don't care about "we the people". Everything in our society has turned into a greedy penny pinching Business.... Even things that should not be like government, education, health care, and prisons. I love America and could not dream of living anywhere else but its sad to see that our society has not only lost touch with nature but now we are slowly losing our humanity and lost touch with each other. Everything revolves around money and profit... not human beings. We must think really hard about how we allowed the carpet to be pulled from underneath our feet and how to stop it.

Peter, I couldn't agree more with what you've said, particularly the loss of humanity and this idea that everything revolves around money and profit. Unfettered capitalism is selfishness on steroids and we're paying the consequences for that. I don't think it's too late, but we're going to have to start having different conversations about the purposes of commerce, government, etc. and how we can make these things work FOR people, not against them.

Thanks for telling the truth

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